Keen to ex­pe­ri­ence life in the sunny south of France but with­out the crowds and prices of the Côte d’Azur? You could al­ways con­sider Pyrénées-Ori­en­tales, says So­phie Gard­ner-Roberts as she soaks up sun­shine and Catalan cul­ture in neigh­bour­ing Oc­c­i­tanie

Living France - - Contents -

Soak up sun­shine and Catalan cul­ture in the sunny south of France

The south of France means dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple. For some it is the mes­meris­ingly blue wa­ters of the Côte d’Azur or the sound of the ci­cadas try­ing to keep cool in the bak­ing heat of Provence, for oth­ers it’s the swirling waves crash­ing against the At­lantic coast around Biar­ritz or the Cathar vil­lages and cas­tles of the old Langue­doc re­gion.

But there is an­other south of France. You’ll find it in Pyrénées-Ori­en­tales, now part of the Oc­c­i­tanie re­gion and it is the depart­ment’s his­tory and her­itage that set it apart. It sits, in fact, at the coun­try’s most south­ern point, on the bor­der with Spain and has a coast­line on the Mediter­ranean. It is one of the few French de­part­ments to boast long sandy beaches, rocky coastal coves, a vast agri­cul­tural area, sweep­ing planes, mid-range moun­tains and high-altitude peaks, all within the same ter­ri­tory.

Un­til the Treaty of the Pyre­nees in 1659, it was part of the Prin­ci­pal­ity of Cat­alo­nia within the Crown of Aragon and there­fore part of the King­dom of Spain, and be­fore that it was part of the King­dom of Ma­jorca. The prov­ince was an­nexed to the French ter­ri­tory in 1659 and re­named ‘Rous­sil­lon’, its old, his­tor­i­cal name. Fi­nally, dur­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion of 1790, it was named Pyrénées-Ori­en­tales but de­spite the at­tach­ment to France and ef­forts to gal­li­cize its peo­ple, in­hab­i­tants re­mained res­o­lutely at­tached to their Catalan roots.

This event­ful past is still ev­i­dent to­day in the cul­tural her­itage of Pyrénées-Ori­en­tales: the depart­ment is also known as Cat­a­logne Nord (north­ern Cat­alo­nia), Catalan is spo­ken rel­a­tively widely and even taught in lo­cal schools and of course its shared bor­der with Spain in­tro­duces plenty of Span­ish in­flu­ence, not least in the lo­cal gas­tron­omy.


So, a fas­ci­nat­ing cul­tural her­itage and a var­ied land­scape pro­vide a very di­verse life­style in Pyrénées-Ori­en­tales and ex­pat­sto-be have plenty of choice. The coast is mostly made of long, flat, white sandy beaches, loved by fam­i­lies, and dot­ted with sea­side re­sorts such as Argelès-sur-Mer, St-Cy­prien and Canet-en-Rous­sil­lon. The beaches are sev­eral kilo­me­tres long so you rarely have to fight for your place on the sand and there are plenty of wa­ter­based ac­tiv­i­ties and sports to en­joy on the gen­tle sea of the Med.

From the port of Col­lioure, the Côte forms a se­ries of jagged rocky bays un­til it reaches Spain. It’s a beau­ti­fully pre­served coast­line where you’ll find lit­tle fish­ing har­bours and vine­yards dip­ping their roots al­most right into the sea.

The south-east­ern part of the depart­ment is dom­i­nated by the lush Al­bères Mas­sif, low for­est-topped moun­tains which boast some short but calf-strain­ing hik­ing paths, with far­reach­ing views of the coast and, of course, the Pyrénées moun­tains – a won­der­ful re­ward for your ef­forts. The Parc Na­turel Ré­gional des Pyrénées Cata­lanes spreads over most of the western sec­tion of the depart­ment but the Pic du Canigou, the high­est point in the area at 2,785m, is ever vis­i­ble, even from the coast, dar­ing you to reach its snowy sum­mit.

Trails for hik­ing and moun­tain bik­ing abound in the area and the lower ranges and foothills of the moun­tains make th­ese ac­ces­si­ble to all fit­ness lev­els. There are six ski re­sorts in Pyrénées-Ori­en­tales, mostly in the west, lo­cated at an altitude be­tween 1,500m and 2,700m. The ‘Neiges Cata­lanes’ ski pass pro­vides ac­cess to all six re­sorts. In the win­ter, you could eas­ily be ski­ing in the morn­ing, sun­bathing on the coast in the af­ter­noon and back for din­ner at home in the same day.

