independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Where aches just melt away

The jagged green and black ridges of the Pyrenees slip softly into the azure of the Mediterranean. Cut deep into the steeped slopes is the ancient and lion-coloured town of Collioure. It was once a great citadel, from where knights embarked for the Holy Land.

The Chateau Royal de Collioure was built by the Knights Templar in the 13th Century and atop its high, wide ramparts defenders kept watch for invaders from the sea. Picasso, Matisse and other great artists once came to commit the town and its seascape to canvas. Its invaders are of a more sybaritic nature now: as I relax on a wall in the basin of its harbour, a white motor yacht pulls up near me, on it a young women sips wine, her long mantis-like legs propped upon the stern.

I, along with a dozen others, have come 15 miles or so from Canet-en-Roussillon ('Canet' for short) at great speed. We travelled on jet skis, and Collioure is our rendezvous point. We had left little more than half an hour before, skipping over the then calm sea at speeds close to 50mph. Then, with all our vessels assembled, we head back.

The sea brims with a white foamy menace. As I dive down into the low of the trough of the waves, great spits of salt water sting my eyes and mouth. Where once it was a trip of adventure, it was now one of endurance.

The trip takes its toll. My thumbs are bloodied and seared, as if branded with hot irons, and my arms and lower back ache with a rheumatic-like pain probably more familiar to a man of 78 than 28. So would I do it again? In a heartbeat! Canet also offers other aqua adventures, including jet boats and jet packs, so a stern constitution is imperative.

Canet is itself a town of little more than 11,000 which swells in the summer months, particularly along its fringe, where many well-appointed campsites are located. The butter and mustard-coloured seafront blocks were mostly built in the Sixties and Seventies, there is a fidelity to function rather than form, and one could be forgiven for forming the impression that it's just another faceless, soulless resort town. It's not.

Canet is only seven miles from Perpignan and its airport, and we arrive at our hotel, The Host and Vinum, in bright sunshine, hot and dry, that touches 30 degrees. The hotel was recently renovated and the decor is now an interesting combination of antique and rural, modern and urban – a brave and brilliant combination. Tucked among terracotta-roofed houses, it's only a short stroll to the beach.

After a few hours sampling local beers on the hotel terrace, we leave for a local vineyard and estate, the Domaine Lafage. In the summer months the estate resounds to dulcet tones of brass. It's Jazz Night, a night popular with the great and the good of local society.

The estate wine was sweet and smooth and was enjoyed by all. The food was simple, austere even, but nonetheless delectable.

That black pudding could taste so sublime testifies much to another cliche, French culinary skill.

The next morning, we had our jet ski session and after it, it was a group of stiff holidaymakers who took up our seats at the Estelle del Mar Beach Club where we had lunch – seafood salad, steak and a selection of delicious desserts, all of it washed down with much wine, sweet and smooth like the night before.

We then had another little rest on the beach. The beach at Canet is wide, long and clean; perfect for visitors who would rather laze under a parasol all day.

The unabashed French attitude to semi-nudity was alive and well as olive-skinned men and women frolicked on the beach while leaving little to the imagination. It was time for a swim.

The warm waves broke gently upon the shore as smiling swimmers bobbed slowly up and down. I could have spent hours there, just lying on my back, looking up at the seashell sky, suspending thoughts in a moment of pure escapism. However, there was more to see and do.

Located at the harbour's edge, the aquarium is home to more than 350 species from more than five continents, including sharks, piranhas, blowfish, all of which were fascinating. In the evening we return to the harbour for a cruise aboard the Navivoile, a large yellow-hulled catamaran.

We sailed east as the warm breeze caught the sail, pushing us forward with great purpose. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the distant shore lights up in to a string of pearls, bright and white, scattered with the odd emerald and ruby of some hip bar or restaurant.

An incandescent moment of introspection was interrupted by the high pitched yell of a nearby baby.

We made land after nine and drove to the Thalasso-Spa Les Flamants Roses for dinner. Ten of us dined in the still warm air as young men and women played volleyball on the beach below.

The food was excellent, especially the scallops. The chef comes to pay his respects, and returns to his kitchen, his ears ringing through with praise and endorsement.

The final day started with a trip to a lagoon, where pencil-legged flamingos strutted in the shallows. The cracking scrub near the shore is dotted with small reed and chestnut cottages, in which local fishermen lived in until the 1950s.

Next on the itinerary was Canet old village, which lies in the foothills of the Pyrenees, just a mile or two north of the sea. Cobbled streets run from its base to the ridge, where from ancient walls and turrets you can look down upon the La Salanque plain, which stretches far to the periphery.

Broad-chested buildings skirt the village's noble square. They are built from 'cayrou', a local red brick, and edged with marble, and asparagus ceramic drainpipes; a uniquely Catalan style.

Under the arches, local artisans have their shops, while the pious pray in the 14th-Century church of Saint Jaques, popular with pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela. If there's a postcard pastiche of French Catalonia, then the old village is it.

The final stop on our trip was at an arboretum. It is planted with rare plants and trees from all over the world.

Thick-leafed olive terraces adjoin fig trees, eucalyptus and cacti; a treat for anyone with a greenish hue to their fingers.

There was just about time for figs and an aperitif, and for a proud and poetic Catalan to tell me of the virtues of the olive tree, that most versatile and resilient of trees, which yields more than one might first suspect, much like Canet and its people.

GETTING THERE

Aer Lingus has three flights weekly to Perpignan from Dublin. Rooms at the three-star Host and Vinum start at €75 per night, or €105 per night based on two sharing with breakfast included. Rooms at the four-star Thalasso-Spa Les Flamants Roses start at €140 per night, tel: +33 4 68 51 60 60, www.hotel-flamants-roses.com. For more information on Canet-en-Roussillon and its attractions visit www.ot-canet.fr

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