Before last year, whenever I thought about music festivals my mind conjured up images of muddy fields and welly boots, tiny tents and burly security guards, partying post-A-level teens and glow-sticks, huge crowds of drunken dancers and expensive stodgy food. And rain, lots of rain…
But that was before I went to the Worldwide Festival in Sète.
Now, when you mention the word festival to me, I’m transported to a world of rosé wine and seafood, long days dancing in the sea and along the water’s edge, magical nights in the Théâtre de la Mer, and the friendliest crowd of people you’ll ever meet. People united by a single thing – a love of Gilles Peterson and his unique brand of eclectic music.
Worldwide 2015 was the 10th anniversary of this special little festival. It was also my first visit, after years of listening wistfully from a distance. And it was one of my undisputed highlights of last year. Could Worldwide 2016 live up to that? You know, if possible I think it was even better…
Sète is pure magic. A Venice-esque fishing town in the south of France near Montpellier, Sète has its own special theme tune: the hush of gently lapping waves, the harsh cries of seagulls, and the rhythmic clinking of rigging from boats lining the canals that run through town.
It’s primarily a working fishing port, and that’s part of its charm: the hustle and bustle of salty sea dogs going about their business (and shipping in the freshest fish and seafood to restaurants along the canals).
The town itself is practically an island, sandwiched between the sea and the Étang de Thau, a large lagoon. On the town side it’s connected only by a number of bridges over the canals. On the other side, there’s an 8-mile strip of wild Mediterranean beach running the length of the lagoon to the Marseillan Plage, dotted with rustic cafés and restaurants .
The sensation of being an island is heightened by Mont St. Clair, a low hill rising 183 metres at the heart of the ‘island’, which forms a notable landmark on the otherwise flat Languedoc coast. The high town at the summit is known as the ‘Quartier Haute’. Once home to Italian fisherman, it’s now settled by a number of artists inspired by the views (which I’m reliability informed are magnificent, though I’m ashamed to say I haven’t yet made it to the top!).
The lower town clusters around the base of the hill, and is home to the majority of tourist attractions – the canals, harbour, fishing activity, shops and restaurants, and CRAC, Centre Régional d’Art Contemporain, a regional centre for contemporary art. In summer the main canal, the Canal Royal, forms the backdrop for the traditional water jousting competition, which seems to me a little akin to the British tradition of Morris dancing in terms of pageantry, only on the water and a little more physical. While the main competition takes place in August, long after my weary feet have danced out of town, there are preliminary events taking place from June so if you’re lucky you can catch a glimpse of the pageantry and see its importance to the people of Sète.
The laid-back town of Sète is the perfect complement to the Worldwide Festival, which is the most civilised festival I’ve ever attended. There are no muddy tents here, which is a relief because it would be way too hot to sleep under canvas in July – I had to sit under the air-conditioning for 10 minutes every time I climbed the stairs to my third-floor apartment! Here, you rent an apartment or stay in a hotel room, though there is a scramble for accommodation once tickets have been released; get in early if you want a good spot.
There are several stages dotted around town and along the beach, each with bars serving rosé wine and bubbly (see, I said it was civilised!) and local food specialities. This year, the lighthouse (St. Christ) was dropped in favour of having all seven nights at the Théâtre de la Mer and this, for me, was what made it so special. I didn’t particularly like the lighthouse stage – it accommodates more people, but it felt impersonal and somehow the crowd seemed more aggressive. But the Théâtre de la Mer has to be one of my favourite venues in the world.
The Théâtre de la Mer is an 18th century fort, which was transformed into an open-air theatre in 1960. It’s arranged so the audience looks down on the stage, and the Mediterranean Sea, dotted with boats and criss-crossed with seagulls swooping like ghosts in the background, forms the backdrop. It feels intimate and the acoustics are amazing. At midnight, the stage is cleared and the theatre transforms into the best dancefloor in the world.
In the day, most of the action takes place on the beach next to La Ola, a restaurant and music venue that’s a permanent fixture. This year the stage had been turned 45 degrees so the DJs looked out to the sea, and the beach stage was open to all, not just those with tickets for the main event.
For me, a typical day at Worldwide involves getting up around midday, heading to La Ola for moules frites and rosé wine, chilling for a while on the beach, swimming while DJs spin some tunes – it’s amazing how far the music carries on the water – before heading into the beach stage to dance for a few hours. Then it’s home for a shower and a quick bite to eat before heading to the Theatre for the night’s entertainment.
But while all of this sounds very relaxing, it’s bloody exhausting! It involves lots of walking and dancing until the early hours for seven consecutive nights. So get plenty of sleep beforehand, bring comfy shoes, and, if possible, give yourself a few days afterwards to recover. However it’s totally worth it, because Worldwide is all about the music…
Regular listeners to Gilles’s Worldwide show and LeFtO’s Sunday night show on Studio Brussels will be familiar with much of the line-up, though there are always some surprises. But never write off an act just because you haven’t heard of them – put your faith in Gilles and the Worldwide family. These guys know their stuff and part of this festival’s pull is the desire to discover new musical gems.
This year, there were so many highlights it’s impossible to mention them all, but here are some that stuck with me: Anderson .Paak rocking the crowd in the Théâtre on the opening night, the epic (pun intended) jazz of Kamasi Washington, the mesmerising trio of Kan Sano, Jun Inoue and Kazunori Kumagai on Japan day simultaneously playing jazz piano, tap dancing and live painting in the Théâtre, the Cuban magic of the delightful Dayme Arocena, the unmistakable sound of Quantic, and the cosmic music of Floating Points with his spellbinding lightshow. Then there were the DJ sets of Gilles and the Worldwide family – floating in the sea on Sunday afternoon with Gilles spinning some classics was a Worldwide moment for me – plus Worldwide regular Benji B, and Four Tet and Floating Points spinning back-to-back on the Sunday night. The festival drew to a close on Sunday night with a spine-tingling rendition of Edith Piaf’s No, je ne regrette rien, the entire Théâtre in full voice.
Special mention to the designer of the Worldwide tokens (all food and drink stalls at the venues only accept plastic tokens for payment). I have to admit that ethically I’m not particularly impressed at single-use plastic tokens, but this year in place of the Worldwide icon was Prince’s purple symbol – a beautiful touch in a year when we’ve lost so many talented artists.
Anyway, don’t just take my word for it. Here’s the official after-video for Worldwide 2016, which brings a smile to my face every time I watch it.
And just for fun, my final taste of Sète before rolling out of town…
Dates for Worldwide 2017 have just been confirmed as July 3–9. Keep an eye out here for when tickets go on sale.
The closest airports to Sète are Montpellier and Beziers, though it’s always worth looking around for options – the first year I flew into Marseille, and this year my cheapest option from Gran Canaria was to fly to Barcelona and catch the TGV.
I usually stay in Airbnb accommodation (if you haven’t already signed up to Airbnb, sign up using my link for a discount off your first stay). See TripAdvisor for the latest accommodation prices and reviews. Remember, get in early as it books up fast.
So 2017, I’m in and I intend to stay a month this time to explore more of the area, eat my way round a few more restaurants, and chill out on the beautiful beaches. I may even make it up the top of Mont St. Clair! Will I see you there?
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