Solange Hando heads for Pyrénées-Orientales and is captivated by the magic and mystery of this enchanting land where the mountains meet the sea
Land in Perpignan or drive along La Catalane, the motorway heading down to the border, and you know this is a corner of France unlike any other, rising as it does from the luminous shores of the Mediterranean to the snowy peaks of the eastern Pyrenees. But it isn’t just the scenery or even the sunshine. In these far reaches of Languedoc-Roussillon, south of the Corbières, the red and gold stripes of Catalonia fly alongside the Tricolore, and the Catalan spirit adds a special touch to the authentic charm of the Pyrénées-Orientales. And to top it all, it’s the most southerly department on the French mainland.
Perpignan, the colourful capital, still calls itself ‘Fidelissima Vila’, a title granted for its loyalty to the King of Aragon in the 15th century. Roussillon became part of France in 1659 but the city’s heritage testifies to its golden age as ‘continental capital’ of the powerful Majorca Kingdom from 1276 to 1344. It’s a steep walk to the Royal Palace and its panoramic gardens high above the town, but within the massive walls added centuries later, it’s a fine example of Gothic architecture in the late 13th century.
Far below, at the heart of town, Castillet is on a more humble scale, an old town gate/prison with glowing pink walls and crenellations mirrored in a quiet stream. It’s home to the Musée Catalan des Arts et Traditions Populaires, and if you don’t mind the spiral steps, the view from the top is quite a treat: the palace looming in the distance and the town at your feet; red roofs, church towers, lawns and flowers and the famous Place de la Loge where locals dine alfresco in the shadow of elegant buildings.
Relaxed and cosmopolitan, Perpignan is above all a city of contrasts. Here you’ll find the nostalgic Rue des Senteurs and its old-fashioned shops, selling anything from sausages to soap, the Rive Gauche and its trendy boutiques, as well as bustling squares and hidden courtyards, paved lanes and tree-lined boulevards; the red globe of the new theatre or the railway station, dubbed ‘the centre of the world’ by Salvador Dali. Yet, tradition is never far away, be it the chilling Procession de la Sanch held on Good Friday or the romantic Festival St-Georges, celebrating the patron saint of Catalans, our own St George. They say that the dragon’s blood turned into a rose, so during the festival, lovers offer a rose to their sweetheart.
There’s plenty to do in Perpignan but it’s only 13km or so to the sea and the vast sandy beaches spreading from Le Barcarès to Argelès-sur-Mer (perfect for a hot summer’s day) with just a scattering of resorts. One of these is Canet-en-Roussillon, which is set between rippling sands and the most southerly lagoon in France, a haven for pink flamingos feeding in the shallows. To the north, laced with ponds and water channels between the Mediterranean and L’Étang de Salses-Leucate, Le Barcarès is made up of several districts; the village gathered around market and church, the traditional reed cottages, the harbour, the Grande Plage and its stranded liner turned nightclub; all kept apart by extensive nature reserves where wild flowers bloom in the sand and pine woods offer shade. You can cycle on the Voie Verte de l’Agly named after the river, along the beach or through picturesque villages to Rivesaltes. Barcarès has its share of tourists but as a local put it: “Where else would you find such fabulous protected areas at the heart of it all?”
Roughly 30km to the south, Argelès-sur-Mer claims the final stretch of this almost continuous strip of sand. It’s a popular family resort bordered by a nature reserve of swaying reeds and bamboo, sweeping sands and a shaded avenue of maritime pines. Oleander and mimosa splash colour here and there, while in the pedestrian lanes, brightly glazed ceramics gleam alongside striped Catalan fabric, beachwear, paintings, garnet jewellery, rope sandals, olives and wine, and up to 40 flavours of ice cream. Up on the hill, the old village dozes in the afternoon sun, framed by the verdant slopes of the Massif des Albères, the last foothills of the Pyrenees.
