Impressions of the Cote Vermeille: from Leucate to Collioure
Updated: Oct 13, 2020
It's not hard to see why artists like Matisse, Derain and Dufy were drawn to the picturesque towns on the Côte Vermeille or Vermillion Coast, a short stretch of shoreline stretching from Argelès-sur-Mer to the border with Spain. This area is an artist's dream with a beauty to render you speechless. And honestly, that takes a lot for me. Over six days I lost hours just sitting and staring at the dappled effects of light hitting the Mediterranean waters at varying times: the pinkish hues of the sky as the sun rose over Collioure, the fading golden light as the sun dropped behind the hills at sunset; the shimmering effects of city lights falling on water at night; boats moving slowly across glass-like seas - the views were everything I'd imagined and more, and it's no exaggeration to say they will leave an impression on me forever.
The Côte Vermeille is one of France's best-kept secrets. Well actually the French are privy to its charms but it's a far cry from the tourist-laden towns and beaches that line the Côte d'Azur, better known as the Riviera. And it's a whole lot cheaper too. This is where many French people go on holidays and I can see why. Each town is more charming than the one before, people are warm and welcoming, the wines from the Languedoc region are some of the best in the world (in my opinion anyway) and the fresh seafood makes an occasion of every meal.
What's also special about this area is the blend of French and Catalan culture. The region bordering Spain is the Pyrenees-Orientales, known to some as northern Catalonia due to the close cultural links with the Catalan region to the south. You'll notice things like the dual street-names and signposts, as well as the vast number of tapas restaurants that pop up on every corner. While I adore French food, I find it very filling so I love having the option of enjoying small plates, but with a French twist.
Our first sighting of the Côte Vermeille (albeit in the far distance) was from the ruins of a chateau, high above the gorgeous village of Leucate, our first stopping off point after a few days in Carcassonne. Leucate stands on a peninsula sandwiched between the Mediterranean and the lagoon Étang de Leucate, roughly halfway between Narbonne and Perpignan. Interestingly it was the old frontier between France & Spain (today's border is about 95 kilometres south of here) and this castle was the last defensive bastion. The territory south of here was historically part of Spain but was relinquished to France through the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659. There are stunning 360 degree views from the chateau which overlooks the town, and the bay and was the most perfect place to watch the sun sink in the sky as the evening light faded. We were watched over by the Lady of Leucate, Françoise de Cezelly, who sacrificed her husband to save the town from the Spanish during the taking of the city in 1590.
We were drawn to Leucate as our first coastal stopping-off point by a guesthouse which doubles as an art gallery. I'm a sucker for independent boutique hotels and will pretty much plan a holiday around my accommodation if I find something I like. And that's pretty much what happened here. This is La Galerie, a glorious townhouse on the main square - Place de la République.
I saw images online of both the guesthouse and the town and knew we had to stay there. It's quirky with a small number of rooms which are all uniquely decorated. It's run and managed by a young artist Nicolas Galtier - his paintings are hanging throughout the house and the decor can only be described as eclectic with a mix of old and contemporary pieces which work really well.
This was our room, the Gold Room, which I think is the nicest one in the house. It's large, bright and airy with big sash windows. The bathroom was very large with brightly tiled floors and a powerful shower. The communal areas are also beautifully decorated and there are works of art everywhere.
A continental breakfast is included in the price and is eaten communally in the dining area downstairs. Expect plenty of crusty bread, jams, cheese and meats, croissants, fruit and yoghurt, as well as orange juice and coffee.
Nicolas is a great host and had lots of good recommendations for us on things to do and places to eat, as well as interesting snippets of information about the area. We'd definitely come back.
Aside from the guesthouse, the village of Leucate itself is so picturesque with an olde-worlde charm that feels almost like stepping back in time. We stepped out of our front door onto Place de la République, the central square which plays host to a market on a number of evenings and mornings per week. On the evening we arrived it was bustling as vendors sold jewellery and craft items while others sat in the evening sun and enjoyed an aperitif. A gentleman was selling old-fashioned music boxes and their delightful tunes rang softly through the air as we wandered the streets.
This is Leucate life - gentle and sleepy and exactly what we wanted at that point of our holiday. It has to be one of the prettiest coastal towns in France. All of the houses and buildings are painted in the most gorgeous pastel shades with bright pops of colour on the shutters, and flowers everywhere. It's a tranquil place and you can't help but shift pace here and relax. I loved sitting in the square in the evening, watching the world go by and listening to the chatter of the locals, some in their strange Catalan-tinged French accents.
