Make tracks for Pyrenees Oriental – Looking south from the top of the Archbishop’s Palace in Narbonne (this part of France boasts over 300 days of sunshine a year so you are virtually guaranteed a clear view) the beguiling delights of southern Langedoc-Rousslin beckon.
The views have to be earned, there’s a climb of 162 steps to the top of the 13-century keep, but it’s a price well worth the effort.
The immediate pay-off is a 360 degree vista of this ancient city; of neat terracotta roof tops, the hustle and bustle of the weekly open air market and a centre of town going breezily about its business.
You can also follow the calm grandeur of the Canal du Robine as it snakes slowly through Narbonne on its way to Port la Nouvelle on the Mediterranean, the final stretch of the majestic UNESCO World Heritage designated Canal du Midi.
The Archbishop’s Palace in the centre of Narbonne is the second largest ecclesiastical building complex in France, next to the Pope’s Palace in Avignon, and is home to the city’s Museum for Arts and History and the Archeological Museum.
Immediately below, 140ft down in the Place de l’Hotel de Ville, is further evidence of Narbonne’s enduring appeal – a beautifully preserved cutaway section of the Via Domitia, the oldest Roman road in France.
Ringed by attractive restaurants and bars, the ancient cobbles that moved Rome’s legions and opened the way for Pax Romana, the Via Domitia is a reminder that people have been making tracks to this part of the world for a very long time.
Built in 118BC, the Via Domitia went on to link Rome with Cadiz in Spain. Today, much of this ancient route immediately to the south has been overlaid by the A9 motorway that now provides quick and convenient connections through Langedoc-Rousslin.
It’s a relatively short drive to the department of Pyrenees Orientales, France’s most southerly, where perfect weather is matched by the warmth of the locals. Hospitality is as unhurried as it is genuine.
They are used to welcoming visitors here in Pyrenees Orientales and its becoming an increasingly popular option for fly-drive Brits who have the airports of Toulouse and Girona (Spain) as the most convenient starting points.
When researching the tourism offer for Pyrenees Oriental you may find it comes up thinner than its immediate neighbours, but between the beautiful Cote Vermeille (Vermillion Coast) and the mountains lies a land of plenty for the tourist – and no shortage of surprises.
The Cote Vermeille is 20km of sandy beaches, coves and walks that links the seaside towns of Argeles-sur-Mer in the north to Cerbere in the south. And like most attractions in this part of the world it’s an easy drive away.
The pick of the coastal attractions is Collioure, a picture postcard community much favoured by artists – the list includes Braque, Matisse, Picasso and Charles Rennie Mackintosh – and was home, from 1949 until his death in 2000, of naval historical novelist Patrick O’Brian.
Collioure’s cemetery contains the tomb of Spanish poet Antonio Machado, who fled here, along with many others, to escape Franco’s troops at the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939.
Collioure’s charming winding streets and chic shops are in stark contrast to the imposing fortifications that dominate its bayside walks, overlooked by a royal castle and a lighthouse that now illuminates the souls of the faithful, having undergone a conversion – to the church of Notre Dames des Anges.
And everywhere there’s the beguiling presence of the Mediterranean; the sea that shaped our history and carried Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths and corsairs to these shores.
Prior to the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, most of the present department was part of the Principality of Catalonia, within the Kingdom of Spain and it is still sometimes referred to as Northern Catalonia. A strong Catalonian influence continues to be resident in Pyrenees Oriental and the close proximity of Spain makes border hopping excursions easy.
We are staying a few miles outside Thuir (www.france-voyage.com/cities-towns/thuir-26346.htm), a small community with an unexpectedly big reputation in the drinks sector. Thuir is not only a famous wine centre but capital for the production of the fortified wine Byrrh. Thuir’s Byrrh caves attract thousands of visitors every year and it boasts the largest oak cask vat in the world.
A drive away….and worth a visit
Les Grandes Canalettes (the three grottos) and the medieval city of Villefranche de Conflent – On the road to Corneilla de Conflent the underground caverns held their secrets until the 1950s when they were discovered by chance. Extensive exploration took place 30 years later and the White Chamber was found in 1982 and the development of a vast subterranean network that are now amongst the most beautiful in France and have been developed as a magnificent walk. Every evening in July and August at 6:30pm, there is a light and sound show.
Grottes des Grandes Canalettes is 300 meters from the medieval town of Villefranche de Conflent that offers plenty of choice for eating out.
Castelnou – Built in 988, Castelnou is the best example of a medieval fortress in Roussillon. It enjoys magnificent views of the surrounding countryside and has cleverly mixed ancient and modern. During our visit the historic interpretation displays were complemented by a display of modern art by Rosy Cribeillet.
Perpignan – The capital city of Pyranees Oriental and a centre of culture. Notable buildings include the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist begun in 1324 and finished in 1509. The 13th century Palace of the Kings of Majorca sits on the high citadel, surrounded by ramparts and hosts the Guitares au Palais event in the last weekend of August.