Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Twists and Turns on the Vermillion Coast

Wednesday, May 18
Today's plan is to head southeast of Perpignan to what is called the Vermillion Coast. These are the last beach towns along the Mediterranean before getting to the Spanish border. They are also nestled into the foothills of the Pyrenees as they tumble into the sea and so have dramatic backdrops that are very different from the wide, flat sandy beaches near Béziers. Dave and I along with Judy and Duane have already spent a bit of time in Collioure and are anxious to go back with better weather and earlier in the day.

We're off by shortly after 9, Green Guide in hand. There are two tours we plan to follow, one along the coast and the other above the coast in the foothills and vinyards of the Banyuls wine growing area.

Again it is clear and we snap photos of Mt Canigou from the car windows along the A9 toll road. We have views of Canigou - compare my out the window photo with Clark's. His doesn't have the pole. Oh, well.

Clark photo

Janis finds a cool view of windmills and manages to get a good photo of them out the window. Within an hour and a half, we are at the starting point for our tour.

Janis photo

You may remember how dizzying I felt the roads were going up the Tarn Gorges. Well, those roads seem like highways compared to these goat paths that cling to the sides of the cliffs here. As usual, there are no guardrails and few wide spots for passing on these twisty rough pavements that pass for roads.

I find myself holding on to the door handle as though that will keep the car on the road. We see bicyclists flying down the mountain and think they must have lost their minds. But the reward for all this anxiety is breathtaking views of the Mediterranean, the beach towns and the vinyards climbing steeply up the ravines below and above us. Janis pinches herself to be sure she's not dreaming these views. We can't stop taking pictures in every direction. We joke that we'll need to start selling postcards if any of them come out. Thank goodness digital film is cheap!

We stop at a privately owned chapel buried against what turns out to be one of the lower ravines. The owners are trying to make a buck with a small hotel and "rental" of picnic spaces (1 Euro) that include tables and stone fireplaces for grilling. The site was once a hermitage and the chapel part of that site is Notre Dame de Consolation. And the site is consoling - isolated, small stream running through it, shady and cool and really peaceful.

Clark photo

That is until, as we're about to leave, there is suddenly a hoard of tourists descending on the site. We wonder how they got here as a bus couldn't make it to the site. Sure enough, as we leave and drive up the goatpath road to where it meets the larger goatpath road, we see a tour bus backed into a pull-off area at the switchback. How do they do it?

We continue our drive up into the foothills, each view getting more spectacular than the last, wondering how people could live up here, wondering how anyone can work the vinyards that seem to sit at a 45 degree angle to horizontal.

We seem to be following another car with red license plates (meaning leased car, tourist). I ask the couple in the car if they have a leased car. Turns out they are from Quebec City and are here for 3 weeks. They take a photo of the 4 of us at the outlook with the table d'orientation.

We take photos at every ooh and aah place we see (that we can pull off for, we have to forego some where there's no wide spot in the road)

We stop at the ruins of an 1885 barracks near the top. We looked for the road up to the very top to the Tour Madeloc which the Green Guide describes as needing extreme caution because of its 1:4 gradient, sharp hairpin bends and no room to pass. We wonder how that's any different from what we've been doing! Luckily (I think) there are no entry signs posted at this side road to the top and we look at the steep climb it would be on foot and take a pass on seeing the Tour. We rationalize that the view wouldn't be that different from what we've been seeing and continue on to Banyuls, now having to lose all the altitude we've gained on the way up. I'm hanging on to the door again. Only once do I hold my breath as we pull over to the very edge of the drop off to allow another car to pass. I breathe easier when we get to the bottom, but glad we did the mountain road.

We eat lunch in Banyuls right at the beach in the center of town. As we're checking out the menu at the first place, a woman comes to explain in great detail (in French, she doesn't speak English) how all the dishes are prepared. The menu du jour looks good - a drink and choice of fish or beef prepared "à la chinoise" for 10 Euros. We pick a table nearest the beach for uninterrupted views of the Mediterranean during lunch. Janis notices that the restaurants in this row along the beach front are separated from the restaurant itself by the main road through town. The waiters must bus everything back and forth across this busy road

lunch view

view across road from beach

view across road from resto

Unfortunately when we all decide to order the fish, we are told that there is only one portion left. So Dave and Clark order the moules gratinées, Janis gets the last fish and I order the beef "à la chinoise" which isn't very chinese, but is very tasty. In fact, all the meals are tasty. The only problem is the 20 km/h wind blowing off the Mediterranean which has been keeping us from baking in the heat of the day. However, under the shade of the restaurant's awnings, the wind is a bit too cool for comfort. That is remedied as soon as we leave the restaurant and get into the sun. We walk a couple blocks in search of an ATM which we find within a block of the beach. And what should we pass on the way to the ATM? One of those beautiful ice cream stores with the irresistable flavors. We stop and get two boules each for dessert.

Then it's back into the car for the coast drive. We start by heading south toward the Spanish border. I'm surprised that the coast road doesn't actually travel much on the coast. There are simply too many hills and ravines to be able to drive along the coast. The mountains spill right down to the sea in huge plates of rock that must be manoeuvered around and over. We stop for a couple of overviews and then try to find the road to a light house at Cap Béar. We stumble on the road accidentally as we come into Port-Vendres and start heading up this cliff of rock jutting into the sea. We're back on goat paths which make up for not being so extremely high by being narrower, twistier with less room for error. Luckily, Dave has nerves of steel and we negotiate the road with no problems going up and only a few scary moments going down when a car coming around a hairpin turn takes it a bit wide.

Finally, we get to Collioure at 4:45, our ending town. Dave and I love this town and today the light is better so we end up re-taking most of the pictures we took the first time. We look at the pictures and spots they were painted from and show Clark the picture frame views. Unfortunately, his attempt at framing the picture with the help of the pre-made view isn't too successful, as you can see.

Clark's photo

The photo he should have taken (and actually did take - this is Clark's other photo)

Dave, Janis and Clark explore the town for an hour while I find a sunny spot to counteract the chill of the wind and do an hour's worth of needlework while looking at the harbor and the fortress. I have to say I get to do needlework in the most picturesque places. We're ready to go home, but first we need to extract the car from the rocky parking space it occupies.

We get home about 7:20 and Janis starts the grilled red pepper aperos while I start the veal blanquette we will have for dinner. Dinner will take about an hour and a half, so we don't eat dinner until 10. How European of us. To tide us over, we have been drinking wine since aperos and realize we've now gone through 1.5 bottles of rosé and two bottles of red, but who's counting. Amazingly, none of us feel any effects from the wine. I guess eating and drinking over long periods of time keep the alcohol from affecting one much. We finally go to bed at midnight after having planned our next "light" day.

We plan to go to market Thursday, pick up our lamb for grilling and then head to Oulibo for olives and olive oil (what, again? But a necessary trip. We are dangerously low on olive oil) and then lunch in Capestang and an afternoon at the local beach town Serignan Plage. Then the boys will grill us a fantastic lamb dinner. Can't wait.

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