Côte dAzur: From côte to côte
Forget the overcrowded, glitzy resorts of the Côte d'Azur -- Susan Daly discovers unspoilt charms and affordable indulgence on Côte Vermeille in the south of France
You couldn't miss the couple strolling hand-in-hand along the harbourside. They were both decked out in dazzling white, top to open-toed sandal.
There is a franchise of popular French boutiques called Blanc du Nil, which specialises in linen clothes, and these two looked as if they had just won a trolley dash through the local branch.
The man, in his late 40s I guessed, had a silvering mullet to match his flowing linen trousers and open-necked shirt. He stopped to snuggle the girlfriend, about 10 years younger in a floaty white sundress, and then snatched her hand in both of his to plant an adoring kiss.
Luckily for me, elbow deep in a plate of fresh anchovies drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice, I have a strong constitution. I returned to my fishy lunch, the speciality of that pretty fishing port of Collioure. In any case, you must be prepared to stomach overt displays of amour fou here: the town has been inspiring romantics for generations.
Sandwiched between the French Pyrénées and the Mediterranean, it was to Collioure that Matisse and his Fauvist painter pals flocked in the early 20th century to capture the particular purity of the light there. Using large, expressive brushstrokes (they painted like 'fauves', or 'wild beasts') and brilliant colours, they chronicled the intensity of sunsets over the red cliffs of the Côte Vermeille. The works they have left behind are still vivid with the play of light over pastel-coloured houses and Catalan-style fishing boats bobbing in the harbour.
While our canoodling couple might have been more at home in a Jack Vettriano than a Fauvist masterpiece, they were clearly feeding off the painterly atmosphere of the place.
Galleries and artists' studios still line the narrow cobbled streets, although there is a definite commercial buzz to them these days. Collioure is essentially what this little department at the bottom westerly tip of France is all about. The 200km-long Côte Vermeille, and the Pyrénées-Orientale area to which it belongs, remains as beautiful and untouched as it was in Matisse's day.
More fool us that we have been blinded to its charms by the Côte d'Azur, its glitzier sister further up the Mediterranean coastline with its monster yachts and overcrowded resorts.
Situated so close to the Spanish border -- hence the Catalan influence on culture and food in the area -- it has been opening up to Irish visitors in recent years thanks to a number of low-cost air routes. Ryanair flies to Perpignan, which is the capital city of the Pyrénées- Orientales.
Another option is to fly with the same airline to Girona airport, just one hour's drive over the border in Spain. Another Irish-owned bit of entrepreneurship, the low-cost coach service Frogbus, shuttles passengers from Girona to Perpignan with great efficiency.
Budget-conscious travellers might already be canny to the attractions of the area, which has a long history as the campsite capital of southern France. The resort of Argelès-sur-Mer, with its grand sweeps of beachfront and parks, was a sort of primitive camping destination in the 19th century. The wealthy families built wedding-cake villas along the seafront, but when the town council planted pine trees to reclaim marshy tracts of land just slightly inland, they attracted local peasants and small farmers.
On their rare days of leisure they would flock there in covered wagons to enjoy lazy picnics and take respite in the cool sea breeze from the sweltering heat of the countryside. No doubt the villa owners were not at all impressed by this invasion of the ignobles.
These days you can carry on camping in the area -- although the facilities are far from plebeian. Five-star sites with swimming pools, fine restaurants and indoor leisure complexes are not uncommon, although it is more than possible to find modestly priced sites with little notice (apart from the last two weeks in August, when France descends en masse for its summer break).
If you can tear yourself from the campsite, there is plenty to interest those of an active disposition. The local tourism board has been smartly appropriating large areas of wilderness and appointing them nature reserves. During one brief walk on a bright autumn morning in the Mas Larrieu outside Argeles, we watched fish leap in an inviting, unpolluted freshwater lagoon and listened for the cries of the thekla lark. Were you so inclined you could even walk to Spain.
A more manageable proposition might be to hike the coastal path south from Argeles so that you might discover secluded beaches such as the blue-flagged Le Racou and march triumphantly into Collioure or Banyuls-sur-Mer, a town famous for its wine cellars and therefore the perfect place for a fortifying tipple.
