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Marseillan harbour at night


Marseillan is a commune in the Hérault department in southern Francemarker.

It lies some west of Montpelliermarker.

Marseillan sits on a large salt-water lake, the Étang de Thaumarker and is the southern Entreport for the Canal du Midimarker.

The village is tranquil, with its heart still within the lines of the old walls. There is one small hotel and some 18 cafes and restaurants. For sun, sea and sand there is Marseillan Plage, a purpose built holiday resort on the Mediterraneanmarker itself. (Some from Marseillan Ville).

The port is a protected heritage site, and the altar and organ in the church are also listed. There has been virtually no new building in the heart of the village since the 17th century, many of the houses date from the twelfth century.

Until 1970 the vineyards came to the main boulevards built outside the line of the walls around 1870. Since then the population has exploded. From around 3,000 throughout the last 200 years to over 7,000 in 2006. (And this does not include those who have bought houses and villas in Marseillan but use them only as holiday homes.) Expectation is that the population will top 10,000 by 2010.

History

There is dispute as to who exactly founded the village. Marseillemarker claims that honour, understandable because of the two names. But both names are derived from the Greco/Phoenician Massaliotesmarker who extended trading routes from the eastern Mediterranean.The Massaliotes certainly founded Marseille around 600 BC and, shortly after, Agdemarker. Thus Agde is the second oldest town in France. But who founded Marseillan? As Agde is only it seems most likely that the Agatois were the founders. Either way the origins of all three places lie with the Greco/Phoenicians. And, either way, Marseillan is one of the oldest villages in France.

The Romans established the port, and with the Via Domitia running close they also established a rest and recreation centre. Many legionnaires took their discharge at Marseillan, and with it a grant of land - on which they grew vines.

Economy

Marseillan's economy is founded on fish, wines, trade and visitors. This has always been so because from its foundation Marseillan has been a major trading centre, a port and a stopping-off point for travellers.

Trade

When the village was founded there was a clean inland waterway paralleling the Mediterranean - described as "une petite mer intérieure et tranquille". Thus sailors could make their way in safety from the Rhône to Marseillan. Thus from the beginning Marseillan was a trading post.Over the years this waterway silted up, forming the series of Etangs, the largest of which being the Étang de Thau, but then the Canal du Midi opened and Marseillan, as the Entreport, was a major beneficiary.It follows that from the very early days Marseillan had the four bases of trade that exist today.Much later Marseillan was linked by the Rhone-Sète Canal to the river Rhone and by the Canal du Midi to Toulousemarker and thence to the Atlantic at Bordeauxmarker. Its location means that Marseillan became a crucial link in the network of canals that still encircle France.

Fishing

The Étang de Thau is shallow, with a bottom of foot-deep mud. The conditions are perfect for shellfish and 18 different sorts are fished from the Etang. As the water is Class A they can be eaten straightaway. Most notable are the oysters and the mussels.‘Bouziques’ oysters, from the Etang, provide about 10% of France’s annual oyster consumption. They are cultivated from oyster tables with one farmer able to bring up a family comfortably on the production from two tables.Mussels are taken from the rich band of mussel-friendly water that runs along the Mediterranean coast from Marseillan to Marseilles. Marseillan fishers work 3 km from the shore, with the Agatois in larger boats fishing further out.Sea fish are also caught in the Etang. They are carried in by the force of the current generated by the narrowness of the canals. (No tides on the Mediterranean, but the mass of water shifts dependent on the prevailing wind. Thus the level of the Etang is constantly shifting.)

Wines

Table wines are produced, with the most acceptable being Picpoul de Pinet - an attractive white wine with a slight green tint and a little sparkle. About a million bottles annually are produced by the ‘cave co-operative’.The Noilly Prat company came to Marseillan in 1853, and is still producing its vermouths on the same site. Mr Noilly had created the vermouth in Lyonmarker in 1813. His son, with an English partner (Mr Prat), came to Marseillan to commercialise their product because the local wines were very suitable and the climate was ideal. (By the way ‘Prat’ rhymes with cat. He was English.)

