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Bouzigues is a lovely coastal town in Hérault, southern France. It is known above all for its oyster production and numerous quality seafood restaurants. Bouzigues can be thought of as a seaside resort without the resort, with very limited accommodation, and not too many tourists. It is a perfect getaway for anyone who wants to enjoy a slower pace of life.
Bouzigues is on the north side of a large tidal salt water lagoon called the Étang de Thau, which extends 5 km south to the Mediterranean Sea. The sea water flows freely into the lagoon, fish and boats can come and go as they please, and the lagoon's shoreline is tidal. However, the étang is sheltered from the worst of the winter storms, and Bouzigues still enjoys the atmosphere of a traditional fishing port and the sunny and warm climate that draws so many to the south of France. The urban core is a dense medieval old town, with narrow streets and warmly pastel-coloured houses of two and three storeys, while further out are a few streets of modern villas. At the west end of the seafront are the shellfish industry's warehouses and stores, and at the other end, the cute little harbour. From here, you can gaze over miles of oyster beds across to the distant holiday complexes of Sète and Marseillan, while the Mediterranean scrub behind is scattered with vineyards and the odd olive grove.
The town's portentous title of oyster capital of France (capitale de l'huître) belies the fact that Bouzigues is for most of the day a small, sleepy community, with only around 1,700 residents. It only really comes alive just before lunchtime, when busloads of hungry travellers arrive to promenade up and down the waterfront in search of the perfect fruits de mer. Then, between 12:00 and 14:00, each restaurant is packed with people chowing down on oysters, mussels, razor-clams, prawns, sea bass and red mullet. With lunch service over, visitors gradually disperse, and Bouzigues drifts comfortably back into its peaceful ways. With the crowds gone, you can soak up sun on its two beautiful beaches, wander its shady medieval backstreets and keep track of the comings and goings of the marina - if not in solitude, at least with the feeling you are privy to a cleverly-guarded secret.
20 August 1944
World War II was in full swing, the Allies had landed on both of France's coasts, and the Germans were on the run. There was a munitions factory on the quayside, which the Germans had determined to be tactically destroyed and abandoned. Unfortunately, as the soldiers were making the final preparations to leave, two local men were caught smuggling a stolen bomb out of the factory in a wheelbarrow. As punishment, they were taken as hostages and cruelly shut in the factory to be blown up with it.
The almighty explosion destroyed the entire quayside neighbourhood including several families' homes; boats moored in the harbour shattered and sank, while several passersby were injured and one killed. All this carnage is why the harbourside has modern buildings, while everything around is medieval.
As for the two hostages, they had a near-miraculous escape - the soldier responsible for imprisoning them neglected to lock the door of the factory. Whether this was a mistake, or a conscious and heroic act of mercy disobeying evil orders, is lost to the mists of time.
The name "Bouzigues" comes from the Occitan Bosigas, which means "fallow land" or "wasteland". Indeed, the area's early settlers seemed to live entirely from fishing and gathering wild fruits, and therefore did not need to cultivate their land. These fisherfolk were troglodytes - meaning they lived in caves hewn from the soft calcareous rock by winter and in tents by summer. Historians estimate the caves as being where the row of restaurants now stands on the seafront promenade, and indeed some of the buildings there are still troglodytic. Although cultivation wouldn't happen for centuries, oysters had been a major part of the local diet since the time of the Phoenicians, enjoyed alongside all the same delicacies you can sample today.
The first vineyards were planted in the 15th century, but the bulk of Bouzigues' inhabitants remained fishermen. Nonetheless, by 1670, trade had increased to such a level that the town needed its own port rather than using that of Sète. The local baron, Timothée de Geoffroy, rented out a parcel of land to the town for the creation of a port, charging the generous rent of two hens per annum! The admittedly modest harbour was constructed as a whole town endeavour, with wealthier citizens providing building materials and the cattle to pull wagons and keep everyone fed, and the poorer inhabitants working as labourers. This port was sited not in the current location, but at what is now place du Général de Gaulle. The 21st century visitor will still notice the square is on two levels; the raised platform was the original quayside. The 100 metres or so of town to the south was reclaimed from the étang in 1820, and the port moved to its current site.
Surprisingly, oyster and mussel farming was only pioneered at the turn of the 20th century, and then only as a tentative, and at that time utterly unique, small-scale attempt for fishermen to have a more dependable catch. The only other way to get oysters, clams and coquilles Saint-Jacques was to dive up to eight metres below the surface, with no scuba gear of course. After the second world war, the marine farming industry took off and most fishermen switched professions until the shellfish farms were at the scale you see today. The Bouzigues method of oyster and mussel culture, growing the shellfish on ropes suspended below the water, has since been copied all over the world.
