From Cathedral to the Med: Swimming the River Hérault
"It’s not the kind of river that people would think of swimming in and that’s perhaps why I jumped in with my friends."
Some 147 kilometres after taking its source in the Cévennes mountain range, the river Hérault reaches the Mediterranean sea near Agde. Agde is one of France’s oldest towns, spreading out on the left bank of the river. It is a quiet, quaint place living in the shadow of its better-known and scandalous sister town: libertine Cap d’Agde, aka Europe’s nudist heaven.
Take one look at the Hérault in Agde and you wouldn’t have the river pegged for swim adventures, which is understandable. Technically, swimming in canals and rivers is forbidden in France. It is only allowed in rivers by way of exception and, in Agde, it is tolerated. Even if it weren’t for the legal angle, nobody ever jumps in the river Hérault in Agde.
While the Hérault is a rushing crystal-clear stream in mountainous canyons near its source, it becomes a sediment-heavy river once through the coastal plain on its way to the sea. When it flows through Agde, the last urban stop before the Mediterranean, it’s a murky river shaped by a coastal lifestyle. Tourists and locals alike only ever engage with the river when traveling up and down its waters by boat, whether for leisure or for business.
It’s not the kind of river that people would think of swimming in and that’s perhaps why I jumped in with my friends.
I wanted to experience a river swim in my family’s ancestral region. More importantly, in a coastal area where swimming is the prerogative of private pools and beaches, I wanted to show that there are other options off the beaten path.
Swim Start: Agde Cathedral
On a hot summer’s day, I stood in the historic core of the city outside Agde’s 12th century Cathedral of Saint Stephen with three friends. It was mid-morning and all of us were wearing swimming costumes and flip-flops, lathering sunscreen on our bodies. Our plan was simple: swim down the river from the city of Agde until it meets the sea at the seaside resort of Grau d’Agde. In Occitan, the word grau means a canal giving access to the sea - and access we would need. Our 4.5 kilometre water journey would take us past the historic sights of the old city of Agde, past people’s back gardens and past the fishery, before swooshing us down the tidal part… if the tide agreed with us.
The plan was to get to Grau d’Agde for lunchtime, after a leisurely swim adventure that should last just over one and a half hours. Since we didn’t want to be late for l’apéritif, we got cracking and locked the car with our dry belongings inside. It was an odd feeling, walking barefoot in swim gear on the city pavement.
Sports watches to the ready, we walked down a boat ramp together, each of us holding a brightly-coloured tow-float, tied to our waists with a nylon belt. This would make us visible to boat traffic. We’d be swimming a portion of the river that featured medium to heavy boat traffic, so safety was top of mind.
By the river’s edge, I paused for a fleeting moment. This was it. Past the ramp, the next dry land would be lunch. There were areas where it would be impossible to get out.
Axel, who has swum this course alone before, warned us about underwater hazards - sharp objects, fishing gear, rusty pipes - anything that might have been thrown into the river. He also suggested that we keep to the left side of the river to avoid the swift middle’s swift current, the sea breeze and boat traffic. One by one, we gingerly slid into the waters of the River Hérault.
On first contact, the water felt slightly cool, which sounds nuts when the river temperature was probably a balmy 18-20°C. That’s what you get for getting ready in the June sun. Leaving the stark silhouette of the basalt cathedral behind, we started our water journey down familiar, yet unfamiliar, sights.
My family hails from nearby Béziers and I’ve roamed this land since my childhood. From walks down the bourgeois quays in Agde to teenage holidays by the seaside in Cap d’Agde to visiting friends at La Tamarissière: I know this place. And yet then, in the water, I felt like I didn’t. How novel it was to get a glimpse of those basalt or limestone facades from the slightly lumpy river, tasting of sweet dirt.
We were off. Let’s get this party started!
Meet you by the Bridge
After a quarter of a mile or so, we had left the city behind. We were swimming into a halfway zone, that’s not quite the countryside but not quite the coast. Neatly anchored along the river’s edge were dozens of boats - sailboats, motorboats and the odd rowboat. The leafy green canopy of the plane trees offered spots of shade on the tow path, glimpsed from time to time between two breaths.
Triathlon champion Axel and his wetsuit friend took the lead, while I swam with Cindy (also a much more accomplished swimmer than I am). I was fine bringing up the rear. I may not be a fast swimmer, but I can stay the distance. The drill went like this: Cindy swam ahead, stopped to tread water and welcomed me with a joke. The two of us swam single file, always keeping an eye out for each other’s tow floats. Boat traffic had begun to pick up as the morning wore on. No time to dawdle, we swam steadily to our first rendez-vous point, under the freeway bridge.
