Thursday, 27 November 2014

A walk around Banyuls sur Mer

On holiday in France in the summer we took some time out for a leisurely stroll around Banyuls. Banyuls sur Mer is overshadowed by its neighbour Collioure, but this makes it much more enjoyable to visit. Parking is less of a problem (or you can take the bus that runs along the coast during the season) and you don't have to negotiate gawping tourists wherever you go.

Banyuls has oodles of character and a charming sedate elegance. It has the gently buzzy vibe of a small beach resort, but you're always aware of the dramatic terraced vineyards and olive groves in the near distance. Here in deepest Catalan France, you never forget that Spain is only a few kilometres down the coast. However, strolling around the town is not as relaxing as it sounds as you'll see from the pictures – there are a lot of stairs involved. It's well worth it, though, as the views are so spectacular and there'll always be something delicious to sip afterwards.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Argelès and Le Racou

I was in two minds about writing this as it feels like I'm sharing a secret. However, I'll tell you about one of my favourite places in Roussillon, the far corner of Mediterranean France where we spend our summer holidays. Le Racou is a small, unshowy beach resort just south of Argelès before the coastline becomes more rugged and continues through Collioure and Banyuls before it reaches Spain.

Argelès is a large sprawling place catering to mass tourism, but particularly well know for its campsites (previously used by refugees from the Spanish Civil War, but rather more luxurious now). It has a long, straight, wide beach and popular with families. There is an old town further inland, but the coastal resort Argelès Plage grew with the advent of the railways, and, if you scratch the surface and look away from the crowds swarming around the shops, bars and restaurants, there are several elegant streets of fin de siècle villas. All along the seafront are beautifully maintained gardens overlooked by some of the town's finest buildings. To those early holidaymakers stepping off the train from cool northern France, this must have felt like heaven.

In contrast, Le Racou feels intimate and tucked away, fringed by pine woods and nestling against a dramatically rocky promontory that marks the beginning of the Côte Vermeille. Le Racou is at the end of a sweep of straight coastline that runs pretty much all the way from the Rhône delta and the Camargue. Unlike the beaches further north, the sand is less fine and gives your feet quite a tingling workout, but it doesn't matter as you'd have been charmed by then.

Many of Le Racou's beach huts were built to temporarily house Spanish exiles during the 1930s, but now make desirable holiday accommodation. Just the one paved road accesses the village, otherwise there is a network of sandy tracks. A few old fashioned bucket and spade shops punctuate the main road, along with a boulangerie, a smattering of bars and restaurants and a couple of hotels. There are a few newer developments tastefully screened by the pines, but they don't spoil the laid back, uncommercial atmosphere.

Apparently previous communities have wanted to make Le Racou independent and, with its chilled out, alternative vibe, you can see why. It's great that it's managed to retain such a bohemian outlook. It reminds me of Le Canon on Cap Ferret on the Atlantic coast with its oyster huts, and Gruisson further up the coast near Narbonne with its fisherman's shacks on stilts (where the movie Betty Blue was filmed) – distinctive, relaxed places with an easy nonchalance. Just what holidays should be all about.

Le Canon

Le Canon


Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Banyuls Sangria and the Côte Vermeille

I've been visiting Roussillon regularly for maybe 15 years now, but I'm amazed that this summer was my first taste of a certain, rather potent local speciality – Banyuls Sangria. The effect it has on you is rather like an expertly mixed gin and tonic. It takes hold of you and presents the world as a better place. When you're already in a rather lovely place, the effect is all the more powerful.

We were driving south along the coast to Banyuls and just before getting there we stopped at an attractive little bay, the Plage des Elmes, for lunch. The beach bar here (Le Sun) is known for its Banyuls Sangria, so the non-drivers settled in happily. You have to remember how close you are to Spain in this Catalan corner of France, so this interpretation the drink makes a lot of sense. Basically, it's local red wine (ideally Collioure) with Banyuls and (for good measure) brandy. It's sweetened to taste with sugar and flavoured with orange. Either you can slice oranges and leave them to macerate in the boozy red wine concoction or add some orange juice. Some recipes suggest doing this the day before and allowing it all to macerate. When you're ready to serve add some lemonade. To be honest, ours didn't taste diluted at all, so leave it out if you prefer!

It was a treat to enjoy this within sight of vines and in such a spectacular location. Banyuls is on the Côte Vermeille (the Vermillion Coast), the craggy, intricate stretch of coastline where the Pyrenees meet the Mediterranean. Maybe it was the sangria, but it was amazing experiencing the landscape and the remarkable rock formations so intimately.