Visitors

Always a stopping point on the long routes along the Mediterranean shore Marseillan has provided travellers with a welcome since the village was founded.Today much of the village’s prosperity comes from the summer visitors: holidaymakers in Marseillan Plage, day visitors to Marseillan Ville, houseboat visitors from the Canal du Midi and owners of holiday homes.To some degree even those northerners who have settled permanently are visitors. Certainly they make a substantial contribution to the local economy.

Buildings

Fortification

The old village has remained unchanged through the centuries, and today’s village is almost identical in shape to the one known in the Middle Ages. This is because Marseillan was a fortified village until late in the 18th century.From the second century BC Marseillan was protected by earthworks, but by Roman times it had a timber stockade. This was sufficient until Simon de Montfort and his army passed through during the Cathar Crusade. New stone fortifications then replaced the timber.The Chateau sat foursquare in the centre of the village, behind its own walls, whilst the village walls were themselves four-and-a-half metres high. There were four gates, six watchtowers and the village was moated.

Habitation

Most of the village houses are back-to-back. Typically they are of three stories. A stable on the ground floor, living space on the first and fodder stored on the second. The rear rooms are without light or ventilation. With the houses protected from mosquitoes by zinc screens, and in the heat of the Midi, it must have been barely tolerable even to people born into the village. Today the mosquitoes have been eradicated, but it is still uncomfortable in the rear rooms in high summer.Most houses in the old village are small or very small. Their staircases are narrow, and twisty.Some larger homes were owned by the entrepreneurs who typically moved out of the village and into the main boulevards from around 1870.These new large homes were also working houses. ‘Maisons de maître’ and ‘maisons de vigneron’ have no particular architectural style, but they are all of two or three storeys, with the ground floor a working area. All have double doors to allow entry to the horse drawn transport. Sometimes there was direct access from the rear of the house to the vineyards. Almost always there was a small kitchen garden and a pump.

Construction

Construction is typically of ‘torchis’ bricks made from sun dried clay and straw. There are no foundations because a metre down is the water table. Every house in Marseillan has rising damp. This is actually essential to the survival of the houses since they have to be built to withstand the climate changes.In the winter the ground expands, and in summer it contracts. The houses have to be able to flex to cope with these changes. So lime mixed with sand from the beach was used rather than cement (which hardly flexes), and cracks in the facade are normal. Some houses are built from soft limestone which was taken from the vineyards. Basalt, hard volcanic stone, is commonly used for door and window frames.It is not uncommon to find that houses have been adapted and renovated over the ages and many have several different building materials co-existing within the one building. Renovation is not a modern initiative, Marseillan houses have been renovated and adapted since they were first built.Today bathrooms have been added, but piped water and sanitation have only been in the village since 1958. Most houses had their private pump, however.

Climate

Marseillan enjoys an equable climate. Sheltered by the mountains of the Massif Centralmarker the weather systems from the north are seldom a problem. Marseillan has some 300 sunny days a year, and ground frosts (at worst) in mid-winter. From time-to-time a little snow falls, but this only dusts the ground and is gone by mid-day. Marseillanais make day trips into the mountains to experience snowballing and to make snowmen.The prevailing winds are from the south-west, and south. Marseillan receives the hot winds from the Sahara but, fortunately, does not suffer the pink sand that those winds carry out to sea. The Mistral blows down the Rhone valley and, although a northerly wind is sometimes referred to as a “mistral” it has none of the severity nor persistence of the true version.

Of interest

The Marseillanais have always taken their time over decisions, but have still been leaders in many areas.An hospital existed in 1,100 and is still treating patients today (having had several homes over the years!). The maire (mayor) was elected in the village 200 years before this was required by Royal decree. Public schooling started in the mid-18th century. The school was co-educational from 1870 (but not the classes). The oldest stone Marianne in France was erected in 1878, following a wooden bust created in 1876. Marseillan voted to become secular some 10 years before the country as a whole. Women were allowed into one designated cafe from 1870 — again earlier than most other towns and villages.

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