Cracking beaches for cracking family holidays in the Pyrénées Orientales
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
After visiting Perpignan capital city of the “Pyrénées Orientales” and enjoying its cultural heritage in last week article, lets go to the Mediterranean shore and discover the sandy beaches, charming small inlets and lively sea resorts of the French-Catalan country. Its colours, its light, its vitality inspired many artists such as Henri Matisse and André Derain who found there an endless inspiration, source of Fauvism, this vivid artistic movement. With over 300 sunny days per year the 40 miles long coast is one of the sunniest regions in France, so make sure to have an effective sunscreen…
Huge sandy beaches stretch along the northern part of the coast, some of them being several miles long. It was not until the 1950’ and 1960’ that local people and tourists discovered these untouched beaches and soon seaside resorts practically sprung up out of the ground. Fortunately building has always been under control and vast areas are protected, respecting the local wildlife.
The fine sand beaches are lined with dunes, stands of bulrush, inland marshes, where fishermen have built reed huts, provide critical feeding and staging areas for myriads of shorebirds. Walking, biking or riding you can enjoy beautiful moments, just a stone’s throw from the beaches.
Most of these resorts are only a few minute-drive from Perpignan. Flying from the UK, there are direct flights from London or Southampton to Perpignan International Airport, it will take you only 20 min to get to the nearest resort, Canet-en-Roussillon and the other ones are just a little further away. From North to South the coastal road will take you to the six main resorts. Barcares stretches between the sea and a marsh, both providing water recreation.
An old liner, the Lydia, ended her international career right on Barcares’ beach. It was deliberately grounded there in 1967 as the “foundation stone” of the resort and is now used for touristic activities. Toreilles’ beach welcomes naturists and the original inland village of Toreilles still retains its yesteryear charm.
Sainte-Marie-la-Mer, not to be confused with Les Saintes Marie de la Mer a pilgrimage site for many gypsies located in Camargue, is a more human-sized resort. Canet-en-Roussillon, is a lively resort by day and by night. Its marsh is a beauty with natural beaches and an ideal place for horse riding. Saint-Cyprien and Argelès-sur-Mer are two huge resorts with countless sea activities and both have vast marinas where yachting lovers from the whole planet come to all year long.
Going south and nearing the Pyrenees and the Spanish border the coast looks totally different. Becoming more and more rugged and rocky with smaller beaches and remote inlets sometimes only accessible by sea, the seashore has an undeniable charm. Here ports were built ages ago becoming trendy seaside resorts during the 20th century thanks to artists who made them widely known. It’s called the Côte Vermeille and can be the perfect area for both active and cultural holidays. Collioure is an ancient fishermen village once renowned for its anchovies and now awarded “Plus beau village de France”, one of the most beautiful villages in France. Surrounded by low mountains, bathed with crystal clear water, drenched in sunlight Collioure attracted many painters of the 20th century: Dali, Picasso, Matisse, Derain, Gris, Braque, Foujita… the number of artists who fell under the spell of Collioure is endless.
A first castle was built on the shore in the late 7th century and was redesigned and extended through the centuries. Today we can visit its last “version” made by order of Louis XIV in the 17th century. The narrow village streets go up and down the hills that rise out of the sea and are full of flowers. Opposite the castle on the other side of the port where colourful fishing boats are moored, an unusual church has been built using the former lighthouse as its church tower! There are 3 beaches in Collioure set on either side of the church.
Collioure is also famous for the vineyards planted on the hillsides surrounding the village that produce sun filled red wines. To taste them you can go to the “Bar de la Marine” a seafood and Catalan restaurant ideally located at the foot of the castle with a wonderful view over the port, the church and of course the castle.