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The Musée de l'Étang de Thau has a small 1 tourist information centre with English spoken and plenty of brochures and discounts for attractions in the region, so make sure you pop in near the start of your visit. The main Office de Tourisme for the area is in Mèze, by the marina.
Bouzigues is located on the northern bank of the Étang de Thau, between the larger towns of Mèze (6 km) and Balaruc-les-Bains (8 km). Sète is 14 km away, while the regional capital Montpellier is around 30 km distant. The town is therefore within easy reach of other transport options, notably Sète which receives trains from all parts of France, as well as ferries from Morocco. Montpellier Méditerranée Airport (MPL IATA) is 35 km away; if driving, take the D66 from the airport up to the A709 autoroute, and merge onto that road following signs for Barcelona and Béziers. After a few minutes, you will pass through a toll gate and join the A9. Exit at junction 33 and follow signs for Bouzigues
The busy D613 is a local link road from junction 33 of the A9 autoroute, the main coastal motorway linking to Montpellier, Nîmes and beyond to the east and Béziers, Narbonne and other points south and west. Daytrippers should consider arriving early, as parking spaces are limited and fill up fast as midday approaches.
There is a designated 1 campervan parking area on chemin de la Catonnière, just off the roundabout labelled Bouzigues - ouest. This is the third exit for Bouzigues when coming from the A9, or the first when coming from Mèze. This parking area is about 15 minutes' walk from the town centre.
Hérault Transport buses link Bouzigues several times a day to nearby towns and cities, and are excellent value for money with single fares as low as €2 for an adult. Most notably, the 320 leaves from Sète town centre and passes by that town's railway / bus station, and stops at 2 la Plage (one of Bouzigues' beaches). Two buses from Montpellier leave from suburban stations on the city's excellent tram network; the 103 leaves from Saint-Jean-de-Védas (tram line 2), and the 104 leaves from Sabines (also line 2). For Bouzigues, they stop at 3 embranchement D613 (a roundabout on the main bypass). The only pitfall for the routes from Montpellier is that they drop you around 10-15 minutes' walk outside of Bouzigues; the town is easy to find, but the distance is not really convenient for people with limited mobility.
With the étang being linked to the open sea at Sète and the start of the Canal du Midi at Marseillan, Bouzigues is a popular stopping point for touring boats, although like with parking, space is limited to about 10 of the typical boats used on the canal. Upon arrival, present yourself to the 4 harbour master (capitainerie, +33 4 67 53 39 84), which is in front of the fishing port and next to the étang museum, and where you should pay port fees and taxes.
While the direct railway line to Bouzigues is long gone, its route is not, and there is still a very high quality green way cycle track (voie verte piste cyclable) running parallel along the coast from Balaruc-les-Bains and Balaruc-le-Vieux, through Bouzigues, and then onwards to Loupian and Sète. The track links to other routes at both its ends, so could feasibly be used as part of a bike tour of the wider area.
Everything you'll want to see is within a short walk from the port, though some people prefer to discover the town on their bikes. Really though, the narrow alleys and winding streets of old Bouzigues and the picturesque seafront will entice even those stuffed to bursting with seafood to get up and explore.
Most of the enjoyment you will get from being in Bouzigues will just be down to mooching around the seafront, taking in the views, listening to the local chatter and smelling cooking fish and ozone mingling in the salty air.
- 1 Fishing port and marina (Port de pêche et port de plaisance), Quai du Port de pêche. The town's delightful little harbour should be the focus of your visit. Traditional wooden fishing boats are moored alongside flashier-looking yachts and all sorts of pleasurecraft. There are four different jetties to walk down, each with its own character and slightly different view. Take a wander past the colourful shack on the easternmost quay nearest the plage des Pyramides; you might see the boat repairman in his blue overalls pottering about on the various crafts under his care, not really working as such, but looking, listening, musing at what needs doing, and often pausing to greet passersby.
- 2 Musée de l'Étang de Thau, Quai du port de pêche, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Open Feb–Nov, generally Tu–Su 10:00–12:00 and 14:00–18:00, with some seasonal variation. Interesting museum all about life in and on the étang de Thau in all its forms. The first part of the exhibition charts the history of the shellfish industry in Bouzigues from the 19th century to present, including many artefacts from fishermen past and present. If the aquarium of étang marine life, complete with cooking suggestions for each of the species displayed, seems a bit farcical, you will enjoy the second part of the visit much more. This is a rather in-depth look at the biology of the étang, with a focus on conservation and finding a balance which works for wildlife, the fishing industry and tourists equally. The museum is kid friendly, and most of the information panels contain translations in English and German. Adults €5, children €3.50.
