Take a stroll in Banyuls-sur-Mer
I’m perched on a bench on the palm-lined promenade of Banyuls-sur-Mer, a book in one hand and a tragically melting ice-cream in the other. It’s a front-row seat to the sparkling waves of the Mediterranean – and, by the looks of things, a private viewing, since it’s October and no-one’s brave enough to go in the sea, despite the unseasonable heat.
It’s hard to believe this corner of the Vermillion Coast’s creek and cove-studded shoreline hasn’t always been this peaceful, yet “a smugglers’ paradise” is how King Louis XIV once described Banyuls. For centuries after the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees, handing the old province of Roussillon to France, the town’s fishermen would sneak tobacco, salt, rice textiles to their Spanish neighbours, up to the arrival of the railway. Today, I’m pleased to report there are no contrebandiers in sight – unless you count the seagulls eyeing up my cone.
Art and aquariums in Banyuls-sur-Mer
I start walking south along the promenade; to my right, patchworks of vineyards cling to the hills behind the town. This is an area with great vinous heritage thanks to the Banyuls AOP. One of the few fortified red wines, this sweet tipple is the perfect accompaniment to a fondant au chocolat.
A statue of a reclined woman catches my eye – La Jeune Fille Allongée. Sculpture fans will recognise this as the work of Aristide Maillol, the town’s most famous son. Banyuls’ artistic heritage is often overlooked in favour of its storied neighbour, Collioure, but Maillol’s influence sets it apart. Born in Banyuls in 1861, Maillol studied art in Paris before moving back to the Mediterranean to open a workshop here. His former home, just outside the town proper, is now a museum and there are three more of his works dotted around the town.
A little further along, the beach becomes a small but busy harbour. The modern buildings nearby are part of the Biodiversarium, which houses the town’s recently renovated historic aquarium. It specialises in Mediterranean aquatic life – the jellyfish display is a highlight.
I head inland up the Avenue General de Gaulle to visit another of the Biodiversarium’s projects. It’s a bit of a climb, but a breeze if you take the Petit Train Touristique from the promenade. The Jardin Mediterranée du Mas de la Serre showcases the biodiversity of the region’s flora, set in a natural amphitheatre above the town. It’s worth buying a joint ticket to enjoy access to both here and the aquarium.
Banyuls-sur-Mer’s wine heritage
It’s a short hop to the Terres des Templiers, the area’s must-visit wine experience. Take a tour around the cooperative and enjoy a dégustation, before choosing a bottle or two to slip in your suitcase. I’ve just missed the town’s famous wine festival, the Fête des Vendanges, a toast to the successful harvest – it’s set to take place the second weekend of October.
Armed with a vinous souvenir, I stroll back downhill into the town centre, making a detour to the Église Romane de la Rectorie. It’s surrounded by a nest of cypresses and boasts an exquisite tympanum with a sculpture of the zodiac signs.
Back beside the sea, I pull up a chair at a seaside crêperie and order a glass of Banyuls wine. Before coming to Banyuls, I’d read George Orwell’s damning verdict on Banyuls-sur-Mer after his visit in 1937: “a bore and a disappointment”. Admittedly, the seaside resort may have lacked the drama of the trenches of the Spanish Civil War, where Orwell had spent the previous few months. But if the great writer were to return to the Vermillion Coast today, I’d like to think he’d change his mind.
Where to visit near Banyuls-sur-Mer
The Vermillion Coast dazzles tourists seeking a different side to the French Mediterranean. Follow the coast (or on foot, via the sentier littoral) to Paulliles, home to a one-time dynamite factory turned nature reserve. The beaches here are the perfect spot to get away from the business of Collioure and Banyuls in summer.
To the south, you can visit the attractive border town of Cerbère. Don’t miss the old Hotel Belvédère du Rayon Vert (now flats), designed to look like a ship, There is also the Natural Marine Reserve of Cerbère-Banyuls, concerning just 6.5km of coastal waters, protected from overtourism and overfishing alike.
The busy fishing port of Port-Vendres sits a creek away from Collioure and is ideal for a seafood dinner. Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh lived here for a few years. More recently, it played a starring role in Rick Stein’s BBC2 series Secret France.
Collioure, brimming with art and history, is yet another highlight of this storied coastline. You can’t miss the magnificent church or the castle that dominates the harbour.
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