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Le Cap d’Agde: My Unlikely Ghost Town

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Ever wonder what a popular Mediterranean sea-and-sun spot looks like in winter?

Deserted alleyways lined with boarded-up shops. Boulevards void of vehicles. Vacant apartment complexes, every window shuttered.

No, this isn’t a post-zombie-apocalypse alternate dimension. It’s a beach resort town in the south of France in mid-January.

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Le Cap d’Agde is known throughout France and the rest of Western Europe for its exceptional Mediterranean beaches and impressively large port.

In summer, its population reaches more than 150,000, as many northerners who own or rent apartments arrive to spend a month or two by the ocean. The city teems with sailboaters, fishermen, sun-tanners, and partygoers. Food stands sell gelato and crepes to tourists wilting from an excess of UV rays. Nightclubs blast music until dawn, ensuring that the city’s vivacity doesn’t wane with the sun.

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I arrived in September, just before the off-season, for a job in a nearby school and caught a glimpse of this vibrant summer-Cap d’Agde.

But within a few weeks, as the air turned brisk and the breeze brought goosebumps rather than relief to my skin, the restaurants closed their doors, and the stalls that sold sunscreen and postcards pulled down their metal security doors. Everything became quiet.

The population fell about ten-fold, transforming the city into a subdued little village, or as my French co-worker calls it, a “hollow.” Most yearlong residents are retired or have young children, which often keeps them indoors. They drive to neighboring cities like Montpellier and Béziers for the bulk of their shopping and entertainment.

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I had thought ghost towns only existed in bad Western movies. Not so. In my new home of Cap d’Agde, pastel pink and yellow vacation residences have replaced the saloons and stray cats the tumbleweeds.

On nice Sunday afternoons, people can still be seen strolling the boardwalks with their dogs or playing Pétanque (a lawn game involving tossing metal balls) on the several designated courts. They go out to lunch with their families at one of the five or so dining establishments along with the port that have remained open. The roads are almost busy on weekday mornings as people commute to work.

Still, most of the time it’s possible to pass roundabout after roundabout, through miles of a residential neighborhood, without seeing a single face.

Whenever I invite a French friend from a nearby town to Cap d’Agde for a glass of wine, they understandably express surprise that anything at all is open. And walking alone at night can only be described as creepy.

What’s unique isn’t the small population, but that the infrastructure implies a much larger one. It’s that the residents are so spread out; for every occupied apartment, there are dozens of empty ones. I’ve found that every new arrival, after having explored for a while, reacts similarly: “This place is kind of weird, isn’t it?”

However, for those who prefer tranquility to the excitement, Cap d’Agde does not disappoint.

Along the coastline, waves roll in gently, their white ridges sinking softly into the sand. Calmer than the vast, wild Atlantic — France’s other bordering water body — the Mediterranean’s colors are also richer; its blues are bluer and its smoothed cliffs more nuanced in tones of gray and brown.

At sunset, when peach streaks illuminate the sky, the water’s surface turns cobalt, almost a dull silver. With temperatures still high enough to be comfortable in just a jacket, gazing at the ocean is tremendously peaceful.

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Nonetheless, we winter-dwellers wait impatiently for spring to stir up the palpable stillness of our surroundings. We long for the day when the “Seasonal Closure” signs are removed and people once again fill up space. Until that transformative day, we’ll continue to stroll the solitary beaches, which for now are ours and ours alone.

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About the author

Cathy Martin is a traveler and aspiring writer from Madison, Wisconsin. She currently lives in southern France where she tries to convince teenagers that learning English is fun.

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