Nestled in the far south of Mediterranean France, this stretch of the coast is far from the crowds of the Riviera. Its dramatic rugged coastline is peppered by idyllic bays, inlets and headlands. The effortlessly scenic coastal road affords sweeping views of vineyards tumbling to the water’s edge. Whilst quieter and more sedate than its glitzier cousin, one would be pushed to call this coast quiet in the peak summer season. Favoured by domestic French tourists as well as northern Europeans, the Cote Vermeille is where Catalan culture meets France, creating a unique cultural melee.
At its heart lies the picturesque town of Collioure. The St Tropez of the west, this beautifully positioned resort is protected from the strongest of winds that often scour this coastline by a rocky headland and harbour wall that creates a natural safe harbour. Whilst the car is best avoided in the environs of Collioure, especially in the summer season, the town is very walkable. The atmospheric narrow streets are crowded with eclectic independent shops, and the wrought iron balconies, shuttered windows and buildings of various pastel shades are a delight. Any visitor will likely gravitate to the Boulevard du Boramar which curves past the immense Chateau Royal to the waterfront and its beach. Here, the unique setting of Collioure, set around a placid bay and framed by rolling hills is revealed in all its glory. As well as the menacing bastions of the Chateau Royal to the immediate south of the old town, the other principle landmark of Collioure is the Eglise Notre Dame-des-Anges. This church is uniquely positioned jutting out into the bay, as if moored, reflecting the symbiotic relationship between the sea and the land in this corner of France. It is this view that was so inspiring to countless celebrated artists from Matisse to Derain, and it is not difficult to feel similarly inspired.
Heading towards the Spanish frontier from Collioure, the coast ebbs and flows around several small harbour towns. From the pretty resort town of Banyuls-Sur-Mer to Port Vendres. Port Vendres in particular makes for an interesting stop. Home to a deep water port and a long established fisheries industry, this somewhat unassuming town has had a colourful history. The classic black and white photos on the quayside are a reminder of the importance of the port during the colonial era, and the town was of similarly strategic importance to the Nazis during the German occupation. Scottish architect and artist, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, was so taken by his time here that his final wish was to have his ashes scattered in the bay of Port Vendres.
Approaching the Spanish border, one feels the greatest allure of travel itself, the thrill of crossing an international border. This has been somewhat dulled in the era of Schengen where borders are marked by mere country signs. Whilst this has made travelling within Europe extremely easy, it has taken away the nostalgia of crossing a frontier, passport in hand.
The town of Cerbere is France’s last outpost, and even in the post Schengen age, has the feel of a transient border town. This is in large part to its role as a railway interchange between the different French and Spanish gauge railways. Indeed, the road that meanders towards the border from Cerbere provides a fascinating panorama of the tangle of railway lines set into the hillside below. Any passing visitor to Cerbere will likely be struck by the Belvedere du Rayon Vert, an Art Deco edifice and an aide-memoire of the golden age of rail travel. Completed in 1932, this railway hotel was designed by architect Leon Baille and in its heyday housed a tennis court on the roof and its own cinema. Nowadays, it is suffering from neglect and is a protected historic monument, however even in its current state, its curves and arches still draw the eye, testament to architecture more akin to New York’s flat iron building than a small harbour town in southern France. Such unexpected finds reflect the long and fascinating history that characterises this rugged coastline.
A deserted border outpost at the top of the hill is the only remaining marker of the French-Spanish border, however there is a sense of occasion crossing between these two great European nations. This mountainous border region has seen its fair share of historic flows of people, most prominently the infamous flow of some 500,000 Republican refugees from Franco’s Spain in 1939, known as ‘The Retreat.’ For this coastline is steeped in history, and has played a strategic role through the course of several different civilisations. Whilst it may not have the gleaming resorts of the Riviera, it is all the richer for it. Characterised by quaint small seaside towns, bays and headlands and sweeping vistas, this less publicised stretch of the Mediterranean is certainly worth a second look.
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