France has much to offer tourists, whatever their taste in holidays and there are many regions in France that prove to be particularly popular to visitors from far afield. Whilst many will be familiar with the Loire Valley, the Dordogne and the Cote d’Azur, fewer will be aware of what the Eastern Pyrenees has to offer.
By sheer good fortune, I spent 4 weeks in the spa town of Vernet-les-Bains, which sits proudly in the foothills of the Canigou Mountain, in the heart of the eastern Pyrenees-Orientales. Rudyard Kipling visited the town in the early part of the 20th Century and famously wrote that the Canigou was ‘a magician among mountains’.
One hundred years on and it’s easy to see what he meant; the Canigou is, quite simply, magnificent. It stands majestically as guardian of the area and never fails to inspire a feeling of total awe at the sheer ruggedness and power it seems to bestow.
The town of Vernet-les-Bains has a charm of its own. Red roofed houses huddle erratically around the church of St Saturnin which holds pride of place above the centre of the town. The mountains create the perfect backdrop to this wonderful view and, as the sun travels from east to west, the light constantly changes, making it the perfect shot for the keen photographer or a challenging series of canvases for any artist.
The town has much to offer; the Thermal Spa utilises the hot water spring and offers a range of treatments for respiratory and rheumatic conditions, the Place de la Republique plays host to the tri-weekly market, the Casino provides a variety of entertainment and the collection of accommodations, restaurants, cafes and shops all serve to offer the visitor the complete ‘French experience’.
As throughout France, Pétanque is played regularly by people of all ages and it’s a pleasure to watch a game or two in the sunshine and to hear the gentle sound as the boules compete to become closest to the jack.
Merely a few kilometres away is the World Heritage site of Villefranche-de- Conflent; a medieval fortified town with a maze of quaint narrow streets and courtyards where local craftsmen ply their trades and restaurants serve a selection of traditional Catalan dishes.
The entire area has a wealth of picturesque villages, Romanesque abbeys, fortified towns and several limestone caverns as well as the truly amazing mountain ranges. A drive in any direction from Vernet provides the most breathtaking scenery imaginable. Come rain or shine, whatever the time of day and, as the ever changing light rests on these mountains of gargantuan proportions, it is difficult not to be awestruck by their sheer splendour.
Only an hour or so away is the small town of Céret, famous for its tradition as home to artists, most notably Picasso who lived in the town in the early part of the 20th century. It is also famous for its Saturday market which is well worth a visit, not only to purchase from the vast array of local produce on offer, but to wander aimlessly and soak up the vibrant atmosphere.
A visit to the region would not be complete without taking a jaunt to the coast and, in particular, to Collioure, again a magnet to the artists of the early 20th century and to this day. The former lighthouse at Collioure is reputed to be one of the most painted sights in this part of France, and, to this effect, a ready-made metal picture frame has been erected to enable photographers to ‘frame’ this famous sight in one easy snapshot.
Overall, the eastern Pyrénées-Orientales is a largely undiscovered region but, with all it has to offer, including Catalan cuisine, local produce and excellent wines, it is somewhere I would highly recommend and, using Vernet-les-Bains as a base, is a perfect place to start the discovery.