I specialize in Eastern Europe, but for a change of pace this year, I’m swapping research chores with the co-author of our Rick Steves’ France guidebook, Steve Smith. (Rick was recently singing Steve’s praises on his blog…and deservedly so. Steve’s France book is the best in print, hands down.) Steve is picking up a couple of weeks updating Croatia for me, and I’m covering some of his territory in France: Languedoc-Roussillon, the Dordogne, and Normandy. It’s a fun switcheroo.
To begin my France swing, I had to get from Milan to Collioure, on France’s Mediterranean coast. Planning my itinerary a few months back, I came up with what now seems like a foolishly Rube Goldberg route between two points: Wake up early in Milan. Subway to the train station. Train to the airport. Fly to Barcelona. Commuter train to the main train station. High-speed TGV to the first French town over the border, Perpignan. Taxi to yet another airport to pick up my rental car. And finally, drive that last 40 minutes to my hotel. Amazingly, everything came off just right. Phew!
At the end of that long day, my reward is the postcard-perfect town of Collioure. After so many years of traveling around Europe, I start to think that I’ve seen it all. But then I pop into a place like Collioure and realize that there’s much more of Europe that I haven’t seen than what I have.
Collioure is a largely undiscovered gem of a resort town just a 45-minute drive from the Spanish border. (From there, it’s just another couple of hours — past trippy Salvador Dalí sights and world-famous Costa Brava restaurants — to Barcelona.) Collioure is the perfect size for being on holiday. It has five beaches, each with its own distinct personality (from party/pebbly to sandy/serene). And its town center, with atmospheric restaurant-lined pedestrian lanes, is an utter delight. It’s settled: I need to come back here on vacation.
It’s overcast today — the Friday afternoon of a long holiday weekend — so the cafés are full and the beaches are empty. But people are in high spirits, enjoying being on a mini-vacation, perfectly content to lick ice-cream cones and socialize rather than sunbathe and swim. They’ve read tomorrow’s perfect weather forecast…and they’re willing to be patient.
Collioure is one of those South of France towns that’s famous for its light, which draws great artists like moths. Shutterbugs love it, too. I pull out my camera and enjoy a photo safari.
Turning a corner, suddenly I’m in an almost fantastical square. Two scrawny but determined plane trees — their leaves still just coming in — yawn and stretch their knobby limbs over inviting café tables. Behind them is a Crayola box of houses, each more vivid than the last. In that instant, I know that, for the rest of my time here, I’ll fabricate excuses to circle back through this square as often as possible.
Continuing past Collioure’s perfect place, I approach its formidable church. The bell tower isn’t a bell tower: It’s a fortified lighthouse, providing direction to passing vessels even as it reminds would-be invaders that this town is no pushover. (The town’s stern and sprawling château — just across the beach — completes this thought.)
Finally I reach the pebbly beach, protected by a long, beefy jetty. I pause at the beach bar, whose owner is very proud of his homemade sangria. I’m intrigued by the daily special — fresh-caught turbot — and wind up returning later for dinner. As I eat my first-ever turbot (a flat, muddy-colored bottom feeder with a crumbly, almost rubbery flesh made flavorful with abundant herbs), the setting sun finally breaks through the clouds and washes the far side of the harbor in a rich, golden light — promising a sunnier day ahead. Strolling back to my hotel, I linger at the illuminated church and at my favorite square.
Sure enough, the next day I awake to brilliant sunshine and bright blue skies. My research chores take me all the way around the harbor, and I’m glad they do, because it forces me to walk past two more fine beaches.
At the biggest beach — whose curve is defined by the stout fortress — chest-deep novices struggle to board their mini-sailboats. Nearby, a topless sunbather catches some rays, while a nubile teenage couple makes out, just steps from where kids build sandcastles. Vive la France!
Stick with me for the next couple of weeks, as I explore France’s Languedoc-Roussillon, Dordogne, and Normandy regions. There’s a lot to see, a lot to experience…and a lot to eat. Allons-y!