France’s ‘Catalan’ corner
Before visiting this little corner of France bordering Spain, Pays Catalans, I was unaware that the Catalan influence had spilled over to France. In fact, due to the history of this picturesque region, the Catalan connection in the French Roussillon province goes back centuries.
However, while the Spanish Catalans still retain a strong identity, the French Catalans have been more integrated into French culture and society – only around 100,000 Catalans still live in Pays Catalans and speak their own dialect; the rest speak French.
Driving down towards the Pyrenees, past Montpelllier, we finally see the sea. But, it’s not quite the picture of the Mediterranean that you imagine. Instead, there is a series of estuaries on one side of this flat, swampy looking stretch of land. However, there’s hope – in the distance, the majestic Pyrenees loom. Heading towards Canet, the landscape and uninspiring concrete holiday homes are not very appealing. There are heaps of activities from wine tasting to horse riding to kite surfing and kayaking, but at a first glance it just looks boring.
Slightly disappointed, we arrive in Canet-Plage which is where we’re going to base ourselves for the next few days. Canet has a long sandy beach but the town itself is nothing special, with its characterless cement-lined façade, unappetizing takeaway restaurants and lack of soul. However, for a family holiday it is probably an excellent choice – for its swimming-friendly beach with the mountains in the background and variety of activities.
Canet-Plage is a great base from which to explore neighboring gems – the stunning old towns of Collioure and Carcassonne, and you can also venture across the Pyreneesto the Spanish side to Costa Brava to explore places like Salvador Dali’s holiday favorite of Cadaqués.
For romantics and creative spirits alike
Collioure (pronounced Caulio) is a small town just 30 minutes drive from Canet Plage. With just a small text about it in our guidebook, we thought it would be a nice place to visit and enjoy some fresh fish French Catalan-style.
Well, you can’t help but fall in love with Collioure. It’s a beautiful town which became famous as a center for artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse in the early 20th century, inspired by its small, winding medieval streets, imposing castle, Mediterranean-style bay and small sandy coves. There’s also a 14th-century windmill. At night time, it is beautifully lit up and very romantic.
Collioure is also famous for its anchovies which are often considered the best in the world. Plenty of cozy restaurants and bars line its waterfront but it has still retained its intimate charm. However, in the peak summer times, the number of tourists can be a bit overwhelming.
When in Collioure, enjoy the fresh seafood which is cooked up Catalan-style and a drink on the waterfront with the gentle sound of the sea and to admire the beautifully lit up castle and streets. We dined at Copacabana which was excellent, especially the fresh flame-grilled shrimps and crème catalane – a local variation of crème brulee. However, the Catalans traditionally carmelize it with a special iron or under an iron broiler, rather than with a flame.
Collioure was taken by the French in 1642 and, due to its strategic location, its fortifications were strengthened by military engineer Vauban. In 1793 the Spanish besieged the town and the French won it back again a year later.
Shellfish paradise at Bouzigues
Lunch at Bouzigues is a must when in this area. A small pretty fishing village, near Sete, one of Southern France’s largest fishing ports, Bouzigues is famous for its shellfish. Around 500 meters from the waterfront restaurants, you can see the wooden stilts where they cultivate the oysters, lingoustines and mussels etc.
We try the bouillabaisse – a hearty concoction of fish, mussels, shrimps and a massive langoustine, served with toasted bread, garlic butter and gratinated cheese. I choose mussels – which I have been dreaming of for the past two days but, unfortunately, end up ordering moules farcies (stuffed mussels) by mistake. They were delicious but I’m still wondering how they managed to squeeze such a massive chunk of sausage into such a tiny mussel.
Viva la Espana
Crossing over the border between France and Spain, even though we’re still in the “Catalan” region, it’s very quiet on the Spanish side – villages lie deserted, new apartment and holiday home buildings lie unfinished, restaurants are closed and the feeling of recession looms everywhere. However, the well maintained and highly comfortable camping grounds along the Costa Brava are full with, mainly, German and Dutch caravans and tents.
The Costa Brava is everything that you expect from the postcards …. long, never-ending stretches of sandy beaches, turquoise-blue Mediterranean waters, colorful splashes of windsurfers and kite-surfers and abundant hotel resorts, holiday homes, apartment blocks and camping grounds. However, it also has plenty of cultural sites and beautiful spots off the beaten track.
Cadaqués – Dali’s holiday hangout
On the horizon we spot the white-washed buildings of Cadaqués with its red roofs and azure-blue shutters. At a first glance, it reminds us of a village in the Greek islands.
Cadaqués has long been a haunt of artists, sculptors and writers including Salvador Dali who spent much of his childhood here and kept a summer home here which is still open to the public today; it’s at Port Lligat, a bay next to the town.
In the early 20th century many people from Cadaqués left the sleepy fishing village to emigrate toCuba; they later returned after making their fortune and built large ornate villas in Cadaqués.
This town, even though just two hours from Barcelona and close to the French border, seems completely cut off from the outside world, partly due to its location in the hidden depths of the mountains on one side, and the rolling waves of the Mediterranean on the other.
Don’t miss: Fresh shellfish at Bouzigues; a cortado at a sleepy café in Cadaqués; Salvador Dali’s house near Cadaqués; shopping for handicrafts in Collioure; the medieval town of Carcassonne.