- 3 Old Bouzigues (From the Voile Blanche hotel, follow rue du Port past the town hall). Discover the pretty backstreets and squares of the old town, admiring the colourful buildings which press in on either side. Try not to miss the old communal well on chemin des Aiguilles, or the charming little garden on the south side of the town church, rue Jean Jaurès. The church, if open, merits a look inside, as it is the final resting place of the feudal lords of Bouzigues. Finally, if you're standing in place du Général de Gaulle, and wondering why half of the square is two metres higher than the other half, it is because this was the original harbour; where people and traffic now pass through was once underwaterǃ Take care on some of the narrower streets, as some drive their vehicles recklessly fast.
- 4 Ferme Zoo, 450 Chemin des Aiguilles (Follow the signs, or if you can read French, the rather amusing instructions on the website.), ☎ , . Summerː Tu–Su 10ː00–19ː00; other timesː W, Sa, Su, bank and school holidays 14ː00–18ː00. Cute little farm zoo that is home to all sorts of cuddly critters and their equally friendly keepers. Picnic area and children's playground onsite. Adults and children over 12ː €6, children aged 3-12ː ̩€4.
- 5 Musée du Sapeur-Pompier (Firefighters' Museum), Caserne de pompiers (Fire station), Z.A. de la Gare, Avenue Alfred Bouat, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Guided tours in French, upon arrangement. A hidden gem of an attraction run by volunteers who are themselves firefighters. The museum is home to a great many objects associated with the Pompiers (helmets, uniforms, fire engines) since 1780. Free; donations welcome.
- Bouzigues has two small beaches:
- 1 Plage de la Pyramide (next to the museum and port, served by a small car park). A space has been cleared through the seaweed for swimming - stay between the floats. If you paddle softly enough, you will likely see fish basking in the warm shallows. Views over to Balaruc and Sète, and easy access to walks along the étang (see below).
- 2 Plagette (a few hundred metres along avenue Louis Tudesq, and served by a bus stop (La Plage)). This so-called "little beach" is ironically the slightly larger of the two. It has a net for volleyball, and the advantage of much less seaweed. Views over the oyster beds towards Mèze and, on a clear day, the Pyrenees.
- Both beaches are officially dog-free as advertised by large signs, but France is a place where personal preference nearly always trumps official dictat, so don't be surprised to find yourself sharing the beach or even the water with family pets. Topless swimming and sunbathing is allowed and commonplace on both beaches, but full nudity is forbidden. There are no lifeguards, so you swim at your own risk.
- Voie Verte (Start at the 3 old railway station (where there is parking) if cycling, though walkers would be better off simply following the dirt track along the water's edge from the plage de la Pyramide, which misses out a rather dull bit through a modern housing estate.). A former railway line turned cycle trail and footpath, links to Mèze in the west and Balaruc in the east across 12 km. The casual visitor will much prefer the route east out of Bouzigues, which runs very close to some gorgeous wetlands and mudflats, allowing you to spot the local birdlife. Hunting buzzards, graceful pink flamingos and various species of heron (grey and night herons, great and little egrets) are common, and the lucky may glimpse the blue flash of a passing kingfisher, or else catch sight of a red squirrel hurrying about its business. It is possible to go as far as Balaruc-les-Bains, but the route loses most of its charm after the large equestrian centre.
- 4 Boat trips around the étang (Bateau-promenade Bleu Marin) (Embark at the very end of the pleasure marina's main jetty), ☎ . Daily departures Apr–Oct timesː Apr, Octː 15ː00; May, Jun, Septː 11ː00, 14ː30, 16ː00; Jul–Augː 11ː00, 14ː30, 16ː00, 17ː30. Group reservation only Nov–Mar. The visit lasts approximately 1 hour. Hop aboard the Bleu Marin for a guided visit to the oyster and mussel beds, including a chance to see the shellfish at various stages of their life cycle as they grow on underwater ropes from larvae to harvest. The commentary is very comprehensive and peppered with banter, though unfortunately is only conducted in French. However, the chatty crew of two warmly welcome English-speaking passengers and provide sheets to read which give a rough summary of the commentary. Adults €12, children aged 3-16ː €8.