Many times I had driven across this bridge, yet it had never occurred to me to look down and appreciate the river for what it is: a liquid bridge, linking villages to cities to the sea. Cutting a fairly ugly concrete figure, the bridge arched over the river at the first mile-mark and we were glad to be reunited with the rest of our crew. In a few words, Axel told us what to expect swimming forwards, warning us of increasing boat traffic as we neared several campgrounds and the fishing harbour.
Tourism and Fishing, two Local Industries
Half a mile later, I found Cindy chatting away with a couple of anglers near a campground. She had got tangled in their fishing line and struck up a conversation. They didn’t know what to think of us swimming in the river with their fish.
“Is it safe to swim in the river? Should you even be here?”
Laughs and Gallic shrugs ensued. Then a foul taste of raw sewage in our mouths also ensued - much to our surprise. Looks like the campground’s pipes have a direct connection with the river, which is positively revolting and forced us to do some heads up breaststroke until the taste had dissipated.
Onward and downstream we swam. Soon we were level with La Tamarissière, an old fishing village known for its 19th century pine grove and relaxed lifestyle. Swim-wise, this meant that the fishing harbour was nearby. Right on cue in the distance, we got our first glimpses of cranes and boat docks. Shortly after, we had reached the fishing boats proper and wished we didn’t have to stick to the left bank. Now brackish, the Hérault tasted of discarded bycatch - and who knows what else still wriggling in those nets.
The harbour’s fishing vessels were also a lot more imposing than leisure crafts, making for dodgy swimming conditions at best. Steep sides, bulky hulls, crew busy doing their thing; I hoped that no boat decided to make a sudden movement. We could have easily been crushed or swept under. Not wanting to swim too close to the boats, with their ominous rumbling engines and propellers, we risked swimming out towards the middle. Constantly sighting for incoming boat traffic, we upped the pace.
Rosé, Sun and Jet skis
Before we got to the sea, we still needed to swim by the riverside restaurants of Le Grau d’Agde and the dreaded jet ski rental shop. By now, the river Hérault was tidal and, instead of swooshing us out to sea, the tide was pushing us back. Add to that the sea breeze and an easterly current coming straight at us from Marseilles. Everything was nudging us to put a little more effort into our swim. Gradually, we swam past one, two and three open air restaurant terraces. The lunchtime crowd were already raising glasses of chilled rosé wine under the sun.
One last landmark to go, right ahead: the Dreaded Jet Ski Rental Shop. Swimmers are usually weary of jet skis for good reason and despite our brightly-coloured tow floats, we couldn’t help but feel exposed. Too many jet skis have run over open water swimmers like us and not all of them survived. Added to that, swimmers are not exactly expected in this stretch of the river. We wanted to be extra careful. So, as soon as one of the jet skis departed, we sped by the floating deck, kicking hard to put some distance between them and us. Kicking, kicking some more and milling our arms around as hard as we could.
Done. We were through the jet ski danger zone.
Or so we thought... Another jet ski zoomed by with a deafening noise.
A Double Lighthouse Finish
Heavens, that last stretch was a bit hairy but we’d done it. Now I could gaze on the silhouettes of the lighthouses of La Tamarissière and the Grau d’Agde, flanking one each side of the river. Green top starboard, red top port, the simple white towers greet boaters in and out of the Mediterranean.
It was a nice feeling, by the breakwater, bobbing up and down with the waves under clear blue skies. Now I could taste the concentrated sea salt in my mouth. All traces of the river’s journey had gone. The wine terroir had given way to a sunbathing and beach party paradise.
Meanwhile, the flow was quite strong by the lighthouses and we couldn’t swim out of the boating channel into the sea. One by one, we lined up to exit the river onto the bank. My Garmin watch clocked in at 4.5 kilometres as we climbed onto the rocky boulders - leading us to the beach, a shower and, once dressed, a well-deserved apéritif. After all, what would a French wild swim be without an apéritif?
Laure is an open water swimmer, park ranger, hiker, forager, and all round nature lover. Through her work, she aims to inspire people to try new active adventures outdoors while being gentle to the planet.
You can read more from Laure on her website: frogmom.com
(Including several more swimming adventures, that we loved!)
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