Planning to take a trip up the coast this summer? If you venture north beyond the Costa Brava, you’ll stumble upon the Côte Vermeille (Vermillion Coast). This often overlooked corner of France historically belonged to Catalunya until the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees, when Northern Catalunya, which roughly corresponds to the French département of Pyrénées-Orientales, was ceded to the French. But the Catalan spirit lives on—Catalan is spoken by many, the sardana (Catalunya’s national dance) is performed with zeal and the local cuisine has a decidedly Catalan flavour.
Often described as the Côte d’Azur without the hefty price tag, this 20-kilometre stretch of coastline boasts its own wine appellation, watersports, nature reserves and a lively artistic past. It is where the Pyrenees meet the glittering Mediterranean, creating pebbly coves and cliffs that offer spectacular views along the craggy coastline.
With its colourful centre-ville buildings and quaint seafront painted in pastel shades, this picturesque village is the first stop after leaving Spain. The waterfront promenade is lined with cafés and restaurants and leads onto a small, shingly beach.
Cap Cerbère. The rocky headland of Cap Cerbère offers a clifftop viewing point that boasts breathtaking sea views, and is also home to ‘the lighthouse at the end of the world’.
Belitres Pass. At the end of the Spanish Civil War, 500,000 refugees flooded over the border via the nearby Belitres Pass. Today, a monument featuring a photo exhibition of the refugees, taken by French-Colombian artist Manuel Moros, stands on the crest of the pass. Former passport control and customs kiosks also stand nearby, eerie and abandoned since the 1995 Schengen Agreement.
Dolmens. Evidence of the region’s prehistory can be witnessed in the three dolmens (tombs constructed of two or more upright stones, capped with a large, flat horizontal capstone) situated in the hills behind the village at Coll de la Farella, Coll de les Portes and Coma Estepera.
Réserve Naturelle Marine de Cerbère-Banyuls-sur-Mer. This marine reserve is popular for snorkelling and diving due to the huge variety of fish that thrive in its protected habitat.
Banyuls-sur-Mer has grown up around fishing, viticulture and smuggling. The village, with its salmon-hued buildings, boasts an award-winning beach and a quaint, rambling old quartier, le Cap d’Osne, rustic and charming with its winding, narrow streets. Among its ancient buildings is the Église Saint-Jean de la Rectorie.
GR10. The 866-kilometre GR10 hiking trail runs the length of the Pyrenees from Banyuls to Hendaye. The route is marked by red and white stripes painted onto trees and rocks, and can be completed in about 52 days. There are places to stay along most of the route, though it’s also possible to attempt smaller sections.
Jardin Méditerranéen du Mas de la Serre. This three-hectare reserve sits above the town and aims to exhibit all the flora found within France’s Pyrénées-Orientales region.
La Salette. The small, white La Salette church, constructed in 1863, lies 200 metres above Banyuls and is worth a visit if only for the panoramic village, sea and mountain views.
Massane Forest. The 336-hectare Massane forest became a nature reserve in 1973 and is a prime example of an untouched forest ecosystem. A range of scientific observations are undertaken in the forest, whilst trails invite visitors to lose themselves in this protected den of tranquility.
Port Vendres has a deep and rocky natural harbour which led King Louis XIV to order his architect, Vauban, to turn the town into a naval port. Today, the only remnant of Vauban’s defensive structures is the town’s clock tower. With an economy based on fishing, Port Vendres has a wealth of fish and seafood restaurants, as well as a bustling Saturday market.
Paulilles. About three kilometres south of Port Vendres lies the Paulilles Recreational Park, a sweeping bay where exotic vegetation thrives within a former dynamite factory. Since the factory closed in 1984, the site has been returned to nature and visitors can now immerse themselves in its restored natural beauty, as well as its industrial history.
Watersports. Port Vendres is a hub for watersports, with scuba diving, windsurfing and sea kayaking all popular activities. The tourist office (Quai François Joly 1) offers information on how to get involved.
The jewel in the crown of this stretch of coastline is, without a doubt, Collioure, where a delightful, chic old town lies alongside pebbly beaches, a waterfront castle and a medieval windmill.
Royal Castle. Perched on the edge of the harbour, seemingly carved out of the rocky coastline is the Château Royale, built in 672 AD.
