Just up from the border with Spain, this stretch of Mediterranean coast is known as La Cote Vermeille, or "the red coast."
The scenery lives up to the name: The rocky, red-gold cliffs stand out against the azure water. The area around the city of Perpignan holds the French record for the most number of sunny days a year (320, to be precise).
The sunshine has obviously been a major attraction for millenia. Perpignan was first settled in prehistoric times and was later claimed by the Romans, still later by Charlemagne and then by the Catalans. Despite (or because of) its history—this city 105 mi/170 km southeast of Toulouse became part of France only in 1659—Perpignan has kept its own very distinctive character: The food, language and customs all reflect its diverse cultures, and the Catalan flag of red and yellow stripes (or blood and gold, as the locals say) is everywhere. Walk along the pedestrian streets in the old city, see the strange building called Loge de Mer and visit the Palace of the Kings of Mallorca, a nice example of medieval architecture.
To the southeast about 20 mi/30 km is the coastal town of Collioure, which has a small beach, a harbor and old, distinctive Spanish buildings that seem to glow in the sunset. This area also has the best weather in France during the winter: mild, often sunny and fairly dry. Be sure to try the local specialty of fresh-caught anchovies marinated with red peppers and herbs in olive oil. However, the town has become so popular that it's hard to find a spot to park. For those in need of a good dose of sun and sand, Argeles-sur-Mer is about 10 minutes away. It's clean, pleasant and generally not too crowded, even in summer.
About 40 mi/60 km northwest of Perpignan is the double-walled fortress town of Carcassonne, one of our favorites—floodlit at night, it's a heart-stopping sight. Indeed, it ranks among the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe and has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site. The town's rampart walls are punctuated by 52 stone towers, with the main entrance to the fortress beneath the Porte Narbonnaise, accessible by a cobbled bridge. It offers lessons in history as well, having survived 15 centuries of turmoil. Visit the Castle of the Counts and the Basilica of St. Nazaire and learn the legend of how the town got its name. (The way Lady Carcas managed to outwit the mighty Charlemagne and his army is a lesson for daughters everywhere.) Note that day visitors are required to leave their cars outside the old city walls.
Carcassonne is in the heart of cassoulet country. This famous rustic dish of white beans, duck and sausage, simmered together and flavored with tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs, is an institution in the southwest of France. The town is in the Languedoc wine area, so you'll have plenty of good wine to accompany your cassoulet. The medieval festival in August is particularly famous and well worth the trip.
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