Yes it's quiet but don't let that put you off. There are many reasons to visit Leucate and here are just a few:
The beach: Leucate Plage
The village is located just 3 kilometres from Leucate Plage, one of a number of beaches along the 16 kilometres of Mediterranean shoreline. There's a dedicated walkway / cycleway from the village. You won't have to vie for space here - this is not the Riviera. We were here in mid-July and had plenty of space to ourselves to sit and enjoy the view. There is an area where you can hire sun-loungers for the day which of course tends to be busier but I really didn't see the need. The beach is vast and pretty much unpopulated in most parts so we were able to enjoy having a little corner of paradise to ourselves. The water was crystal clear and the perfect temperature for dipping in and out of. Bliss.
While I absolutely love the seaside, I'm usually twitching to go after more than a few hours lying on a beach. And as for my husband - he's the person who wears jeans to the beach and sits and complains about sand getting everywhere... you get the picture. Beach bums we are not. But as beach experiences go, this was a good one and I loved having a few hours of downtime to read my book while intermittently cooling off in the sea. For those seeking a more active beach experience, this is the land of water-sports. Plage de la Franqui is on the northern side of the peninsula and the high winds create the perfect conditions for surfers. It's a beautiful spot with a white sandy beach.
And now for lunch. After an exhausting morning reading, we were ready to eat. Nicolas had recommended this spot - Le Poulpe - a restaurant right on the beach so we didn't have to go too far. It has terrific seaside views but as you could expect, you pay for that. Prices were substantially higher than in the village but we didn't mind too much. It was good to escape from the heat of the day but still be able to enjoy the lovely coastline. It wasn't the best meal we had but it was pretty good and a nice spot to enjoy yet another glass of Rosé. The rocket and parmesan salad was great, as were the crab croquettes and patatas bravas, though the amount of raw garlic in the aioli was enough to kill a man at a hundred paces. Apparently this is the place to be at night. The bar opens late, they often have DJs and their cocktail list is impressive. So if the peace and tranquility of the village is too much for you, you know where to head.
The best meal of our holiday
35 Bis, Place de la République, Leucate village
I don't say this lightly as we had so many good meals over our ten-day trip but this was particularly outstanding in every way. Located just at the corner of the main square it was approximately a thirty second walk from our front door. We were lucky enough to bag ourselves the last outdoor table on the terrace above. The place was absolutely hopping by 8:30pm so I'd advise booking ahead if you're considering it.
I would describe this as innovative, modern cuisine with a fresh twist on traditional French dishes. The focus is on locally sourced, seasonal ingredients and the presentation is superb. My starter above was possibly one of the greatest taste experiences I've had. Ever. I'm still raving on about it to anyone that will listen. It's a salmon tartare on a round of shortbread with a creamy parmesan mousse on top. Sounds like it couldn't possibly work but it was perfectly judged. The salmon was so fresh, the shortbread was just the right side of sweet and as for the parmesan mousse - I was seriously thinking of asking to have it again for dessert. Martin's goat's cheese mousse sat on a honeyed sauce with a fin of the same shortbread and a side salad. Also delicious but nothing compared to mine.
Our mains were pretty rockin' too. I opted for sea bass with a squid tagliatelle topped with shaved asparagus and cherry tomatoes. Oh my. It was the best seafood dish of the holiday. The sea bass was cooked to perfection with a crispy skin which I devoured. The tagliatelle was such a great accompaniment with the subtlest seafood flavour and perfectly al-dente. The vegetables on both of our dishes tasted like they'd just been plucked from the garden a few minutes before. Martin's fillet of beef was also a winner, accompanied by a side of Dauphinoise potatoes which were half-heartedly shared with moi. I wouldn't have shared them. Just sayin'.
Look at how pretty our desserts were. I usually don't approve of messing with traditional dishes like panacotta but in this restaurant I was happy to give them the benefit of the doubt to see what they came up with. We weren't disappointed with this chocolate and berry-topped version. We also enjoyed a really good bottle of a Corbières red for €22. All in all this is high-end cuisine without the price tag. Their set-menu was €33 for three courses which is ridiculously good value when you consider the quality of the food - it was an absolute masterclass in every way.
We also enjoyed a casual meal at Le Bistro Lab and were looked after by a super friendly server who was happy to recommend dishes and an accompanying wine. We loved our starters in particular - an excellent Greek-style salad and a smoked haddock tartare with pomegranate. The Il Passant Syrah she suggested was perfect - light and smooth and it went perfectly with what we'd chosen to eat.
That concludes the Leucate leg of our travels. We stayed here for two nights which is pretty much all the time you would need to explore the village. It's very compact with all the action happening around Place de la République. But if you're interested in a beach holiday or in water sports you should take more time here to explore the beautiful coastline.
