Because of our 6 weeks’ hard labour, because the weather here is so unseasonably gorgeous, and most of all, because it was Mal’s birthday yesterday, we decided on a Mid-Week Break. A friend had just posted some photos of the sea at Collioure, radiant in the early spring sunshine, and we thought we’d like an off-season visit too. The Pyrénées Orientales are nearly always sunny, with high temperatures and blue skies, even if we’re shivering over here, so we never bothered to check the forecast. Big mistake.
Half way through our journey to the coast, the mist descended. The sky turned pale, then grey. The temperature fell. Sea mist, we thought. It’ll burn off. It didn’t.
So our afternoon consisted in making the best of a bad job. Which worked. Rather than stop for lunch first at Collioure, which we feared might be closed for business, winter, mid-week, we went on to Port-Vendre. This is still a busy fishing port, with tuna and sardine canning factories, so we had the idea that we’d be lunching with fishermen in oilskins. Well, not at all actually, but fishy menus are centre stage, and we ate well – very well.
Then we came back to Collioure. As we’d thought, nearly everything was closed, and without the sun to add sparkle and joie de vivre, we contented ourselves with an invigorating walk along the front before moving on: this is a region with plenty to offer.
This is Catalan France. It’s been ruled by Spain, by France, back and forth over the centuries, and many of its current inhabitants fled from Spain during the Franco regime, so it does have a very Spanish feel. The frequent change of rule means that many bloody battles have taken place here too, and back in the 13th century, the fortified town of Elne suffered cruelly. Under Catalan rule at the time, the troops of French king Philip the Hardy laid waste the town. The townspeople fled to the traditional sanctuary of the church. There the soldiers killed the menfolk, raped the women before the altar, and flung small children against the walls before burning the church, which still bears scorch marks on the main doorway. It was this church, Sainte-Eulalie and its cloister we’d come to see. The church itself is a strikingly simple Romanesque building, beautifully lit and inviting quiet contemplation. It’s a little reminiscent of Durham Cathedral, but on a more domestic scale. The cloisters are really special. Partly Romanesque, partly Gothic, the capitals and pillars have been immaculately carved with foliage, animals and biblical scenes still in crisp and fresh condition. It’s a lovely, quiet place.
We stayed the night at a traditional Catalan 19th century farmhouse, Mas Bazan. After a night in our elegantly simple room, we enjoyed a ‘bio’ breakfast of home made cake and jams, newly baked bread, and the company of our stimulating and cheery hostess. It was she who planned our day for us, suggesting things we might enjoy.
The misty weather limited our choices to some degree, but we had two highlights. As we left the coast, we climbed upwards into the scrubby, shrubby Mediterranean hillside which we now know is called ‘maquis’, rather than ‘garrigue’, because the soils are different in each. And we spotted in the distance our first destination, Castelnou, not destined to be twinned with Newcastle. A mediaeval castle and village appeared through the mist, with beyond, tantalizing glimpses of the massif of the Canigou. As we wandered round the village, a few minutes later, we wondered who would choose to live in such a picturesque museum, overrun with tourists in summer, its several restaurants and craft showrooms overflowing, while in winter nothing, apparently, happens.
We had lunch in Ille-sur-Têt, which also has medieval streets, but ordinary small town life goes on there: it’s no tourist showpiece. We’d come to see Les Orgues, north of the town. These take the form of an amphitheatre of cliffs which the elements have eroded, and continue to erode, into extraordinary columns and pillars. It’s arid, quite desert like, and quite ephemeral in that it’s constantly changing as the sand from which these structures are formed wears away and is re-deposited. The photos I took record them as they are at the moment. In a few years they’ll be different again.
And then we wound our way home, on a series of snaking backroads through the maquis. The nearer to the Ariège we got, the hotter the sun became, the bluer the sky. It’s not supposed to work like that.