The Pyrénées-Orientales is the southern-most tip of France and, because of its proximity to the Spanish border, Catalan culture has a huge influence. The landscape is extremely varied, with beaches, mountains, vineyards, valleys and plains.
The area has always been an important one because of its geographical position, starting with the Roman takeover in 121BC and the subsequent establishment of a trade route between Italy and Spain. A side-effect of this prosperity was the influx of Spanish culture, something which has endured over the centuries. During the 13th century, the area fell under the rule of the Majorcan Kings. Between the 15th and 17th centuries, France and Spain traded ownership of the territory numerous times. Indeed, such was Spain's interest in Pyrénées-Orientales that, in 1793, they invaded once again (only to be ejected thirteen months later). Therefore, despite its official status as part of France, there have always been those who have called it Northern or French Catalonia. However, unlike the Basque region, there is no organised separatist movement.
Average temperature in the Pyrenees Orientales
Bustling Argeles-sur-Mer has 7 km of sand, incorporating a marina and the quieter resort of Le Racou. Alternatively, St Cyprien has 6 km of sandy beach. Collioure also has four smaller beaches (both the sand and pebble varieties).
Collioure is known as the "jewel of the Cote Vermeille" and deservedly so. The town is dominated by the 12th century Château Royal, built by the Templars. The old town, with its narrow streets and pastel coloured houses, is well worth exploring, as are the Pams Gardens.
Perpignan also merits a visit, with its wide boulevards and medieval quarter. For a day of spectacular scenery take Le Petit Train Jaune or drive through the Tet Valley into the Pyrenees, exploring Prades with its Church of St Pierre and Villefranch de Conflent. 3 kilometres from Prades is the lovely Abbey of St-Michel-de-Cuxa, with its crenellated tower and beautiful cloisters. Prades makes an excellent base for exploring the Canigou region.
There are four beach clubs at Argeles offering entertainment for children, including pedaloes, trampolines, kayaks, mini-golf, and mini-jet-ski. Also in Argeles, Les Aigles de Valmy has an interesting show featuring birds of prey, while Banyuls-sur-Mer has an aquarium which children will enjoy.
Museums, galleries and culture
Collioure is known as the City of Painters and was visited by Picasso, Matisse, Derain, Dufy and Chagall. Le Chemin du Fauvism is an open-air exhibition of reproductions of works by Matisse and Derain, situated in the exact spots where they were originally painted. Collioure is also well-catered for concerts, theatre and local festivals such as that of St John, held on June 23rd each year with bonfires, torch-lit processions, Sardanes dances and fireworks.
Perpignan is home to the Casa Pairal, a museum of Catalan folk culture. The Musee Rigaud, also in Perpignan, is officially dedicated to the work of locally-born painter Rigaud who worked at Versailles in the 18th century but also has works by Dufy, Picasso and Maillol.
The town of Ceret was also visited by Picasso and Matisse, who dedicated several paintings to its Musee d'Art Moderne. Whether you consider bull-fighting to be a cultural experience or not, if you have the stomach for it then Ceret is the place to be.
The area between the Mediterranean and the foothills of the Pyrenees is excellent for wine growing, particularly Collioure, Port Vendres, Banyuls and Cerbere. In many instances, no machinery can be used because of the steep slopes and so traditional methods are employed.
The Collioure Rouge has a full bodied taste whilst the Collioure Rose is very fruity. Banyuls is famous for its Vin Doux, a sweet wine matured in oak. The wines can be tasted at Le Cellier des Dominicains, Cave Veuve Banyuls and Domaine Manya-Puig, all in Collioure.
At the west end of the department is the Montagne region, dominated by the Capcir plateau. It provides excellent skiing, both downhill and cross-country. The largest resort is Les Angles but, if you prefer a more traditional Catalan mountain village, try Porte Puymorens.
The best way to enjoy the beautiful countryside of the department is by walking. From Collioure there are two coastal paths, one towards Port Vendres and one towards Argeles, each one taking roughly two hours.
Around Argeles itself there are several miles of very attractive signed footpaths. All the tourist offices in the region sell a useful book entitled 'Randonnees en Cote Vermeille', which can be bought for a few euros. For the experienced hiker, Pic de Canigou provides a challenge and can be climbed in five and a half hours. Make sure, however, that you are properly equipped and have a good large scale map. Mountain refuge huts are available on several of the routes in the Pyrenees.
Just south of Perpignan, the two 18 hole courses at St Cyprien Golf Club are both suitable for experienced players as well as beginners. They front the beach and also offer beautiful views of the Pyrenees. The 18 hole course at Domaine de Falgos, close to the Spanish border, is less challenging and so more suited to less experienced players and also offers spectacular scenery over the sea and mountains.
All sorts of water-sports are available in the department. Argeles is particularly good for water-skiing and wind-surfing, while the Centre International de Plonges at Collioure offers diving and snorkeling (including courses for beginners). There are also boat trips from Collioure's Cap Bear which cater for fishermen and those just wishing to enjoy the seascapes. Trips last one or two hours.
Xtreme Bike in Collioure has mountain bikes, quad bikes, moto and boat rental, as well as the popular banana boats. If you are a horse lover you will enjoy riding in the area. Kentucky Ranch at Argeles offers the usual short treks as well as three day excursions for the really keen, taking in all sorts of terrain: beaches, woodland and the River Tech.
Food and drink
Being a coastal area, fish and shellfish feature heavily on restaurant menus. Anchovies are a local speciality and form the basis of many dishes. Given the department's proximity to Spain there is a heavy influence in the cooking, with the old favourite paella being relatively common. Other Catalan favourites include les petits pates de Pezenas (pastries made from lamb sweetmeats), bourride de Setet (a fish stew with saffron and garlic mayonnaise), boules de Picolat (meatballs with white beans) and salade Catalan (a delicious mix of greens, anchovies, peppers and tomatoes). For pudding, you must try the local speciality creme catalan, reminiscent of crème brulee and made with lemon, vanilla and fennel.
Ease of access
Perpignan is 750 miles from Calais and, although it is slightly closer to Caen, that involves a much longer ferry crossing so may not necessarily be a better option. There are flights to Perpignan and further afield to Toulouse, Girona and Barcelona. Cars can be hired at all these airports. If you prefer traveling by train, it is possible to take the Eurostar to Paris and then the high speed TGV line to Perpignan via Toulouse.
Value for money
Cheaper than the Cote d'Azure, where beaches often charge entry fees and shops and restaurants are more expensive, Pyrénées-Orientales offers good value for money especially if you use a budget airline and hire a small car.
If you are looking for variety in a holiday then this department will not disappoint. From the foothills of the Pyrenees down to the Mediterranean, there is something for everyone. The coastal towns lack the glitz of the Cote d'Azure but, if anything, that only adds to their attraction.