Closest airport is Perpignan and you can fly direct from Dublin with Aer Lingus though flights can be pricey during summer months. Montpellier (Aer Lingus- 130 kms) or Carcassonne (Ryanair - 87kms) could also be an option if you're thinking of hiring a car.
There is plenty of free 24-hour car parking in Leucate at the Boulodrome - an outdoor public parking area which is less than five minutes' walk out of the village.
An artist I used to work with in a gallery years ago painted numerous scenes of Collioure, a place I hadn't heard of at the time. Like many before him, he used to spend months there painting and capturing the seasons and the fleeting effects of light on the buildings and the water. It looked picture-perfect to me with its red-roofed buildings and always stuck in my mind. When I met Martin he told me that it was one of his favourite places. It took some time before we finally made it here but it was worth the wait. All I can say is, I fell completely in love with it and am already planning to come back.
This is what you're signing up for if you choose to come to Collioure. Not bad eh? Like Nice but on a much-smaller small scale, the town sits right on the beach so you get the best of both worlds - a coastal break but with all the benefits of a bustling town: great restaurants and bars, museums and galleries, and any number of buildings of historical and architectural interest. You can do as little or as much as you want here. The choice is yours.
The buildings of the old town sit right on the water including the monumental 800 year old chateau and the church of Notre Dame des Anges with its iconic pink domed bell-tower. You can walk right out along the pier on a narrow walkway to the lighthouse below, replete with 'love locks' to signify your devotion to your other half.
The warren of tiny streets that make up the old town are cobbled, colourful, vibrant and very appealing. Even with lots of tourists milling around, it never loses its character. There are loads of galleries and craft shops to wander in and out of and you can spend time researching which are the best ice-cream vendors on Boulevard Camille Pelletan. It's a tough job but someone has to do it. Our favourite was the one at the junction with Rue Vauban. His Amarena is to die for with big chunks of cherry in the middle and the Pistachio is great too. We had one every night of our trip. Nothing says 'I'm on holidays' like joining the locals and walking along the seashore at night with an ice-cream in your hand.
Collioure is the type of place to easily spend days just sitting at the coast and watching the world go by. There's a perfect viewing point just slightly out of town towards Port Vendres and past the high-end Relais des Trois Mas Hotel. You'll be looking down on the town from a height with a terrific view of the port, the castle and the boats in the bay.
It's at its best at sunrise. I couldn't sleep one morning and came up here for a run as the temperature was a lot cooler at this time of day. I sat on a rock and watched as the sky changed colour and the day sprang into life in front of my eyes. The pinky-hues of the sky before the sun burst through reminded me why artists talked so much about the special light in Collioure. I had the place all to myself and didn't move for forty five minutes. I am most certainly not a morning person but this was one of my favourite memories from our trip. If all mornings looked like this, I might be willing to change the habits of a lifetime.
Collioure is a popular place for boating enthusiasts and the port is heaving with boats at all times. I thought they looked so beautiful as they gracefully bobbed in the water or sailed across the bay. I only realised when I got home quite how many boat photographs I'd taken. Even as they sat in the bay, they looked splendid. The ones below to the right looked so pristine and lovingly maintained, painted in bright primary colours.
Start from the old town: if you follow Boulevard du Boramar and keep left on the promontory behind the church of Notre Dame des Anges, you will soon come to the small but very pretty 17th century chapel of Saint Vincent at the top of a series of steps. According to legend, Saint Vincent was martyred on this site in 303 and the chapel was built to house his relics. Pop around to the left side of the chapel and you'll encounter a large wooden cross with the figure of Jesus suspended from it, facing the sea. It's a stark and eerie sight, especially in the late evening when only the silhouette is visible.
THINGS TO DO
If you do feel like being active, there are plenty of options to keep you busy. Let's start on the gentler side of things. I'm going to point out that we landed in Collioure during a heatwave so movement of any sort could be challenging in the full heat of the day. We really wanted to visit the St Elmo Fort which sits high on the hills above the town. You can see its profile standing proudly against the skyline below. It looked like an epic uphill climb and not one we were ready to face in 38 degree heat on that particular day.
But fear not - that's where Le Petit Train Touristique comes in.
Le Petit Train is one of those ridiculous looking mini tourist trains that we would normally scoff at in derision but on this day it seemed like the greatest idea ever. The train takes visitors for a 45 minute ride starting in Collioure and then heads for the hills, through the surrounding vineyards and up to the Fort with guided commentary to tell you what to look out for. The views on the way up are pretty spectacular with a sea of red roofs surrounding the bay. It comes back to Collioure through Pont Vendres, the next town on the coast. It departs on the hour from 10am to 7pm and costs €8 per adult.
