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Hacktreks 2

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Hacktreks in France

The South of France –
Port Vendres - out of the limelight
Simon R Newman

'Flanked by the foothills of the Pyrennees on three sides, this beautiful natural harbour has presence...'

Photo SR Newman

Perfect 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 wouldn’t be the same without long-since faded starlets campaigning for the rights of disadvantaged dolphins.

The traditional imagery of the South of France is endlessly clichéd in such narrow stereotypes, but France’s southern coastline is over 400 miles long and at it’s western end, where the Pyrenees meet the Mediterranean is the fishing harbour of Port Vendres and in stark contrast to the Cote d’Azure, its ambience is the probverbial chalk and fromage.

It’s not glitzy, it’s not trendy and it’s not the place to be seen, but it is beautiful. Sure it has some warts but they’re 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 I’d like to credit foresight on behalf of the town fathers, you get the distinct feeling walking around this fascinating old port that it found it’s 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 stone’s 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 fishermen’s’ 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.

It’s an important harbour where serious commercial vessels and the odd smaller cruise ship can moor readily at the functionally impressive Gare Maritime. It’s certainly an entertainment to stand on the dock and watch a 300 footer daintily pirouetting around it’s anchor chain whilst being nudged and worried into position by the port’s diminutive but furiously energetic pilot boat.

It’s possible they don’t always get it right though. I’m no Inspector Morse but there’s a bit of a clue in the 15 foot vee-shaped gash that’s 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 it’s very close Iberian neighbour.
As you take your promenade you’ll 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 harbour’s 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 church’s 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.
"C’est La Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle, m’sieur" 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 it’s distinguished lifeboat run by the imperiously named Société Nationale de Sauvetage de la Mer. I’ve 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 phenomenon.

The lifeboat is moored at the Ponte de Pilotes and is accompanied by the other members of the town’s official fleet, the high-tech Customs patrol ship, the port’s 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 town’s 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 harbour’s 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, I’m a resolutely unreconstructed Englishman (it’s 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, it’s 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 market’s entrance there is an outside stall where dozens of people elbow and jockey for a position to survey today’s catch. And what a display; fresh langoustines, anchovies, calamares, seabream, and of course the quintessentially French staple, the ubiquitous moule.
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 didn’t 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 it’s 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 1920’s 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 it’s natural beauty.

Visiting yachts at Port Vendres are catered for although with only thirty moorings for visitors, you’ll 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 there’s 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 it’s because years of UV light and layers of seagull droppings have reduced the King’s pallor to its current deathly grey. But whatever the reason, it’s 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 don’t 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 it’s 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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