For those want­ing to see the moun­tains at a gen­tler pace and in com­fort, the iconic Petit Train Jaune (Lit­tle Yel­low Train) takes pas­sen­gers on a breath­tak­ing scenic jour­ney up to the Catalan Pyre­nees. The 63km-long train line is the high­est in Europe and serves 22 sta­tions be­tween Ville­franche/Ver­net-les-Bains/Fuilla and La­tour-de-Carol/En­veitg.


The largest town is Per­pig­nan, the de­part­men­tal pré­fec­ture, home to just over 118,000 peo­ple. What the sub­urbs lack in charm and char­ac­ter the old cen­tre more than makes up for, and has earned the town a list­ing as a Ville d’Art et d’His­toire. Dom­i­nated by the Palace of the Kings of Ma­jorca, the his­toric cen­tre is made up of nar­row, wind­ing cob­bled streets and boasts lots of parks and foun­tains, while two rivers – la Têt and la Basse – slice through it. Be­ing rel­a­tively small and com­pact, it’s ideal for ex­plor­ing on foot.

Land­ing in Per­pig­nan 10 years ago was the spark that ig­nited Caro­line Man­son’s love for the area. As a long-term Fran­cophile, Caro­line knew she would live in France one day and a trawl through bud­get air­lines landed her in Pyrénées-Ori­en­tales. “We started off with a lock-upand-leave apart­ment in Per­pig­nan’s town cen­tre which is a great cen­tral lo­ca­tion with easy trans­port links to the beach, the moun­tains and Spain,” she ex­plains.

Work­ing as a prop­erty finder, one day Caro­line came across a villa with a hectare of land and in need of con­sid­er­able ren­o­va­tion work. She didn’t show it to her clients and the next thing she knew, she had bought it. “From be­ing a real ‘townie’ I now love noth­ing more than walk­ing in the coun­try­side with the dogs, and have al­most swapped my stilet­tos for welling­tons!” she says. “I was a bit ner­vous about how the lo­cal ‘Catalan’ vil­lagers would ac­cept an English wo­man, but they could not have been friend­lier, and I even ended up play­ing in the lo­cal ten­nis tour­na­ment – in the men’s team!”

Caro­line is now an in­de­pen­dent prop­erty con­sul­tant ( per­pig­nan­prop­er­, help­ing the English­s­peak­ing com­mu­nity with any­thing prop­erty-re­lated, from hol­i­day ren­tals and sales to pur­chases and ren­o­va­tions.

The other com­munes of Pyrénées-Ori­en­tales are mostly small; few towns ex­ceed 10,000 in­hab­i­tants so if a ru­ral, coun­try life is what you seek, this could be the area of France for you.

Per­haps the best known vil­lage (and a very sought-af­ter lo­ca­tion) is the charm­ing port of Col­lioure. With its recog­nis­able small round tower and the Château Royal dom­i­nat­ing the har­bour where colour­ful Catalan fish­ing boats bob in the wa­ter, it is fa­mous for its de­li­cious an­chovies and the port area is busy with tourists. Ven­ture up into the steep streets and you can find respite from the crowds as well as per­fect views of the lit­tle bay.

In­land, you’ll find sleepy vil­lages such as Laroque-des-Al­bères and Sorède that have more of a Pyre­nean moun­tain vil­lage feel, yet are just 15 min­utes from the sea.


In the early 20th cen­tury, Col­lioure also played host to a num­ber of artists who were at­tracted to the ex­cep­tional light and colours that bounce off the hills, beaches and sea. While the lit­tle port was a cen­tre for Fau­vism art – there are sev­eral gal­leries and a mu­seum in Col­lioure – Céret, about 35km west, is said to be the birth­place of Cu­bism. Artists in­clud­ing Ge­orges Braque and Pi­casso spent sev­eral years in this mod­est vil­lage which be­came a ma­jor artis­tic cen­tre. It is set in France’s most south­ern val­ley, the val­lée du Valle­spir and now houses a mu­seum of mod­ern art of na­tional im­por­tance as well as sev­eral art gal­leries. As a sous-pré­fec­ture, with the busi­nesses and ad­min­is­tra­tive jobs this brings with it, Céret of­fers all the ameni­ties you need but re­mains tran­quil and pleas­ant with large plane trees pro­vid­ing wel­come shade in the sum­mer months. Vis­i­tors are drawn to the cas­tle and reg­u­larly stop to look at the im­pres­sive Pont du Di­able (the devil’s bridge).

