By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises
Sète is a commune in the Hérault department of the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France.
So it is French, of sorts, although its ancient origins are as part of Occitania, a region of the Roman Empire also known as Aquitania.
Occitan is a Romance language, and still spoken in places here and there in the Languedoc region that includes parts of southern France, the Occitan Valleys of Italy, Spain’s Val d’Aran, and a few tiny corners of Monaco.
It is the southern terminus of the Canal du Midi, begun in 1666, which cuts the corner between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean with a connection to the Garonne River near Bordeaux. The canal is much too shallow and narrow for use by large ships, but Sète retains its canalized harbor and center city.
A SÈTE ALBUM
On this visit, we made a pilgrimage to the Cimitiere Marins, the Sailor’s Cemetery, which sits on a hillside above the Mediterranean Sea. It is a resting place with a view to die for.
And it is here that poet Paul Valery is buried. One of his best-known poems celebrates the cemetery.
Valery was a cynical romantic, responsible for writing like this:
“War is a massacre of people who don’t know each other for the profit of people who know each other but don’t massacre each other. ”
And a riff on Rene Descarte: “Sometimes I think, and sometimes I am.”
A PLACE OF EXODUS
On July 11, 1947, the creaky packet steamer SS President Warfield departed from Sète. (The ship was named after a president of the ship’s original owner.)
On board were more than 4,500 Jews who had left displaced persons camps throughout Europe and were willing to take their chances on an unauthorized attempt to reach Palestine.
Five days into the journey, the President Warfield took on a new name: Exodus 1947. Ultimately, the journey was unsuccessful, but later attempts had more success and this was one of the bases for the book and move “Exodus” and an important event in the establishment of the modern state of Israel.
Incredibly, there was an earlier exodus that also had its start here.
In May 1939, in the tremendous tumult that led up to World War II, the Sinaia set sail from the port, carrying 1,599 Republicans, opponents of Francisco Franco and thus on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War.
They had been detained in camps in France but were finally permitted to sail away to Mexico, which was the only country at the time that recognized a Spanish Republic in exile.
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