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Just around the corner, the Pyrenees come down to the sea and you reach the shingle creeks of a rocky coastline on which Collioure shines like a star. Imagine two crescent coves and brightly painted Catalan boats lapped by clear water, the pink dome of a church, lanes and steps meandering among potted plants and pastel-coloured walls; and holding centre stage on a promontory, the imposing summer residence of the Kings of Majorca. It’s easy to see why Matisse, Derain and others fell under the spell and if you follow the trail, you can gaze at the views and reproductions of their work on location. High above the vineyards and olive groves, the mighty Massif des Albères rises silhouetted against the sky, topped by ancient watchtowers.
Meanwhile, a stony path climbs up to the nearby Fort St-Elme where the air is fragrant with rosemary and thyme, and you can enjoy superb views of Collioure on one side and the pretty harbour of Port-Vendres on the other, lined with seafood restaurants. From there, it’s a scenic drive to Banyuls-sur-Mer and its unique attractions: the museum dedicated to local sculptor Aristide Maillol, the research aquarium and marine reserve of Banyuls-Cerbère, boasting a signposted underwater trail; and not forgetting the wine. Apéritif or dessert, Banyuls is one of several AOC natural sweet wines in the department, complemented by dry AOC from Collioure, Côtes du Roussillon and Roussillon Villages, and the Vins de Pays Catalan.
You need look no further to dine like a king either, whether you fancy seafood from along the coast or rustic fare in the hills. Try grilled fish of the day, mussels, oysters, Catalan chicken in a rich tomato sauce, mountain ham and charcuterie, steak in Banyuls wine, Mediterranean aubergines, sweet peppers, white or green asparagus, or purple artichokes. Fish soup and Catalan salad, sprinkled with olives and Collioure anchovies, are favourite starters while the final touch may be ewe’s cheese or Tomme des Pyrénées, or a crema catalana with a crunchy top, which can be orange or cinnamon-flavoured. Fruit abounds: peaches, cherries and apricots are celebrated at festival time when locals and visitors dance the traditional Sardane on the village square.
You don’t have to seek expensive venues to eat well, for some of the best food is served in Bistrots de Pays, tucked away in villages where many expats have found their dream home; away from holiday crowds and cheaper than on the coast.
Nine years ago, Mike and Maureen Bangs (above) moved to Villelongue-dels-Monts in the Massif des Albères: “We grew to know and love the area from Eurocamping days with our two children. Beaches are just a short drive from our house, ski resorts are within reach but one of our favourite pastimes is eating in a local restaurant.”
In 2000, Jeff Davies took his family and horses to live in the mountains of Vallespir: “We already had a holiday home in La Bastide and the quality of life we enjoyed made it a no-brainer choice. We set up Can Tillet, an organic sheep farm with endurance horse breeding and a gîte, and we just love the Catalan culture and cuisine, plus living in the mountains and close to the sea. Our village has been most welcoming and I try to repay in a small way by helping on the town council.”
Dotted across the hinterland, Catalan villages nestle among orchards and vineyards or cling to hilltops with spectacular views: Eus, Castelnou, Céret and many more. Here, life moves at a gentle pace: a weekly market on the square, a game of pétanque under the plane trees, church bells on a Sunday. Yet these bucolic lands have a rich heritage, which can be found in the Romanesque cloisters of Serrabone or Elne, the abbeys of St-Michel-de-Cuxa or the breathtaking St-Martin-du-Canigou perched on a rocky spur, the Fort de Salses, the Vauban-designed Citadelle de Mont-Louis or Villefranche-de-Conflent, which sends shivers down your spine as you tour the ramparts or climb the 1,000 subterranean steps up to the fort on the hill.
At the confluence of rushing mountain streams, Villefranche is just one of five villages in the department listed among the most beautiful in France. In a deep valley enclosed by cliffs, it’s a small tangle of lanes garlanded in flower-draped balconies, Catalan flags and ancient signs highlighting local trades in pottery, wood-turning, wrought iron, and marble. If you cross the humpback bridge over the River Têt, you might find wild irises or lily of the valley along the banks.
Add the dramatic gorges of La Fou or Galamus, the amazing rock formations of Ille-sur-Têt, the fantastic caves and the prehistoric Man of Tautavel, which is 450,000 years old, and what more could anyone want? LF