Food and drink essentials
- 1 OC'API (minimarket), place Georges Clemenceau. M–Sa 7ː30–13ː00, 16ː30–20ː00; Su 7ː30–13ː00. Fresh fruit and veg, small deli counter with meats and cheeses, regional produce, tinned goods, alcohol, beach items and other essentials
- 2 La Petrie Artisan Boulanger Pâtissier (bakery and cake shop), 12 Grand-Rue Étienne Portes (Ignore the entirely unhelpful directional signs. Follow rue de la République from the town hall right past place G. Clemenceau, after which take the first left, and then the left fork onto Grand-Rue immediately after. If all else fails, the locals are used to giving directions). Tu–Saː 7ː30–12ː30, 16ː00–19ː30; Su 7ː30–12ː30; M closed. Great local bakery which makes excellent bread; try the aveyronnais rather than a baguette. Tasty but small selection of savoury snacks and sweet pâtisseries. On the down side, the viennoiseries (croissants et al) are disappointing, and if you ever manage to raise a smile from the bloke behind the counter, you're a special person indeed.
- 3 Marché de Bouzigues (twice-weekly market), place de la Golette. Tu, F mornings. Very small market (about four stalls) selling local produce.
For a proper market atmosphere, as well as two decent-sized supermarkets (Carrefour and Intermarché), go to Mèze.
There are about half a dozen shops where you can buy shellfish (coquillages) direct from producers. Expect to pay a slight premium for oysters, given they are what Bouzigues is known for. However, other shellfish are very reasonably priced, as are tielles sétoises, a local squid and tomato pie. Most of these shops are located on 4 avenue Louis Tudesq, at the far end from the port; you will pass them on the way into town from the western D613 roundabout. There is also one shellfish shop on 5 place de la Golette.
- 6 L'Atelier des Artisans (Les Savons de Bouzigues), 17 avenue Louis Tudesq, ☎ . Specialists in hand-made soaps and cosmetics, which the owner makes herself. Other craft products from local artisans also sold.
- 7 L'Elixir, rue de la Poterne, ☎ . Tobacconist and newsagent which also sells some souvenirs and local wine
- 8 Le Dressing, rue de la Poterne, ☎ . Tu–Fː 10ː30–12ː30, 16ː00–19ː30, Sa–Su 10ː30–19ː30; M closed. Vintage clothing and the best postcards depicting Bouzigues.
- See also: French cuisine
What to try
- Oystersǃ (huîtres) Need it be said? In Bouzigues, the oysters are very good. Squeeze a dash of lemon onto the flesh, then scoop it out with your teeny-tiny fork and enjoy. Washed down with a glass of the local white (Picpoul de Pinet), this is just like tasting the sea.
- Mussels (moules) are the other shellfish that is farmed in Bouzigues. Some of the restaurants serve them raw on a platter with oysters, but these are frankly not worth the bother unless you really want to try them. Much better is the classic moules marinières, which you can get at a few different restaurants.
- Prawns (crevettes) Forget any notion of piddly little shrimps. In Bouzigues, the prawns are fat and delicious, and are served shell-on. There are few more satisfying food experiences than breaking into a prawn, dipping it in alioli, and devouring it whole.
- Tielles sétoises are small pies filled with a sort of squid, tomato and red pepper paste, and are a local speciality.
- Razor clams (couteaux) are uncommon on menus in the English-speaking world, which is odd because when cooked well they are divine.
There are many restaurants lining the front, and all seem to be of a very high standard, so the below list is by no means supposed to be comprehensive. If you are eating at dusk, try to get a table facing west; the sunsets over the étang can be spectacular whilst you're tucking into your meal.
Vegetarians, you're out of luck. Bouzigues is unfortunately typical of rural France in that none of the restaurants have proper vegetarian menus, and most don't even have the odd meat- or fish-free dish. The nearest vegetarian restaurant is La Part des Anges in Sète, but nearby Montpellier has a much wider selection.
- 1 Chez Alex & Lucie, 19 avenue Louis Tudesq, ☎ . W–Su 12ː00–15ː00, 19ː00–21ː00. Succulent and fresh food served in generous portions, and friendly service. When it's busy, service can be slow, so is worth arriving early for.
- 2 Chez la Tchepe, 14 avenue Louis Tudesq, ☎ . Daily 9:00-18:00. Shellfish producers' restaurant open for diners and takeaway.
- 3 La Perle Marine, 23 avenue Louis Tudesq, ☎ . Faultless cooking, and the moules are especially good. However the service leaves a lot be to desired. A singer with guitar generally shows up at lunchtime and after his performance goes round tables begging for tips; this is encouraged by the restaurant. Okay if you like that sort of thing.