Just bear in mind though that if you're interested in more than a fleeting glimpse of the Fort, you might want to leave the train here and walk back down after having a look around or maybe going inside. There is, quite literally, a two minute stop at the top for photos. We stupidly hopped back on the train but then lamented the fact we hadn't had a chance to explore properly. So what did we do? Yep we decided to walk back up the day after.
LE MOULIN AND FORT ST ELME
This is one of the reasons why it's worth a visit to the Fort - the breathtaking views of the bay and of Collioure from the top. I definitely would NOT recommend walking up to the Fort in the midday sun like we did - I know, I know. You think we'd have learned by now. It was scorching hot and the path is mostly exposed to the elements. The walk starts at the side of the Musée d'Art Moderne and according to the signposts, it takes thirty minutes to get to the top. You probably could do it in thirty minutes if you went at full tilt and didn't stop once to catch your breath. We stopped more than once to wipe the sweat out of our eyes so it took about forty five. I'm a fast walker and would consider myself to be pretty fit but it was a tough climb. The second pic below might give you some idea of what to expect. It looks about a million miles away at some points.
Just past the museum and following the path through the trees is the picturesque windmill Le Moulin de Collioure. The mill dates from the 14th century but ceased use for a time in the 19th century and fell into disrepair. A restoration project was undertaken and completed in 2001. It is now in full working order and used for the crushing of olives and the production of Collioure oil.
And now the walk starts to get tough. There are no more trees to shade you once you go past the windmill so make sure to wear a hat. The countryside is really lovely here and you will be walking through working vineyards on either side with wonderful views of Collioure peeking through the trees as you ascend.
Eventually you'll reach the fort. Tickets are €7 per adult and €3 for a child. Happily bottles of water are for sale in the shop at reception for a mere €1. Honestly I would've paid €50 at that point as I was so thirsty and hot. If you're interested in history, particularly military history, then this is a must-visit. The initial construction phase on the fort began in 1544 under the reign of Charles V to strengthen the position of Collioure against the French (at this time Collioure was part of northern Catalonia).
Inside you'll find rooms filled with armour, helmets and two 16th century canons and there are a number dedicated to temporary exhibitions.
A staircase leads to a terrace with panoramic views of Collioure, Port Vendres and the mountains and plains of the surrounding countryside. The sea is so blue it's almost hard to differentiate between where the horizon line begins.
One of the coolest things we noticed up here was the graffiti on the tiles by soldiers and military officers who lived on-site at the Fort. The writing below was signed 1832 and was so elegant. There are hundreds of similar etchings into the stone and even drawings. Fascinating.
It's well worth a visit and even if history isn't your thing, you won't get a better view of Collioure.
Musée d'Art Moderne Villa Pams, Route de Port-Vendres
Considering that both Matisse and Derain lived here in 1905, and painted many scenes of Collioure I was a little surprised that there wasn't a single painting or drawing by either of them in the gallery though their names are mentioned on the website. They brought with them their innovative and exciting Fauvist style which seemed to have had a massive influence on artists living and working here. Really it's the work of their contemporaries and admirers that are on view in this museum.
Described as a museum of modern and contemporary art there is just one room dedicated to each. You won't need to give over more than a half hour to see everything. The building itself is gorgeous with an arched walkway and it's surrounded by trees and plants.
The collection is small and not massively exciting but there are some particularly nice works by Henri Martin and by Jean Peské. In fact, much of the museum's collection can be attributed to Peské who was instrumental in getting his artist friends to donate paintings, drawings and lithographs to the town and establishing the base of the collection. 190 donations were received which were then displayed in a room in the town council. After his death in 1960 the works were no longer on display and this was the case for the next twenty years. I found this particularly appalling. Thankfully upon the establishment of the Museum's Friends Association, the town council was encouraged to place the works on public display again. They purchased the villa which now houses the collection to this day. It's a nice gentle way to while away a half hour or so but don't expect to have your mind blown. The entrance fee is just €3.
There are any number of beaches along this coastline, and as you can see some are literally right at the edge of town, some sandy and others rocky. Despite this, the water is spotless and crystal clear. They can be quite busy during the day but if you start to walk out of town towards Port Vendres, there are many little coves down steps to your left that are quieter for swimming, or sitting and reading.
We spent much of our last evening here, sitting on some rocks, sipping bubbly and watching a group of kids fishing and diving for crabs as the sun went down.
