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
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.
SEA OR SNOW
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.
TOWNIE OR COUNTRY
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 ( perpignanproperties.com), 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.
ARTY OR FOODIE
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