If, like me, you spend most of your time indulging in the consistently brilliant local cuisine, you might be better off hauling your bloated self onto any one of the fun little cruisers that skirt the edge of the coast. They pause to let you take in breathtaking cliffs and picturesque port towns where the kings of Majorca scattered fortifications and summer retreats.
Eating like royalty was the highlight of my visit. I'm not sure if it's an individualism forged from the area's particular Catalan identity, but there is an immense sense of pride in anything perceived to be local. This might perpetuate itself in something like the fanaticism for the Perpignan rugby team (our usually soft-spoken guide Cecile was particularly voluble in her support for the lads).
The native pride is even more evident when it comes to cuisine. Well, this is France after all. They have Michelin-starred restaurants, for sure, but more important it seems is the local branch of the Toques Blanches (White Hats) association, a standard-bearing group run by local chefs themselves.
Le Cédrat, the restaurant of the president of Toques Blanches, Monsieur Jean Plouzennec, is bizarrely grafted onto the side of a casino on the road outside Le Boulou. But you quickly forget you are sitting across from a line of one-armed bandits when he serves up a five-course meal themed entirely on locally-bred duck and figs from his own garden.
This is the secret of this mysterious little departement: pleasure is around the most unlikely of corners.
Need to know
Ryanair (0818 303 030; ryanair.com) has opened up both the Pyrénées-Orientales and its neighbouring region of Languedoc-Roussillon with flights to Perpignan, Girona (in Spain) and Carcassonne. Irishman Joey Shannon has instigated a frequent and efficient coach service between Perpignan and Girona (about 85 minutes, with return tickets ¤20 on the bus or discounted if booked in advance on frogbus.com)
As well as camping options all over the region, there are some wonderful boutique hotels and converted farmhouse accommodation. I stayed at Auberge du Roua, a former winery homestead now stylishly reimagined. Breakfast and a truly delicious dinner are on the menu. Doubles start at ¤95 in high season but fall during the winter (0033 468 958 585; aubergeduroua.com)
WHERE TO EAT
In the Pyrenees-Orientales, set some of the budget aside to indulge at any of the Toques Blanches restaurants listed at toques-blanches-du-roussillon. com. My waistband was tested several times, notably at Le Cédrat in Le Boulou (0033 468 830 120), La Littorine in Banyuls-sur-Mer (0033 468 880 312) and La Galinette in Perpignan (0033 468 350 090).
WHEN TO GO
Late winter can be rough if storms hit, but March to October is a wonderful season in which to visit. Beware of August, when the French descend en masse.
FIVE THINGS TO DO IN THE PYRÉNÉES-ORIENTALES
Walk the Côte Vermeille. The track along the vermilion-coloured coast is easy to follow; alternatively, the Argeles tourist office (0033 468 811 585) runs three-hour guided tours for just a few euro, from April to September.
Cast an artist’s eye on Céret. Like Collioure, the town has a tradition of inspiring and housing artists, most notably Picasso. The museum of modern art at 8 Boulevard Marechal Joffre has a wonderful collection by those who have passed through its medieval streets.
Visit a dynamite factory. Or rather, the site of the former Alfred Nobel dynamite factory at Paulilles. Nestled between Cape Bear and Cape Oullestrell on the rocky coastline, another huge nature reserve has been established here. The tranquillity of the place is all the more poignant for the on-site museum dedicated to factory workers who died in explosive accidents or as a result of dealing with toxic substances before it closed in 1984. (Museum: 0033 468 952 340.)
Spot a flamingo: As well as the impressive reserve at Mas Larrieu, the salt marshes half an hour further north at Canet en Roussillon are worth a visit, not least because they come alive in summer with flocks of pink flamingos.
An afternoon in Perpignan: You could spend days exploring the ancient city of Perpignan, but an afternoon will at least give you a taste for its curious mix of Catalan and French influence. See the Palace of the Kings of Majorca, or simply sit on a terrasse café in the pedestrianised old town.