HAVE PIZZA ON THE BEACH
This was our last supper in Collioure as we wanted to spend every last second at the shore. I mean seriously, look at that view. Taking our cue from the locals, we ordered a takeaway wood-fired pizza from Al Cantou, 19 Rue Pasteur and brought it down to the beach with a bottle of wine. It's perfectly acceptable here to have a beach picnic with wine and beer, as long as you clean up after yourself. Everyone does it and there was a number of families enjoying their food and drinks while their kids ran up and down the beach and swam in the water. All very civilised. The pizza was amazing by the way. I'm so fussy about pizza but this was seriously good which would explain the queues and the ticketing system. We were given a receipt and a time to come back to collect it. Expect about a 30 minute wait. It will be worth it.
After our nightly ice-cream we headed for home, sad to leave the next day but knowing we will definitely come back.
WHERE TO EAT
La Bodeguita, 18 Rue Vauban
Our best meal in Collioure was courtesy of La Bodeguita, located on the lovely Rue Vauban, one of the quieter streets in the old town. I knew as soon as I spoke to the manager earlier that day to book a table that we were going to love this place. She was pretty fabulous and so welcoming to everyone. We had a table on the street which was great for people-watching. As you can see from the pics, the presentation of the food was spectacular. Martin's Burrata had a pipette filled with pesto to inject into into your cheese as you wish. Very cool and a quirky touch. The whole dish was delicious with excellent ingredients. My scallops tartare was terrific also and so zingy-fresh as it came with a passionfruit purée.
For mains I ordered salmon which was poached in a Wasabi cream and every bit as good as it sounds. The salmon was perfectly cooked and just flaked off my fork and the subtle kick of Wasabi made it an interesting dish. Martin's Tuna Tartare with sesame crust was the best one I've ever tasted. Seriously good when dipped in the soy sauce. Washed down with two glasses of Rosé and a coffee, our bill came to €70. Pretty good value for what we had.
We also liked:
l'Arbre du Voyageur, Place Jean Jaures
Great for a healthy lunch. A rare find in France with options such as Buddha Bowls, chia puddings and hummus and avocado tartines. We also had fresh orange juice and very good coffee served in cool contemporary pottery. Thumbs up from us.
Can Pla, 7 bis Rue Voltaire
Just around the corner from l'Arbre du Voyageur is Can Pla. Specialising in Catalan dishes and tapas, this is the place to come for seafood. Look at the size of those prawns. They were so fresh, like they'd just been pulled from the sea. Vegetarians beware - you will most likely starve as there are very few, if any options. I had the tuna but it was very rare inside (as it was supposed to be) but perhaps a little too raw for me. Martin had the sea bass which came to the table complete with head. Again, not for me, but he said it was delicious. It came highly recommended from the lady who owned our apartment and she wasn't wrong. These two restaurants are not in the old town but just off the seafront on the other side so they attracts less tourists and more locals.
La Cave à Féfé, 12 Rue de la Démocratie
I stupidly forgot to take a photo while we were having a drink outside La Cave à Féfé but it's a really cool little wine bar situated across the road from Plage du Faubourg. Images above are pretty much your view from the outside tables. They have a huge number of wines by the glass but also sell bottles to go. You can enjoy a bottle at a table for a small corkage fee. The man and woman who run the place are extremely friendly and chatty. We only had one glass here but it's somewhere I wished I'd had time to spend a few hours, taking their recommendations and trying different wines. Next time for sure.
Crêperie Bretonne, 10 Avenue Camille Pelletan
The best place for a traditional galette in Collioure. You can sit in at the terrace across the road or order to take away (after 3pm). We opted for a takeaway option with a simple Emmental and ham filling. So good and the galette was just the right side of crispy, salty and buttery. The lady who served us was so nice, giving us glasses of water while we waited as it was so hot outside.
And that's it. In case you're wondering why I haven't recommended somewhere to stay, it's because we weren't completely happy with our accommodation this time around. We had a small apartment in a terrific location, close to the restaurants I mentioned above but while it had a lovely patio and overhanging bougainvillea, the accommodation itself was pretty basic with a plumbing issue so I won't be shouting about it from the rooftops. Next time I think we'll need to book early as we'd love to stay here - Le Mas de Trois Citronniers. Reviews suggest it's pretty delightful. And if we ever become rich maybe we'll opt for the high-end Le Relais de Trois Mas with its lovely outdoor pool overlooking the sea.
As with Leucate, the closest airport is Perpignan and you can fly direct from Dublin with Aer Lingus though flights can be pricey during summer months. Montpellier (Aer Lingus- 190 kms) could also be an option if you've hired a car. Actually for an extended break, Montpellier is a fantastic city. I wrote about it after our last trip which you can read here.
I'll leave you with some final pics as temptation. If you're thinking of a romantic weekend or even week away, it couldn't be more perfect.