- 4 Le 29 au bord de l'étang (Remember "Le 29" is pronounced "le vingt-neuf" in French, rather than "le twenty-nineǃ"), 29 avenue Louis Tudesq, ☎ . F–Tu 12ː00–14ː00, 19ː00–21ː30. Good, solid food. Serves a plethora of shellfish, as well as burgers "à la française". €16 set menu for 3 courses is excellent value.
- 5 Le Grand Bleu, 13 avenue Louis Tudesq, ☎ . Tu–Su 12ː00–14ː30, 19ː00–21ː30. A friendly and competent service complements some very fresh and delicious seafood.
- 6 Le Petit Bouzigues, 45 avenue Louis Tudesq, ☎ . Tu–Sa 12ː00–14ː00, 19ː00–21ː45. Don't tell anyone, but... this could be the best restaurant in Bouzigues. 1 chef, 1 waitress, 16 covers. Intimate setting and superb cooking. Chef's speciality is octopus, but he seems to be able to turn his hand to all of the local seafood. Booking is essential.
- 7 Mitcho Pizza, Pizza wagon on place de la Golette, ☎ . Every night except M, 17ː30 until custom dries up a couple of hours later. Artisan pizza made to order. Mitcho is a popular local character, and cooks at a leisurely pace while chatting to his customers. If you don't wish to wait you can order ahead by phone.
- 8 Lydia Benito Artisan Glacier (Les Glaces de la Bouline), 8 rue de la République, ☎ . Open W-Su 10:30-12:30, 15:00-19:00. Closed in Jan, Feb and Oct. Excellent artisan ice creams, sorbets and iced desserts.
The local white wine, Picpoul de Pinet, is lush with seafood or as an apéritif. Black label (étiquette noire) Picpoul is fruitier and sweeter, while white label (étiquette blanche) is drier and smoother. There are many vineyards open to the public for buying and tasting Picpoul and other local wines in the triangle of land between Mèze, Marseillan and Pézenas, though of course all of the local shops and supermarkets stock most of the good Languedoc wines.
Aside from food, Bouzigues is no place for nightlife. There is only one bar in town, not counting those in the hotels listed below:
- 1 Le Globe, 18 rue de la République, ☎ . Every day 7ː00–21ː00. Sports bar that also serves coffee. Mostly frequented by locals. Free wifi.
There are not a great many accommodation options in Bouzigues, which is one of the reasons it's nice and quiet. As well as what's listed below, there are a handful of self-catering gîtes scattered around the place.
- 1 À la voile blanche, 1 avenue Louis Tudesq, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Harbourside location with views over marina and étang. Rooms are individually decorated. There is a bar and restaurant on site. Room €65-€85, suite €110-€190.
- 2 La Côte Bleue, 59 avenue Louis Tudesq, ☎ . Motel-style establishment with modern rooms and a swimming pool. On site restaurant with a proximity to the water that is unrivalled in Bouzigues. Room €68-€147.
- 3 Lou Labech, rue du Stade (Follow the camping signs from the town centre.), ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Small campsite with space for 48 caravans / campervans. You can also hire a chalet. On-site health club, TV, free wifi, launderette, fridges and bike rental. Also home to two friendly donkeys. Two people and electricity hookup €16-€30.
If these limited options don't appeal, there is a lot of tourist accommodation in both Balaruc-les-Bains and Mèze.
The bar (Le Globe) offers free wifi; just ask for the code. Otherwise, the nearest internet café, called cyberphone7, is at 13 rue du 11 novembre 1918, in Sète.
- Loupian - Bouzigues' attractive inland neighbour is an interesting village worth an hour of wandering. Most travellers visit the Gallo-Roman villa, which has some truly exceptional mosaics, but miss out Loupian itself; don't be most travellers. Drive or catch the bus (320).
- Mèze - more or less a larger version of Bouzigues, with a great market on Sundays and Thursdays, a very pleasant harbour and large sandy beach. Drive or catch the bus (320).
- Sète - nearby large town with an interesting port area, a good regional art museum and links to the musician Georges Brassens. Drive or catch the bus (320).
- Montpellier - unmissable city with a youthful buzz and cosmopolitan energy that Bouzigues just hasn't got. Drive or catch the bus (103 / 104 to tram stop, then tram L2 into city centre. Ask the bus driver to include the tram fare in the ticket; it doesn't cost any different to buying them separately, but it saves on time at the other end.)
- Nîmes - some wonderfully-preserved Roman ruins, including a monumental amphitheatre still in use. Drive or catch the train from Sète (TER is cheaper than TGV).