The magnificent vistas of the Cote Vermeille have inspired some of the world’s most famous artists—indeed, they sparked an entire style of painting. It’s easy to see why.
As you stand at one of several overlooks, the Mediterranean crashes below you, interrupted by craggy mountains. Steeply sloping vineyards speckle the landscape and hug the coastline. Spain’s rugged shore can be spotted just to the south.
Cote Vermeille's Central Location
The “vermilion coast” is the ideal springboard for exploring two regions, the Pyrénées and the Mediterranean. It is mere minutes from Spain’s Costa Brava and a short drive to both Perpignan and Barcelona.
This French stretch of coastline boasts an enchanting border village, castle ruins, endless outdoor adventures, delectable cuisine, fabulous wines and, of course, some of Europe’s most breathtaking scenery.
Undiscovered Riches of the Cote Vermeille
Unlike the tourist-ridden French Riviera to the east, the enchanting villages of the Cote Vermeille remain delightfully undiscovered. Although the beaches can get jammed during the peak summer months, it is rare to encounter foreign visitors in this tiny wedge of France.
The Cote Vermeille slices a winding and picturesque path from Argelès-sur-Mer, a popular coastal resort city on the northern end, to Cerbère, a quaint seaside village lined with buildings painted cotton-candy shades of yellow, pink and aquamarine.
The stretch spans a mere 15 miles and typically takes less than half an hour to drive.
Neither France nor Spain, This is Catalonia
At times, the Cote Vermeille feels more like Spain than France. Spanish hours are the norm, with late lunches and dinners. In fact, in a sense you are no longer in France, and you aren’t really in Spain either.
This is the heart of Catalonia, a cultural enclave that has swapped hands between the two countries over the years. But whatever may befall the land they occupy, the Catalan people remain fiercely independent and take enormous pride in their culture and lifestyle.
Diverse Sightseeing, Adventures and Tastes
Despite its compact size, the area is amazingly diverse. Pretty Coullioure, a haven for art lovers, was the birthplace of Fauvism, which sprang to life with Henri Matisse’s wild, brightly colored paintings of the village.
Argelès is a wonderful stop for families, featuring a sandy beachfront packed with upscale seaside campgrounds and sun-drenched cafés.
This is serious wine country, too, the home turf of rich red Collioure wine and Banyuls vin doux. Banyuls, first made by the crusading Knights Templar in the Middle Ages, gained popularity when it was used as a sacramental wine in churches throughout France.
You’ll find a wealth of historic attractions in this small geographic area, ranging from prehistoric megaliths to ancient Greek relics to 19th-century architectural treasures.
Outdoor activities include hiking, cycling, scuba diving and sailing. A unique underwater preserve, the Réserve Naturelle Marine de Cerbère-Banyuls-sur-Mer, offers a haven to marine life and activities to its human observers.
This is a place to savor the slow and sweet life. Spend days relaxing on the beach. Take long walks along the shore. Indulge in a late multicourse dinner of incredible food.
The Côte Vermeille itinerary begins just a few minutes outside of Perpignan in Argelès-sur-Mer, then winds south through villages, past breathtaking overlooks and along scenic vineyards, culminating in pretty Cerbère just near Spain.
Life’s a beach
Argelès-sur-Mer is the ultimate beach town with pizza joints and shops selling beach wares and an inviting sandy seaside. It features the longest stretch of beach in the entire Pyrénées-Orientales department.
Then again, it’s so much more than a beach town.
The city and its immediate area boast no fewer than four châteaux and two nature preserves. Its Notre-Dame-dels-Prats cathedral dates back to the 14th and 17th centuries. Its dolmens, or stone ossuaries, are relics from about the first or second millennium BCE.
Argelès is a magnet for campers, with numerous upscale, four-star campgrounds, most featuring pools, on-site restaurants, bars and shops. The town’s slogan, “En Méditerranée, les Pyrénées ont une plage,” says it simply: “In the Mediterannean, the Pyrénées have a beach.”
Art imitates Collioure
For any art lover, the attractive village of Collioure is a must. Matisse visited here during a low point in his career and was inspired and revitalized by the lovely scenery. It’s easy to imagine how. The small town, with its ochre rooftops and castle at the edge of the shore, is endlessly charming.
His vivid paintings sparked a new art movement, Fauvism, which attracted other artists—Matisse, Picasso and Chagall among them—to this small town. They hung out at the bar of the Hôtel-Restaurant les Templiers, which doubles as an art museum now, but you can still stay there.
The village is packed with art museums and galleries, the highlight being the Chemin du Fauvisme.
At this unique outdoor museum, you follow the trail to find replicas of Fauvist works posted in the spot where they were painted.
Dive right in
Port Vendres is a lively harbor city, an epicenter of aquatic activities such as scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, windsurfing and boating. It is a placeof dignified monuments, including an obelisk, various historic fort sites and a lighthouse that looks like a modern sculpture.
Saturday mornings, the village bursts to life with its enticing market featuring produce, Catalan specialties and spices as brightly colored as an artist’s palette. Vineyards overlook the village from the hills above.
Land of wine and honey
Banyuls-sur-Mer is the quintessential wine village in a string of Côte Vermeille wine destinations. There are numerous wineries here for touring and tasting—you can hardly find a spot where vineyards aren’t visible in the distance.
Its marina, at the last southerly port before Spain, is a center of activity. The aquarium here dates back to the 19th century. Stroll along the narrow Allées Maillol to find local artists practicing their craft. La Salette church, a quaint building that looks more Spanish than French, overlooks Banyuls. It is worth visiting just for the splendid panoramic view of village, sea and mountains.
"The end of the world"
Few French villages display the lively Catalan colors like Cerbère. The last Côte Vermeille town before you hit Spain (just a few minutes away), it is like a canvas come to life, with its brightly painted boats and centre-ville buildings.
Cerbère is one of the world’s most beautiful settings for strolls and hikes, and the city tourism office can provide four self-guided walking tours that leave from the heart of the village.
The last stop before entering Spain is Cap Cerbère’s solar lighthouse, called “le phare du bout du monde”—“the lighthouse at the end of the world.” Walking to the edge of the cliff, with nothing but sea stretching to the horizon, you almost believe it.
Published with permission from France Magazine, featured on this list of Top France Magazines.