Hacktreks in France
South of France
Port Vendres - out of the limelight
by the foothills of the Pyrennees on three sides, this beautiful
natural harbour has presence...'
Photo SR Newman
bronzed torsos roller-blading the promenade at Nice, paparazzi snapping
wannabes at Cannes, idyllic Provençeal villas covered in bougenvelia,
the rich and famous faking inconspicuous-ness on Monte Carlo yachts,
and of course the South of France wouldnt be the same without
long-since faded starlets campaigning for the rights of disadvantaged
The traditional imagery of the South of France is endlessly clichéd
in such narrow stereotypes, but Frances southern coastline is
over 400 miles long and at its western end, where the Pyrenees
meet the Mediterranean is the fishing harbour of Port Vendres and in
stark contrast to the Cote dAzure, its ambience is the probverbial
chalk and fromage.
Its not glitzy, its not trendy and its not the place
to be seen, but it is beautiful. Sure it has some warts but theyre
benign and largely forgivable (save for the mercifully discreet, but
architecturally dire marina building - more of which later).
Port Vendres lies a few miles from the Spanish border and by accident
or design it seems to have got the balance of genuine commercial life
and tourism just right.
Much as Id like to credit foresight on behalf of the town fathers,
you get the distinct feeling walking around this fascinating old port
that it found its very agreeable equilibrium by a natural organic
process rather than through some municipal development plan. Mind you,
they certainly got their planning right with the free parking that prevails
throughout the town, including, incredibly, the main car park right
slap bang on the harbour-front just a stones throw from the main
cafés and restaurants.
Flanked by the foothills of the Pyrennees on three sides, this beautiful
natural harbour has presence and integrity in spades. The fishermens
cottages (and OK, some are now owned by Danes and Belgians but local
fishermen really do live there) radiate a blaze of Mediterranean shades
which somehow both clash and work at the same time.
Its an important harbour where serious commercial vessels and
the odd smaller cruise ship can moor readily at the functionally impressive
Gare Maritime. Its certainly an entertainment to stand on the
dock and watch a 300 footer daintily pirouetting around its anchor
chain whilst being nudged and worried into position by the ports
diminutive but furiously energetic pilot boat.
Its possible they dont always get it right though. Im
no Inspector Morse but theres a bit of a clue in the 15 foot vee-shaped
gash thats currently gracing the quayside and it looks suspiciously
like the pointy end of a very large boat.
You can eat and drink overlooking the harbour although there is a road
which bisects you from the sea so you have to accept the odd buzz from
a passing scooter. This is after all Catalunya and although still very
much French, the bustling atmosphere on a summer weekend gives more
than a passing nod to the altogether more noisier and frenetic astmosphere
prevailing in its very close Iberian neighbour.
As you take your promenade youll hear a rich mixture of tongues;
the nasal twang of the southern French, the Catalan dialect sounding
like a cross between French and Spanish, and the softly musical Castillian
of the visiting Spaniards from Madrid.
There is an impressive church which stands guard over the fishing and
diving boats at the Vieux Port at the harbours northern end. With
its inset statues of Saints it is rather plain with the odd gothic hint,
but is attractively painted a subtle coral colour and is topped-off
by a truly beautiful, almost Islamic, blue dome. A strange thing is
that much as you search around the entrance and the sides of the building
you cannot find the churchs name anywhere.
Engaging in a little conversation with a Gendarme, who at the time was
enthusiastically cordoning off an area with red chequered tape for a
visiting dignitary, produced a result.
"Cest La Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle, msieur"
and went on to tell me that the church was presided over by a part-time
roving priest (or was that a rowing priest ?) based at Colliioure a
couple of miles up the coast.
Our Lady of Good News is a pleasingly fitting name for this welcoming
town and a name shared by its distinguished lifeboat run by the
imperiously named Société Nationale de Sauvetage de la
Mer. Ive always found it mystifying that something so important
to the community as saving lives at sea is invariably funded by charity,
in this case by the local Rotary Club, but it seems to be a pretty universal
The lifeboat is moored at the Ponte de Pilotes and is accompanied by
the other members of the towns official fleet, the high-tech Customs
patrol ship, the ports tug-like pilot boat and a launch with the
intriguing title of Affaires Maritime.
It comes as no surprise to learn that fishing is pivotal to the towns
economic welfare. In addition to the sizeable fleet of commercial boats
working as far afield as the Balearics for, amongst other big fish,
tuna, there is an active fleet of small craft plying the local waters.
Buying your fish in Port Vendres is a delight in itself and can be enjoyed
in a variety of ways. Straight from the quayside from small one-man
stalls, from one or more of the traditional poissonneries in the town,
or from the covered fish market tucked away under the ever watchful
eye of one of the harbours two main beacons at the Fort du Fanal.
