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The thinking person's alternative to the French Riviera

The beach at Canet-en-Roussillon
The beach at Canet-en-Roussillon Credit: Laure F - Fotolia

In France’s “Deep South”, a Catalan territory known as “Roussillon”, the Pyrenees end abruptly at the Mediterranean, creating cliffs and creeks, corniches, valleys and slopes so steep that vineyards are vertical. The region accounts itself extreme, fierce of sun, colour and temperament, given to the playing of rugby, the eating of anchovies and the cultivation of moustaches. 

Starting point Perpignan – like a spruce reformed drunk – is a revelation: shaved, articulate and shiny of complexion. Not long ago, the town wore an air of mild desperation. It over-relied, too, on Salvador Dali’s claim that Perpignan station was the centre of the universe. (It isn’t. It isn’t even the centre of Perpignan but a long slog out to a banal spot.) Frayed from the edges through to the middle, the city had more history from around the Med than it could handle. Up top, the vast fortress palace had hosted the 13th-century Majorcan kings when they were in charge.

Later, it defended Spain against the French; then, switching countries in 1659, France against Spain. Its red-brick and river-stone monumentality remains indiscriminately pugnacious. Frankly, whoever you are, I truly wouldn’t attack Perpignan.

Lower down, the past now presses in on sinuous old streets, the better to concentrate the present. Last time through, years ago, I wouldn’t have left a Rottweiler unattended in some of these alleys. Now there was buzz and bustle, jazz on street corners and infants slipping parental hands to bop and scamper. On the great central Place de la République, a real life of space, strollers and café terraces had replaced the car park. Surrounding pedestrian streets had a satisfaction of proper shops – butchers and bakers, bright and genuine.

The recently renovated Hyacinthe Rigaud Fine Arts Museum hosts Picasso through Dufy, not to mention great pieces by local fellow Rigaud himself. He painted the portrait of Louis XIV en majesté, the one that has the Sun King fixing to replace God. Then again, Rigaud was surely predestined. If you’re called “Hyacinthe”, you really need to be good at painting.

"Perpignan, not long ago, wore an air of mild desperation. Now it's a revelation: shaved, articulate and shiny of complexion" Credit: GETTY

In the cathedral, the altarpiece – high as a three-storey house – gleamed with gold-leaf through the gloom, evidence of the Baroque Mediterranean belief that God’s listening only if you’re shouting. 

And these days the Gothic grandeur of the town hall didn’t look out of place; on the contrary, it summed things up admirably. Over dinner at Casa Sansa – a Catalan brasserie crammed with mirrors, a waltz of waiters and photos of unknown celebs – we talked rugby. 

Union and league codes apparently remain at one another’s throats, which was good to hear: traditional blood rivalries need sustaining. Uniquely in France, league is in the ascendant. The Catalans Dragons feature in RL’s Super League, and beat Warrington Wolves in the 2018 Challenge Cup Final, while Perpignan’s formerly first-rate 15-man outfit was just relegated to French union’s second division.

If you’re called “Hyacinthe”, you really need to be good at painting Credit: ALAMY

Later, I bobbed into a bar or two near the Castillet, the red-brick town gate now abandoned by its ramparts. Though it was late, we were numerous.

More than any British city I know, Perpignan centre seems in ceaseless need of celebration. If there isn’t one to hand, Tuesday night will do. Catalans are convivial. Even winter doesn’t stop them, just makes them wrap warmer and move faster.

Further south is the Côte Vermeille (Vermilion coast). I drove, but you’d arrive as easily by bus. This gets you to all key points for about a quid. Don’t hesitate. The coast is the glory of Roussillon. Ever since the Rhône delta, the Languedoc littoral has been flat. From Argelès, it suddenly sprouts rocks, mountains and the creeks mentioned earlier. Roads wind up and down and around and around – and drop into Collioure, the start of the thinking person’s Riviera. Rooted beauty cloaks the slopes, à la Côte-d’Azur but lacks Brazilian bankers, Bono and Russian billionaires. The place belongs to Catalans, not the international flotsam and jetsam.

The village of Villefranche-de-Conflent, inland from Perpignan Credit: GETTY

Fortresses top circling hills; folk long feared assault from the sea, when the Med was a menace and not a leisure facility. The biggest of all, the Château Royal, rises bang in town, its stone dominance lending gravitas to seaside frivolity. I flitted around it – this took a while – then roamed out to Notre-Dame-des-Anges church at the end of the quay, and on to the steep old town of cottages multi-coloured with paint left over from re-doing the fishing boats. In 1905, Matisse and Dérain roamed similarly about Collioure. They wrought the extreme light, sea and furious colours into fauvism.

