From Carcassone we carried on towards Narbonne and Perpignan on the toll motorway, as we wanted a change from winding country roads. Very pretty but very slow and seemingly with the maximum number of corners it is possible to include. The toll roads are generally not too expensive and are considerably faster and easier driving than the secondary roads, although the density of trucks can get a bit scary at times.
Stopped for the next two nights at Argelès-sur-Mer, a seaside town near the Spanish border in the Côte Vermeille region of the Pyrenées Orientales department. During the second world war, in February 1939, 500,000 refugees fleeing the Civil War and Franco’s military regime, crossed the boder from Spain and arrived in Argelès-sur-Mer. An emergency camp was set up on the beach with nearly 200,000 people staying there initially. For much of the time there were nearly 80,000 people surviving in awful conditions. The camp was closed in 1941. Now thousands visit the town for much happier reasons; it is a very popular summer holiday resort, attracting people for its beaches, windsurfing and warm weather.
Argelès-sur-Mer has the longest coastline of all the coastal towns of the Pyrénées-Orientales: 10 kilometres of coast, of which 7 km are sandy and 3 km are rocky coves. There is also a 1.6 km promenade which is parallel to the beach and planted with lawns and Mediterranean vegetation leading to a pine forest of several thousands of trees.
Every year at the end of September there is a procession to honour the patron saints of Argelès-sur-Mer, Saint Come (or Saint Cosmas) and Saint Damien, Arab twins and healers, who treated people for nothing. They are the patron saints of doctors, pharmacists and barbers. The legend is that Argelès-sur-Mer was struck by plague but the epidemic magically disappeared on 27 September 1652 thanks to the intervention of the two healers, and the city has held the prcession every uear since.
We stayed at a supposedly basic hotel in the town, l’Hostelet, but it is spotlessly clean, well equipped and spacious, the bed was very comfortable and the management was extremely good, friendly and helpful. A far better stay than many more expensive places. A definite recommendation if you are in that part of the world.
After a good night’s sleep, a leisurely breakfast and preparing some filled rolls for lunch it was off to Spain to the town of Figueres and the Salvador Dali museum – artworks and jewellery. What to say? Stupendous, eccentric and fascinating. Well worth the trip. After a couple of hours there and a Spanish coffee, we drove back along the coastal route. Incredibly rugged and wild country, with a roaring gale blowing which made winding up and down the hills and hairpin bends rather exciting. Stopped on the top of a hill overlooking Portbau for lunch. Almost got blown away trying to retrieve the sandwiches from the boot of the car. Spectacular views. Passed the town of Colliure, which along with Argelès-sur-Mer was and is popular with artists because of the light and the scenery.
After all the hairpin bends it was good to get back to the relative calm and flat of Argelès-sur-Mer where we finished the day by finding a supermarket and a laundry, so we are up to date with clean clothes. One of the coldest days we have had so far today so had to dig out the jackets.
Next day we drove on to St Remy de Provence, stopping at the port town of Sète, which the locals refer to as the Venice of Languedoc, for lunch. Fish soup and fish and chips – what else would you have beside the sea. Nice enough town but didn’t live up to the tourist hype. Perhaps in the summer. The fish was good though.
Signs of human habitation in the Sète area can be traced back to the Bronze age, although these remnants are now under the Bassin de Thau (Thau Lagoon). But the area remained sparsely populated, and the hideout of pirates, until much later. From the late 1200s onwards, the lagoon closed up creating the Bassin de Thau. Similarly silt forced the eventual closure of the then sea ports of Aigues Mortes, Agde, and Narbonne. Eventually, after several starts, this led to the development of Sete as a port and town, with the port finally opening in 1666. It is still an important port and the biggest fishing port on this coast. It is linked to the Canal du Midi and the Rhone Canal through the Thau Lagoon behind the town.
As well as being a port, the beaches of Sète are very popular in the summer and every year Sète hosts “the ‘Joutes de Sète’ a jousting tournament from boats rather than horseback. The competition takes place from the end of June to the beginning of September with the big final on around the 22 August. The jousters dress in white and each round is between two boats, the red team and the blue team. The goal is to use the long jousting spear to throw your opponents into the water”. http://www.francethisway.com/places/sete.php
Unfortunately we didn’t get to see this, but it was pleasant sitting by the harbour eating lunch and watching the fishing boats come in.