Église Notre-Dame-des-Anges. Located on the other side of the harbour, this glowing-pink church, with its iconic lighthouse-bell tower, was painted several times by Matisse.
Argèles possesses the longest and sandiest stretch of beach on the Côte Vermeille, with a stroll along the seafront promenade being an ideal way to enjoy some gentle exercise. The beach here is rather touristy, although those looking to relax can head to the protected Le Racou beach nearby.
Bois des Pins. This 19th-century forest contains over 8,000 pine trees that overlook the sea and is a great spot for a stroll with a view.
Parc Municipal de Valmy. Located three kilometres south of Argèles, this 19th-century fairytale castle has been converted into a hotel, although the grounds are run by the council and provide a charming setting for picnics.
Canyoning Park. To the north of Argèles, this adventure park is housed in an abandoned quarry and specialises in zip-lining, tobogganing and waterfall jumping.
Le Sentier Littoral. This clifftop, coastal route starts at Le Racou beach in Argèles and leads to Banyuls, via Collioure. The whole walk takes approximately four hours.
Train: Barcelona Sants - Cerbère (2 hours 30 minutes). Connect in Cerbère for Banyuls, Port Vendres, Collioure and Argèles.
Where to Stay
- Château Valmy (Argèles). Add a touch of class to your trip with a stay at the elegant Valmy Castle.
- Hôtel-Restaurant les Templiers (Collioure). Located in the pedestrianised streets of Collioure, this is a fascinating bar, art museum and hotel where Matisse and Derain used to hang out.
- Belvédère du Rayon Vert (Cerbère). Between 1928 and 1932, this Art Deco hotel was constructed to cater for passengers travelling between France and Spain, who had to change trains in Cerbère. After the Spanish Civil War, however, the borders were closed and the hotel fell into decline. Today, this crumbling, boat-inspired building evokes a sense of its former grandeur, and part of it has been converted into holiday apartments. Call +33 4 68 88 41 54 or visit the tourist office (Avenue Général de Gaulle 23) to make a reservation.
- If you fancy camping, there are a range of different campsites.
- Les Déferlantes Sud de France. Big names descend on Argèles at this music festival held at Parc de Valmy. This year, The Chemical Brothers, Elton John, The Offspring and Bloc Party will be performing, among others, from July 7th-10th. Tickets range from €45.60 to €155.50.
- Fête de Mailly. A 30-metre marble obelisk, dating from 1780, stands on the quayside of Port Vendres. Every September, the Fête de Mailly commemorates the obelisk’s construction in an intriguing cultural festival that includes a fancy dress parade, a re-enactment of the placing of the first stone and sardanas dancing, among other things.
- Fauvism. Collioure is the birthplace of Fauvism, a movement that came into existence when Henri Matisse and André Derain visited Collioure in 1905 and produced 242 paintings, drawings and sculptures of the colourful town between them. Collioure’s labyrinth of hilly streets are dotted with reproductions of Fauvist canvasses along a route called the Chemin de Fauvism.
- Aristide Maillol. Aristide Maillol (1861-1944) was a painter, printmaker and sculptor from Banyuls-sur-Mer, most famous for his sculptures of female nudes. Visit his former home, the Musée Maillol, and spot his work dotted throughout Banyuls: ‘The Recumbent Girl’ (1921) is on the Avenue du Fontaulé, ‘Ile de France sans bras’ (1925) is on the beach and a war memorial is located behind the Hôtel de Ville.
- Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The Scottish architect, designer and water colourist Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) spent two years of his life painting Port Vendres. A route around the port shows reproductions of his works from the spot he painted them, and a small museum in the Jardin du Dôme explores the time Mackintosh spent in the town through his paintings, photographs and videos.
Both Banyuls and Collioure boast their own wine appellation. Banyuls’ famous sweet red and the dry, full-bodied red, white and rosé wines of Collioure can be experienced at La Grande Cave de Terres des Templiers in Banyuls-sur-Mer with a guided tour and tasting session.
For many centuries, the Côte Vermeille had to defend itself from possible enemy attacks. Fort Saint-Elme, the Madeloc and Massane Towers and the Ultrera Castle ruins are all remnants of this former defensive network. Today, they offer spectacular views across the Roussillon plain.