The “Bar de la Marine” staff is more than friendly and the food is homemade and delicious with an excellent value for money. Having a hearty Catalan tapas or seafood platter with a glass of wine on the outside terrace enjoying the view and Collioure’s joyful atmosphere is my idea of a great dinner! For those feeling homesick they even make true English breakfast with bacon and eggs with toasts, orange juice, marmelade, tea, or coffee, for less than 8€! http://www.la-marine-collioure.com:fr/
A few kilometres south of, Port-Vendres is much more quiet than Collioure, and still is an important fishing port. At night you can see the lights of the many boats doing lamparo fishing and in the morning buy fresh fish directly from the fishermen’s stands. The village, built on a hillside, is nestled at the bottom of a deep bay whose entrance is protected by two forts built during the 17th century by Vauban, Louis XIV tireless architect who for decades built dozens of fortresses all over France. Port-Vendres’ beaches are a little away from the port, in Paulilles. They are said to be among the most beautiful ones in the area with few buildings around them except for the half-ruined dynamite factory of Alfred Nobel who set there in1870. These ruins are an authentic part of this landscape and no one wants to see them go.
A little further south Banyuls-sur-Mer is another charming resort with a long sandy beach and a lively seafront with a few interesting Art Nouveau buildings. Aristide Maillol, the famous sculptor, was born here and even after becoming rich and famous he came back here every year to spend the winter. His simple inland house “La Metairie”, set in the middle of a quiet olive and fig trees wood, now is a museum dedicated to this discreet artist who revolutionized the sculpture world at the turn of the 20th century.
His bronze plump ladies are very expressive and you can hear them breath, laugh, cry or shout in spite of their reassuring curves. Maillol died in a car accident in 1944 and was buried next to his house where we can see his tomb surmounted with one of his iconic statue “Méditerranée”. The way to the museum is well signposted from Banyuls’ centre and is easily reached by car.
Banyuls also is famous for its sweet wines with rich aromas that are aged for several years in century-old oak barrels exposed to direct sunshine. Whether red, white or rosé, they all have wonderful colours and are complex in the nose. To taste them, go to “9 Caves”, a place that is a restaurant, a wine shop, a concert hall and a B&B, all in one location. Located in a former winery, this place was created by winemakers for wine lovers.
The kitchen has been set in the middle of the restaurant hall and guests can watch David, the chef, prepare their plates made with fresh local produce from the morning market. The menu changes almost every day. Of course the wine list propose a wide range of Banyuls’ wines as well as wines from other vineyards. All of them are for sale in the shop and even if you don’t have lunch or dinner here, the sommelier will help you make your choice. http://9caves.com/#home
Just before reaching the Spanish border you will get to Cerbère, wedged between the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees. It became prosperous when a railway tunnel was dug through the mountains to link Spain and France. A huge rail bridge with very high arches overlooks the resort and its incredible Art Deco Hotel that looks like a liner ready for sea. Thanks to the rugged coast and the beautiful seabed, Cerbère is very popular with divers. The Cerbère-Banyuls reserve now is a protected area with a rich wildlife: groupers, gilthead sea breams, barracudas, moray eels, dolphins, Mediterranean corals… Several diving centres with qualified instructors will help you discover them.
Halfway in between Argelès and Collioure, the “Grand Hotel du Golfe” is the ideal place to stay at while exploring the “Côte Vermeille”. The white modern style building and the big swimming pool overlook the sea and all of the 36 comfortable rooms have a direct sea view. There also are a Jacuzzi and a chromatic Turkish baths with sea and garden view. It’s a family business, Marie, Jean-Michel and their daughter Caroline took over the hotel a few years ago and had it entirely refurbished. They ensure that all details are attended to and will make your stay a very pleasant one.
They carefully chose the chef for the hotel restaurant “Le Bistrot à la Mer”. Gérald Desmullier worked for several star-chefs before creating his own restaurant in Banyuls and finally joined the hotel team. Thanks to his expertise and his careful choice of quality produce the restaurant now is well known in the area. Local people as well as tourists come and come again to taste his creative delicious dishes. A “shrimp carpaccio”, “pork cheeks stewed in Banyuls wine”, a “Catalan cream and its peach sorbet” are a few examples that show the extent of his talent. More at: http://grandhoteldugolfe.com/en/
More about Pyrénées Orientales: http://www.tourisme-pyreneesorientales.com/en