Secret South of France
Narbonne to Collioure Road Trip
Head to France’s lesser known riviera, with it's sleepy fishing villages, sun-drenched vines and crowd-free beaches, you’ll understand why the French have wanted to keep it a secret - until now.
Tranquil, rainbow-coloured villages give way to steeply-angled vineyards set against thick layers of coral blue. Forget the glitz and glamour of the well-trodden Côte d’Azur, we are on a three-day road trip along France’s hidden Riviera, in search of fishing villages, lagoons and sparsely populated beaches on the Languedoc coast stretching south of Montpellier down to Collioure on the border with Spain.
The first stop on our trip is the city of Narbonne, 95 kilometres southwest of buzzy Montpellier. Narbonne was an important Roman port but centuries of silting of the River Aude meant that today it sits 15km inland from the coast. We quickly see that the city’s selling point is the Canal de la Robine, which flows into the renowned Canal du Midi, with wide promenades that attract plenty of flâneurs.
The unfinished cathedral towers over clusters of terracotta rooftops in Narbonne
We wander around the compact centre with its peachy-hued buildings and notice what looks like an unfinished church; it turns out to be the Cathédrale de Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur, which was begun in 1272 and was never completed. All we find is a vaulted choir rising to 41 metres and a cloister; in the 14th-century local authorities realised that adding the main parts of the cathedral would mean they would have to knock down the nearby Roman defensive wall. Hence the truncated building which stands today. A little further on lies Horreum - a former granary which is the only Roman building to survive in Narbonne. Only a fraction of the site has been excavated and it is a network of small storage chambers.
We cross the canal to find what could quite possibly be the city’s most popular attraction, the wrought-iron and glass market, Les Halles. Established in 1901, the indoor market is lined with stalls abounding in brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, pungent cheeses and fish in all shapes and sizes landed earlier that day.
Time has run away with us and we’re eager to move on south. We leave behind quaint Narbonne in the late afternoon and pootle on down to Gruissan, which lies on the edge of the parc naturel régional de la Narbonnaise, an 800-square-kilometre expanse of protected vineyards, lagoons and islands.
Gruissan is a charming terracotta-clad fishing village atop a hill nestled between two large lagoons just 20 minutes southeast of Narbonne. We arrive just in time for a Mediterranean-inspired seafood supper. But before we tuck into the catch of the day we stroll though the narrow alleyways which envelope the ruins of the 12th-century Tour Barberousse.
The tranquil Mediterranean fishing town of Gruissan
Dinner is enjoyed at a casual seafood place at the edge of the Mediterranean. The sun slowly melts away behind fields of vines and soon we are treated to a platter overflowing with the bounty of the sea, including whelks, fresh oysters, succulent crab and lobster. As we enjoy our fill of seafood, local resident Marie-Sabine tells us more about this little Mediterranean gem: ‘Gruissan has a long summer holiday history. Families would head here in the mid-1800s to enjoy the beach and sea air before the back-breaking work of the autumn grape harvest’, she says.
We notice that the local area is covered in colourful, wooden holiday chalets, a sight which, according to Marie-Sabine, dates back to the 1920s when the town bought a portion of land and constructed huts on stilts to let to local families working among the vines. Fortunately, the chalets found here today come with running water and electricity, which I am extremely grateful for since we are staying in one for the night.
The next morning over a generous breakfast of fresh-baked croissants and sun-swollen fruit we pore over the map to see where we are off to next. Leucate - that’s the next destination on our secret Riviera road trip; located 45 minutes from Gruissan via Narbonne, this tiny Mediterranean-facing port is blessed with numerous sandy criques from where you can enjoy soul-stirring views down towards Spain and the mighty Pyrénées. It is also famous for it's wind. It blows at a gentle pace for most of the year here and makes this small stretch of the Mediterranean coast a popular haunt for windsurfing enthusiasts.
Our journey continues south to the town of Canet-en-Roussillon. For the next 27 kilometres our road snakes along [the coast] past sweeping golden sands and the inky blue waters of the Mediterranean with the bustling city of Perpignan in the near distance. This soon transforms into swathes of vines that extend for as far as the eye can see and we pull over for an afternoon visit to the Mas Baux wine estate. Owners Serge and Marie Baux have been here for over 10 years and are happy to tell us how they have bowled over many an Anglophone visitor with their earthy reds.
Sunsets, we have quickly learnt, are just as much a picture moment down on this stretch of the Mediterranean as they are on the well-worn Côte d’Azur. We set ourselves up well for the evening with a table at La Plage Gourmande, a popular restaurant just steps from the sea. The waves whip up their salty foam into our brow and the sun turns a bright tangerine as we dine on roasted sea bream and consider the kilometres of untouched coastline that we have travelled past.
Our journey ends the next day in the picture-perfect fishing village of Collioure. We’re both delighted to conclude our mini odyssey in a village which is among the sunniest places in France and once inspired great painters such as Pablo Picasso.
The picture-perfect village of Collioure
Set in the foothills of the Pyrénées, the village is a wriggle of old streets and pastel-coloured buildings where the likes of Matisse and Derain once painted. Today these streets are teaming with art galleries and cute restaurants serving delectable Catalan fare.
After a wonderful few hours soaking up the atmosphere and relaxing beside the cobalt waters of Collioure bay, our tummies are groaning and we look for a restaurant where we can round off our trip. Surrounding the bay are a cluster of Catalan restaurants and we bag the last table at Can Pla.
We fill up on fish à la planxa (grilled) followed by crema catalana and wash it all down with a sweet white wine from nearby Banyuls-sur-Mer. The sun quickly gives way to star-sprinkled darkness and we make a toast to a road trip free from diversions, punctures and breakdowns and instead full of soul-stirring seascapes and sun-kissed villages that, thankfully, not that many tourists know about yet.
The turquoise waters of the Bay of Collioure
How To Get There
Ryanair operates regular services from London Stansted to Carcassonne, which is approximately 40 minutes from Narbonne. Trains from London St Pancras via Paris Gare de Lyon take 8 hours 15 minutes.
Where To Stay
Hôtel La Résidence
6 Rue du 1er Mai
Tel: (Fr) 4 68 32 19 41
Housed in a 19th-century building, the hotel boasts rooms that add a modern twist to French classic styles. Just a few minutes’ walk from the train station means this hotel is the perfect place to explore the quaint streets of Narbonne. Doubles from €88, breakfast €14
Hôtel Relais des Trois Mas
Route de Port-Vendres
Tel: (Fr) 4 68 82 05 07
Nestled on a promontory facing Collioure, this chic hotel is less than a 10-minute walk to the centre of town. Rooms are tastefully furnished and many come with stunning views over Collioure bay. Doubles from €100.
Where To Eat
27 Cours de la République
Tel: (Fr) 4 68 75 16 17
Overlooking the picturesque canal in the centre of Narbonne, En Face offers hearty fare in relaxed surroundings. Top dishes here include lemon-infused salmon tartare, bourride (fish stew) and grilled swordfish. Menus from €18.
Le Jardin des Filoche
64 Avenue Jean Jaurès
Tel: (Fr) 4 68 40 01 12
This family-run restaurant in Leucate serves a wide range of simple yet flavoursome dishes in a lovely garden setting. There is also a generous number of vegetarian dishes available. Menus from €28.
Office de Tourisme de Narbonne
31 Rue Jean Jaurès
Tel: (Fr) 4 68 65 15 60
Office de Tourisme de Collioure
Place du 18 Juin
Tel: (Fr) 4 68 82 15 47
Photo Credits: 1&2 ©ThinkStock, 3&4 ©Fotolia
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