So to anchovies, Collioure’s source of modern renown. It is important to understand that Collioure anchovies are not the sort found on pizzas. They are plumper and, according to a local lady, “anchovies of elegance”.

The Roque family has been in anchovies since 1870 (anchois-roque.com). At their premises on the Route-d’Argelès, I was handed the best-ever anchovy recipe: toast some country bread, grate on garlic, add a few rounds of tomato, some olive oil – then lay the anchovies on top. I’ve tried it. Waste no more time.

Collioure Credit: FOTOLIA/RICHARD SEMíK

Long after nightfall, I wandered the seafront in the lee of the chateau, the curve of the bay picked out by lights, palm trees half-seen and a suspicion of mountains beyond. The whole fostered a pleasing conspiracy among fellow shadow amblers. Then I pushed the door of a PMU bar, the sort that doubles as betting premises. “Betting carries risks,” said the imposed warning sign. Of becoming loud, bristly and toothless, apparently. I was welcomed warmly.

Over a few headlands, Paulilles seems the sort of isolated, wild and pristine bay where you’d come upon castaways, penguins or some other Mediterranean rarity. No surprise, then, that until recently it hosted a dynamite factory. That is the Catalan way: beauty punctuated by explosions. From the 1870s, 300-400 workers lived and worked on a site chosen because it was far from the German frontier. Aside from the risk of being blown to smithereens – 30 employees died in accidents – working conditions were terrific. 

The Côte Vermeille Credit: GETTY

The dynamite was shipped out from the bay until factory closure in the Eighties. The premises were demolished, only a scattering of buildings remaining. Otherwise, the 75-acre site, promontory to promontory, has been reclaimed for boars, birds and bio-diversity agogo. It is a stirring spot to walk, with a little exhibition recalling the great days of dynamite-driven paternalism.

Beneath slopes, Banyuls slots sweetly into its bay, promising the happiest of family holidays. It is known for three things: powerfully sweet wines (vins doux naturels), as birthplace of sculptor Aristide Maillol and as the last stop before wartime refugees crossed the Pyrenees to Spain and the possibility of freedom. One may take in all these by moving out of town, inland along the Roume valley. Here was the way refugees trekked before beginning the Pyrenean climb. In 1940, they included German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin. He indeed got across the border to Portbou. There, fearing he was going to be sent back, he killed himself.

His route would have taken him past the valley home of Maillol, a sculptor with the bearded leprechaun look of George Bernard Shaw. Maillol’s speciality was full and powerful nude women – which is OK when you’re an artist. His home, now a museum, abounds with sketches and statues of same. Though Rodin was an admirer, the works look mournful to me. Above Maillol’s garden grave is a version of his La Méditerranée, a naked woman seated, with elbow on raised knee. “Young, luminous and noble,” says the blurb. Suicidal, I’d say.

I drove on. The road narrowed, the hillsides closed in. Vineyards were now claustrophobic, perpendicular and rising to unlikely altitudes, as if planted by eagles. The Berta-Maillol wine domain (bertamaillol.com) has had a presence here since 1611, perhaps earlier. The owners explained that, like sherry, Banyuls wine had dropped so far out of fashion as to be invisible. Now, it was coming back, with young adults abandoning whisky and vodka for their French roots. As you’d expect, their wines are spectacularly good, notably with foie gras or blue cheese. 

Getting there

Fly to Perpignan from Stansted, Birmingham (both ryanair.com) or Southampton (flybe.com). 

Staying there

Jammed into Perpignan centre, the two-star Hotel de la Loge has character to spare (doubles from around £50; 0033 468 344102, hoteldelaloge.com). In Collioure, try Casa Païral (doubles from around £75; 0033 468 820581, hotel-casa-pairal.com) or La Frégate (doubles from around £50; 0033 468 820605, fregate-collioure.com).

Eating there

In Perpignan, Casa Sansa is the reference point for bustling Catalan cooking (2 Rue Fabrique-d’en-Nadal, 0033 468 504801). Crammed into Collioure’s old centre, Masashi Iijima’s Le Cinquième Péché marries Catalan to Japanese cuisine (18 Rue Fraternité, 0033 468 980976).