As an area steeped in his­tory, there’s a wealth of her­itage sites and mon­u­ments to see through­out Pyrénées-Ori­en­tales, from Ne­olithic sites to Vauban for­ti­fi­ca­tions such as the one in Salses, in the north of the depart­ment. For those who need a cul­tural fix, your cal­en­dar will be packed with events and fes­ti­vals to en­joy: Les Défer­lantes, a big mu­sic fes­ti­val held in July in Argelès or Ida y Vuelta, a free mu­sic fes­ti­val show­cas­ing lo­cal tal­ents

The Château Royal dom­i­nates the har­bour where colour­ful fish­ing boats bob in the wa­ter

in Per­pig­nan, while Prades hosts the an­nual Catalan Sum­mer Univer­sity. For theatre buffs and con­cert-go­ers, Per­pig­nan has plenty of halls and stages such as El Me­di­a­tor and the Théâtre de l’Archipel.

Catalan tra­di­tions are cel­e­brated an­nu­ally too, in­clud­ing Per­pig­nan’s Sant Jordi open-air book fair in April and the Sanch Pro­ces­sion held in sev­eral towns on Good Fri­day. Food­ies can head to Col­lioure’s an­chovy fes­ti­val or the Dionysi­ades, a cel­e­bra­tion of wines from the Agly val­ley in May.

Speak­ing of food, lo­cal spe­cial­i­ties abound here. An­chovies, mar­i­nated or salted, are found around Col­lioure; around the cor­ner sweet for­ti­fied red wine is pro­duced in the Banyuls vine­yards; fur­ther up, the Mus­cat de Rivesaltes is a sweet white wine best sipped with dessert or a strong cheese. The land is pep­pered with fruit trees heavy with juicy apri­cots, peaches and cher­ries. Dishes are heav­ily in­spired by Catalan in­flu­ences and gen­er­ously flavoured with spices and herbs, and who hasn’t closed their eyes and sighed with de­light when tuck­ing into a creamy crème cata­lane?


While the sea, moun­tains and prox­im­ity to Spain orig­i­nally at­tracted Steven and Denise Brady to Pyrénées-Ori­en­tales, it was the friend­li­ness of the lo­cals and the his­tory of the area that ul­ti­mately won them over. Af­ter vis­it­ing the area for 25 years, the cou­ple moved to Céret in Jan­uary this year now that their chil­dren have flown the nest, and they are lov­ing ev­ery mo­ment of their time.

“We’ve tried ev­ery re­gion of France and this is our favourite,” they ex­plain. “We are par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in this re­gion’s strate­gic role dur­ing times of con­flict and the mi­gra­tion of peo­ple across the bor­der.

“The lo­cal peo­ple are open and friendly, and very down-to-earth. We feel this part of France is very sim­i­lar to north-west Eng­land, only with fewer fac­to­ries and chim­neys, bet­ter beaches and a warmer cli­mate! We’ve de­cided to live in France so we want to live like the French, oth­er­wise it’s just Eng­land with more sun­shine.”

Steven and Denise are rugby en­thu­si­asts and ea­gerly fol­low rugby league. The sport is very pop­u­lar in the area and Per­pig­nan’s league team, the Catalan Dragons have been per­form­ing well, plus there are al­ways some good ama­teur games to watch too.

With its ex­cep­tional lo­ca­tion and en­vi­ron­ment, Pyrénées-Ori­en­tales seems to be the per­fect place for those who like the good things in life and want a flex­i­ble life­style which gives them the chance to do some­thing dif­fer­ent and new ev­ery day.

“It never ceases to amaze me how di­verse the area is – sandy beaches, vine­yards and or­chards, lakes and rivers, and, of course, the snow-capped Pyrénées in the dis­tance; not for­get­ting the ‘du­tyfree’ shop­ping just over the bor­der in Spain!” says Caro­line Man­son. “I can’t imag­ine liv­ing any­where else.”

De­part­men­tal préféc­ture Per­pig­nan is a Ville d’Art et d’His­toire

A view of the Pic du Canigou

Left: The ter­raced vine­yards where AOC Banyuls sweet wine is pro­duced

Above: En­joy­ing a leisurely stroll along a quiet street in Col­lioure

The port of Col­lioure with views of the Château Royal and the St-Elme fort

cata­lane Tra­di­tional crème

The age­ing process of Banyuls sweet wine

Above and be­low: The charm­ing cob­bled streets are lined with colour­ful houses

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