As you approach the fish-market the road comes to a halt and you are
faced with a "Zone Interdict" for the port workers only, and
a clearly marked footpath for visitors. Though I've been in the region
for a couple of years now, Im a resolutely unreconstructed Englishman
(its a gene thing) and so of course I did as I was told and took
the designated pedestrian route.
But I should have known better. Almost immediately I was confronted
by power cables, scaffolding and sundry water piping crossing my path
and a vociferous dockworker directing me back to the aforementioned
"Zone Interdite". Here I could see families meandering towards
the fish market sublimely indifferent to the forklift trucks whizzing
to and fro and overhead gantries doing, well, whatever it is overhead
gantries do, overhead. Ho, hum, its a French thing.
Now you really do need to set aside an hour or so to appreciate the
Port Vendres fish-market, as to rush it would be an entertainment opportunity
wasted. At the markets entrance there is an outside stall where
dozens of people elbow and jockey for a position to survey todays
catch. And what a display; fresh langoustines, anchovies, calamares,
seabream, and of course the quintessentially French staple, the ubiquitous
It looks chaotic but a well enforced numbered ticketing system operates
efficiently so you are never left trying in vain to catch the attention
of the ebullient fishmonger. A swarthy, dashing character with a twinkle
in his eye. Just the one eye in his case, on the left, the other being
rather jauntily patched.
But the real treat is inside. Tank after tank of live creatures - ferocious
looking eels and rays, crustaceans with more antennae than a NASA Mars
probe, and crabs the size of dinner plates which is quite handy
when you come to think about it. Young children are in raptures at the
sight of these fearsome creatures, peeping through their fingers, backing
away with squeals of delight but always wanting more.
The market also boasts a cooked fish counter plus deli section to die
for try their cooked salmon fillets, heavily peppered and smoked
in herbs, best eaten with a fresh baguette generously laden with salted
butter (oh for goodness sake, you didnt even know what cholesterol
was ten years ago). Wash it down with a chilled glass or three of deliciously
crisp, green, apples and honey, Côte du Roussillon Blanc de Blancs
Terrassous - stonking value at £2.60 (Leclerq supermarkets). Forget
Chardonnays and Vovrays at twice the price, this big-hearted, locally
produced wine really is not to be missed.
Aside from its maritime heritage the town of Port Vendres has
an interesting artistic provenance. The light in this region is amazingly
vibrant and has attracted legions of painters over the last century
and a half; Matisse, Picasso, Dali to name but a few. Whilst Coullioure
and Cadaques are probably better known culturally in this coastal region,
Port Vendres has had more than its share of famous visiting artists.
Indeed for a couple of years in the 1920s it was home to Charles
Rennie Macintosh, the hugely influential and enigmatic Glaswegian architect,
designer and painter.
Just along the coast a few miles you will find the Banyuls/Cerbere Underwater
Marine Reserve where they monitor sea-life and the marine environment
in an area where all boating, fishing, anchoring and diving are prohibited.
This is a long term project and the early results are promising. Hopefully
the scheme will be extended so that even more of this simply stunning
coastline can be preserved in all its natural beauty.
Visiting yachts at Port Vendres are catered for although with only thirty
moorings for visitors, youll need to book ahead in the high summer.
Indeed permanent moorings are so in demand here at Port Vendres that
they are currently quoting a five to ten year waiting list.
As for that marina building - well its not that its especially ugly
(think comprehensive school annex meets out-of-town DIY-store, but a
bit drearier) yet you just feel that it has missed a trick. The town
of Alcossebre down the coast from here coast towards Valencia has a
striking example of how to carry it off with its all-white, sail-shaped
marina building, stunningly brilliant by day, and when cleverly lit
up at night, pure magic.
In fact theres really only one piece of questionable taste in
Port Vendres. Outside the Café du Port there stands probably
the only life-sized model of Elvis after he died. That, or its
because years of UV light and layers of seagull droppings have reduced
the Kings pallor to its current deathly grey. But whatever the
reason, its presence outside this otherwise reasonably upmarket
establishment is utterly bizarre.
On a clear day, which is very often in this region of ultra clear light,
you will see the mountain of Canigou some thirty miles distant towards
Andorra and so, if climbing or mountain walking is your scene, you dont
have far to go. Or you can stay around Port Vendres and enjoy the fabulous
coastal walk to the beautiful Bay of Paulille right on your doorstep.
Characterful, welcoming Port Vendres is a true delight. Some of its
charms are not immediately obvious, but the rewards of wandering around
to discover them really are worth the effort.
Travel links from UK
RyanAir to Perpignan (45 mins drive from airport)
RyanAir to Gerona (1 hrs drive drive from airport)
EasyJet to Barcelona (2 hrs drive drive from airport)
(Better yet take the TGV train from TGV from Paris and a connection
to the town.)
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