One in a (ver)million
France. When you tell someone you visited this spectacular country, they assume you were roaming the streets of Paris. If not Paris, then were you gracing the red carpet in Cannes or cruising on a luxurious yacht in Nice? Folks, if you think you have seen France through these glittering glamorous cities, you have not even skimmed the surface. Step off the beaten path and take the road less travelled to experience the soul of the French Mediterranean coast which blends in with the Catalan region of Spain.
Last month, we spent the most memorable two weeks on the Cote Vermeille, or the Vermillion coast of France, often described as the Cote d’Azur (French Riviera) without the hefty price tag. Low-key and relaxed, family-friendly and brimming with culture, this stretch of coastline boasts its own wine appellation, elaborate water sports, nature reserves and a lively artistic past.
It is where the Pyrenees meets the glittering Mediterranean, creating pebbly coves and high cliffs that offer spectacular views along the craggy coastline.
We made our base at a delightful Airbnb home right by the edge of the sea, in the small fishing town of Port Vendres. This is an oasis of tranquillity where you can really blend into the simple local life and feel the welcoming warmth of the people. The alluring aroma of fresh bread and croissants from the boulangerie (bakery) right below our apartment was our daily wake-up call.
My city-bred kids enjoyed watching the fishing boats bringing in the early morning catch while the cheeky seagulls hovered noisily above, hoping to grab a bite. For a seafood lover like me, it was a pleasure to then head to the fishing boats and buy the freshest fish which smelt of the sea even after they were grilled and sitting on the plate.
For scuba enthusiasts, there are plenty of diving sights and organised activity here. We did a trip in a glass-bottom boat and the kids enjoyed observing the vibrant marine life in the deep blue waters.
The neighbouring town of Collioure is the jewel in the crown of this coastal stretch — a charming old beach town with the magnificent Chateau Royal castle standing tall on the seafront. You can lose yourself in the labyrinthine lanes lined with boutiques, artists’ studios and quaint restaurants.
Grab a drink if you like at one of the many cafes by the waterside and soak in some of that golden Mediterranean sun. If you prefer a place with a bustling nightlife and one which caters to tourists, then I recommend making Collioure your base.
We enjoyed driving around and exploring the serene beaches nearby.
Follow the map or the road signs at major intersections and you will find plenty of hidden gems of white sand and crystal clear water. For a more young and lively ambience, head to the beaches of Argeles-sul-mer. This is a popular holiday destination for people from Southern France where you can rent holiday apartments right on the beach. Work on your tan or indulge in some water sports before cooling off at one of the trendy tapas bars that line the promenade.
Talking of tapas, you might be confused which country I am talking about. Well that is the beauty of food and how it connects us regardless of political borders. As this region is right by the Spanish border (you can drive into Spain with a Schengen Visa), there is a strong Catalan influence in the lifestyle and culinary culture. The plethora of tapas bars and paella restaurants give you an authentic taste of Spain while your feet are firmly planted on French soil.
Wine lovers, the wines of this region are lesser-known internationally, but that does not undermine their taste and quality in any way. ‘Collioure’ wines are the local dry table wines produced in red, white and rose varieties. Then there is the ‘Banyuls’ natural sweet wines produced in the same vineyards.
If you thought sweet wines were only paired with dessert, I had an interesting dish at a friend’s place there where sweet Banyuls wine was poured into a hole in half a melon, accompanied with some salty cured ham. The flavours complemented each other perfectly and now we enjoy this ensemble often in our own home.
Book yourself on a wine-tasting tour from the town of Banyuls-sul-mer. I also recommend the Le Petit Train vineyard tour. This is a small toy train which makes its way into the scenic vineyards on the slopes of the Pyrenees, stopping at wineries for some wine tasting and wine shopping. A great way to keep both kids and adults happy and hey, you do not have to worry about drinking and driving!
We opted to spend an afternoon followed by a wine-paired dinner at Les Clos de Paulilles. It’s a gorgeous winery where sprawling vineyards meet the sea in one frame. The children enjoyed splashing around in the gentle waves and then we had a relaxed wine dinner at the outdoor restaurant watching the sun go down beyond the horizon. This is where you want to get clicking those no-filter Instagrammable shots.
One can also rent a boat at the port of Banyuls-sul-mer and head out to sea, enjoying the fabulous view of the rugged coastline. If watersports is your thing, you can paddle off in a kayak or canoe. We spent a memorable evening walking around the town just soaking in the beauty and peace. The kids found a delightful playground right on the beach, while my husband and I enjoyed an aperitif at a cafe nearby. The dinner highlight was a lovely bouillabaisse — a hearty seafood stew originally from the historical town of Marseille. A melange of fish and crustaceans in an intense slow-cooked broth, accentuated with notes of saffron, fennel and orange.
One of my favourite memories from this trip is the weekly farmers’ market. Every town has its scheduled day of the week, so you can make your plans accordingly. It was pure pleasure to taste and explore the brilliant unadulterated produce from the local artisans who were so passionate about their wares.
They ranged from lavender-infused honey to truffles in all forms, seasonal fruits and vegetables to spices and grains brought in from North Africa, cured sardines and fish roe in cute little tins to the most fragrant olive oils, vinegars and heady liquors. You can well guess what my suitcase was overweight with by the time we got back home!
So go on, plan your next vacation to the mesmerising Vermillion coast of France and dive into the small towns and villages which are the true heart and soul, history and heritage of a culture.
The nearest airports that have connections from major European cities are Perpignan, Marseille and Toulouse. Bon voyage!
Calcutta girl Natasha Celmi is a culinary specialist and food stylist based in Bangalore. Find her on Instagram @natashacelmi or follow her YouTube channel Natasha Celmi