As the heat haze fades and the sun loungers get folded away, there is another side to the South of France - history-steeped streets, foodie finds and artistic heritage in Perpignan and Collioure. Here's the best way to enjoy off-season South of France.
“When it rains, we close.” It’s certainly not a line you’d hear in Ireland, but when you’re standing in a square in the usually sunny South of France, this is clearly normal practice.
You’ll find normally bustling streets vacant, chairs stacked under restaurant terrace awnings, and cafés showing no sign of life.
Certainly, there was a chill in the air as I made my way through the southern French seaside village of Collioure, but the grey skies and persistent showers did not dampen its beauty or appeal.
There’s a certain privilege to wandering the narrow streets on days like this, when the summer crowds have dispersed and you feel you have the place to yourself, giving you the freedom to soak up the town’s moody vista. From the striking Notre Dame des Anges church perched at the harbour entrance to the backdrop of the Pyrenees mountains in the distance, I would never get tired of the views here.
Clearly, I am not alone, as you’ll find evidence of how this view inspires local artists dotted throughout Collioure – where electric boxes, bus stops and gateposts double as a public canvas depicting brightly-coloured scenes.
Indeed, the area has a history of attracting creative talent: it was here that artists Henri Matisse and André Derain came to live in 1905. Their arrival started a trend – Picasso and Dalí later spent time here, and over the years the town transformed from a bustling fishing village into a retreat for artists and creatives.
Stop by to have a morning coffee at café Les Templiers and you’ll find homage paid to both heritages, with walls adorned by a plethora of work by local artists, but the town’s fishing roots not forgotten, thanks to a boat-shaped bar.
The fishing port of Port-Vendres is within walking distance of Collioure and is as equally charming and unfussy as its sister town. Leaving Collioure, I followed the road along the harbour around the towering walls of Le Château Royal, the ancient castle that stands proudly in the centre of the town, and enjoyed the stunning views of the Mediterranean.
On the way back, I opted for a shortcut on the inland road via an old Dominican monastery, which is now home to a winery known as Cellier Dominicain. Here, they specialise in a sweet wine which the locals drink with dinner, or as an apéritif, rather than as a dessert wine.
Perfecting the anchovy
The production of anchovies is another key local speciality. Maison Roque is one of Collioure’s most long-standing, family-run anchovy businesses. While the area’s days of relying exclusively on catching and trading fish may be past, the production of anchovies still plays a huge role in employment in the town.
Maison Roque is just one of the local specialists who produce every type of anchovy product, from salted and pickled to a range of spreads. When we visit, we discovered a team of women expertly filleting the fish, all completely by hand with a whip-fast process they have clearly perfected over the years; I lost count of the amount they got through while we were there.
By the time I returned to my hotel, Le Mas de Citronniers, a boutique hotel down by the waterfront, the clouds were lifting and the blue skies were back, and I could glimpse the clear appeal this quaint little town would hold in high summer too.
From Collioure to Perpignan
Less than 45 minutes’ drive away, and a mere €1 bus fare, from Collioure is the better-known city of Perpignan. And while many might associate it most readily with rugby, I found a city full of exquisite architecture and fascinating art history, a place hugely influenced by Fauvism and hence remarkably unique.
Both Perpignan and Collioure were once ruled by the Catalans, with the Spanish border less than an hour away, so while the obvious mood is of course French, there is a wonderfully subtle warm Spanish vibe felt too. The Catalan flag flies from many buildings in the city, and more than once I heard the French oui replaced by a Spanish sí.
After an afternoon spent exploring small museums, imposing cathedrals and old town houses with striking stone artwork, I finished the day on top of the Palace of the Kings of Majorca. My legs didn’t thank me much for the effort it took to get up there, but the view was worth it, with its sweep of soft coral rooftops and green swathes of vineyard beyond.
By the time I returned to Collioure, it was back to business as usual: cafés busy with the morning rush and people jostling to pick up fresh produce at the market. The evidence of yesterday’s rain is gone, and today’s warm breeze has long evaporated the puddles.
Collioure has an obvious beauty when the sun shines and the sky is blue, there’s no doubt about it, but I hold a special spot for those rainy days when the town closes, leaving the soaked pavements and eerily silent streets yours to explore.
Where to eat
It wouldn’t be a trip to France without a simple, yet perfect, steak-frites. Perpignan’s Café Vienne offers this and many more quintessential bistro options. The dining room is large, but cleverly divided, with a steady stream of customers, but that doesn’t affect the quality of the food or the excellent service.
If dinner with a view is what you’re after, then Restaurant Le Neptune is the perfect choice. Set on the side of a cliff in Port-Vendres, the restaurant overlooks the Mediterranean sea, looking back to Collioure. The food and service here match the magnificent view, making it an ideal choice for a special occasion.
Set on the beach, Derrière le Clocher was set up by a group of young people in the town. Here they regularly change the menu, as the chef experiments with new dishes. Don’t miss their take on Fideuà – a local seafood dish made with short spaghetti pasta and cooked in a similar style to a paella.
Le Figuier in Perpignan is a neighbourhood restaurant that ticks all the boxes. The menu changes daily and they use local produce as much as possible – their green pea gazpacho was a first for me, and I loved it. The staff are extremely good what they do – and friendly on top of that.
Aer Lingus operates flights direct to Perpignan from May to August. See aerlingus.com for more details
This article was originally published in the October edition of IMAGE Magazine.
Read more: This boutique villa in Indonesia could be yours for €145 a night
Read more: Treat your wage like a business this month, and watch the savings build up for Christmas
Read more: Where to eat in Paris, aside from the obvious