Allez les blues as you coast along in France
Marvel at the intoxicating vistas and vibes in ports perched between the sea and Pyrenees, says Padraic McKiernan
As our plane banked dramatically to-wards a landing in Carcassonne, the fairy-tale vista delivered by the town's medieval landscape set the tone for much of what was to follow during the next few days.
Such was the endorphin rush as we headed south towards the Pyrenees, I found myself enquiring of Mariel, our party's only native speaker, as to whether France's famous allez les Bleus sporting chant could be possibly reworked as a caption that would champion the locality's blues-banishing capabilities? Allez les blues anyone? Did she think the French Tourist board might possibly be interested? In a word, Non.
Not that she didn't understand the impulse behind my, apparently, witless wordplay. She put it down to the effect of the Tramontane, a mystical north wind that blows in the area. Local legend has it that that this mysterious mistral has the capacity to induce giddy euphoria in those caught in its path. My chagrin knew no bounds.
I was here to explore the coastline of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, and the picturesque town of Argeles sur Mer was chosen as a first port of call. Situated in the Catalan country, Argeles is a small town, but perched between the Med and the majestic snow-capped Pyrenees, it morphs into a bona-fide tourist mecca during the summer season, when thousands flock to enjoy its delights.
The beach is the most obvious of these, but the proximity of the mountains ensures that opportunities for biking or hiking abound, while I've heard great things about the child-friendly attractions at the nearby Aqualand theme park.
We stayed at the architecturally striking L'Auberge du Roua, created from the conversion of an authentic Catalan mansion. It proved to be the perfect base from which to explore the area, while its location, on the outskirts of Argeles, offers dramatic vistas of the starlit splendour that is the night sky around these parts.
Further along the coast, the Med-meets-the-mountains vibe is experienced to breathtaking effect courtesy of the small fishing port of Collioure. Nestled in a picture-perfect enclave along the Vermilion coast and often described as Languedoc-Roussillon's St Tropez, Collioure has long been a magnet for artistic types, drawn by the mesmeric quality of the light. But don't take my word for it. No less an authority than Henri Matisse once declared that "no sky in all France is bluer than that of Collioure". Matisse lived here for 12 years, and brought fame to the area courtesy of an edgy art movement known as Fauvism. Picasso was also a visitor.
Not that this area is the preserve of painterly types. The nearby town of Pezenas provided a bolthole for celebrated playwright Moliere when establishment reaction to some of his more provocative works made an exit from Paris advisable. Pezenas' status as home to Languedoc's parliament in the 15th century resulted in the town becoming known as the Versailles of the South, and a certain aristocratic grandeur is still discernible in the chic cafes and artisan shops which are a feature of the town's lovely cobbled streets.
Such was the intoxicating vibe, it seemed like an appropriate time to pull up a seat at one of the former, light up a Gitane and raise a vin rouge to a culture that, to my eyes, still aspires to make an art form out of the everyday. So, I'm joking about the Gitane and the vin rouge was really a cafe au lait, but during the course of a fascinating conversation on French culture, I learnt from Mariel that philosophers are on the school curriculum. They get Pascal. We got Peig. Not exactly a home from home then.
Buses serve the length of the coast, but hiring a car is the best option if you want a detour off the tourist trails. Naturally, with 300 days of sunshine and vineyards as far as the eye can see, the region is a veritable Disneyland for wine-lovers, and what locals call "degustation" (wine-tasting) opportunities abound. A visit to the "vertigo vines" of Banyuls-sur-Mer comes recommended for those looking for an appreciation of the wine-grower's art. So called because of their precipitous location perched between mountains and sea, the vines are hand-worked, as the inclines prevent the use of any machines in the process.
La Cave de l'Abbe Rous serves as a one-stop shop for those looking to get up close and personal with the ageing process, while those seeking the ultimate culinary experience are urged to make a note of the Vinipolis co-operative in nearby Florensac. A wine centre with interactive tasting stations, Vinipolis' coup de class is a brasserie run by Michelin-starred chef Alexandre Fabre.
Degustation fatigue was setting in at this stage, but there was still time for a trip to the small fishing village of Marseillan and the home of Noilly Prat, the famous Vermouth reported to be the favourite tipple of Churchill and James Bond.
The port of Sete was our final destination and it didn't disappoint in terms of delivering a fitting finale. Situated at the end of the Canal du Midi, that magical waterway that links the Atlantic with the Mediterranean, Sete is also the largest French fishing port on the Mediterranean, so its bustling thoroughfares pulsate to a beat that is as inspired by trade as much as tourism. The combination works wonderfully, as holiday staples such as golden beaches, panoramic vistas and any number of fabulous restaurants can be complemented by a trip to the teeming spectacle that is Les Halles Market.
By all accounts, the daily waterside fish auction is also a sight to behold, while literature lovers may want to check out the final resting place of French poet Paul Valery and the graveyard that inspired his melancholic masterpiece, The Graveyard by the Sea. Talk about a tomb with a view. A room with a view came courtesy of the luxurious confines of the Central Hotel.
In medieval times, Sete functioned as a last port of call for warriors departing to fight in the crusades, while, nowadays, it maintains its status as a gateway to exotic destinations courtesy of ferries that can have you in Tangiers in 36 hours. I was tempted, but, alas, the flight home beckoned. The Tramontane obviously wasn't gusting strong enough that day.
Languedoc-Roussillon Tourist Board: www.sunfrance.com; Pyrenees-Orientales Tourist Board (Roussillon area): www.cdt-66.com; Herault Tourist Board (Bassin de Thau and surrounding area): www.languedoc.com