Since it was our last weekend all together in Andorra, Alexandra and I saw things pretty clearly - we needed to escape. After bringing up our seemingly impossible dream of driving around the very south of France to our friend Pere at dinner the other night, plans for just such a weekend quickly manifested. And so it was decided - Saturday morning Alex and I picked up some chocolate napolitanas and got on the bus to La Seu d'Urgell where Pere would pick us up in his car. Our destination - The Pyrénées-Orientales Department of Southern France, part of the larger Languedoc-Roussillon region.
Sometimes referred to as Northern Catalonia, this region just north of the Spanish border and on the Mediterranean was until the late 17th century part of Catalonia and thus historically Catalan-speaking. Catalan flags are everywhere, but alas the language has been largely displaced by French over the past few centuries. As we would discover, however, there is definitely a Catalan-speaking presence and we had several run-ins with individuals with at least some knowledge of Catalan.
Our initial journey of some three hours to Saint Cyprien, where we were staying for the night, took us through the
winding mountains roads of the Pyrenees - the views were obviously spectacular, especially now that everything is lush and green. Perhaps a third of the way in we made our first stop at the town of Villefranche-de-Conflent. The original town dates from 1098 and entirely fortified due to its location in lands that changed hands between French and Spanish occupation. Its walls are a UNESCO World Heritage site and part of the "Fortifications of Vauban", 12 groups of fortified buildings and sites along the western, northern and eastern borders of France. The town was incredibly well-preserved - it didn't take much for one to be able to envision medieval carriages passing through its gates. One of my favorite little things about the town were the black metal signs above various shops and restaurants depicting everything from sheep, to drinking from a porró, a typical Catalonian wine pitcher.
Continuing on our way we eventually reached our destination, the seaside commune of Saint-Cyprien or Sant Cebrià de Rosselló. We were starving but unfortunately it was too late for a real lunch as the kitchens of most restaurants were closed. We settled on a café on the beach and were able to
get some croque-monsieurs and, for Alex and I who weren't satisfied with just that, a banana split. The weather was beyond gorgeous and the Mediterranean was sparkling just behind us. After "lunch" we checked into our hotel, a decent place in Saint-Cyprien, before heading further south.
The rest of our day would be spent in Collioure (Catalan: Cotlliure), a spectacular town known for its beauty, art, wine, and typical Mediterranean bay. As we headed toward Collioure, and even beforehand, it became apparent that we were in major wine terrority, and that beautiful Pyrenean pine tries were slowly being replaced with sprawling vineyards - fine with me! Oftentimes the rows of grape vines would be marked with a rose bush at the end of each one, which I thought was rather fun.
We spent the afternoon exploring the town, whose perhaps most famous monument is the former lighthouse-turned-church Notre-Dame-des-Anges. Jutting out into the water, the Gothic-style church was built in 1648, with the characteristic dome being added in 1810. Also worth noting is the Château Royal de Collioure, a juxtaposition of at least four castles - a 1207 Knights Templar construction, a 13th-14th century building by the Kings of
Majorca, a 16th Century Spanish Habsburg fortress, and last a refortification by the French Bourbons in the 17th Century. Later it even became a prison! Of course I read this incredible history now - unfortunately we did not have the chance to tour the castle, but I'm happy I had the opportunity to see it up close at least.
Walking through the city Alexandra and I were having strong urges to buy ceramics, a craving that hadn't really been satisfied since our February ceramics binges in Andalusia and Morocco, respectively. As luck would have it we stumbled upon Casa Latina, a wonderful little shop owned by a Mexican woman and her French husband. As if the fact that our half-an-hour of drooling over her ceramics wasn't fun enough, we also had a fun little linguistic brain-fry in speaking English, Spanish, French, AND Catalan within that short period of time. Oh multilingualism...Anyway, we both could have bought the entire store but in the end we restrained ourselves. I ended up with a large serving bowl, pitcher, and vase for flowers, Alex with a rectangular serving dish and and large pitcher, and Pere with an oil pourer. If only we had
more space in our suitcases...
After our successful shopping trip we started looking for a place for dinner and eventually settled on a cute little restaurant on one of the colorful side streets. I had the pareillade de mer, a seafood grill with mussels, squid, prawns, two fish whose French names I didn't really know, and also a butter-drowned potato and little tomatoes and mushrooms stuffed with aioli. Yum. That, with a bottle of white wine and a roquefort and walnut salad made for a lovely little dinner. Afterwards we all got gelato (I got caramel au beurre salé) and sat on the water for a bit. Much to my HORROR, Alex and Pere wanted to stay and watch a French clown that was preparing for a short show, and so we did. While I must admit it wasn't too bad since all he really did was torture small French children and make them do stupid things, still I'd have much preferred an evening sans clown.
Exhausted from the day and all clowned-out, we headed back to the hotel for a good night's rest. What a day!
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