By Patrick O’Connell
In Europe then we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also as a great giver of happiness and well-being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary.“
La Fête des Vendanges
Friday 7th October
Bus stations are never the most salubrious of places, but, Gare Routiere de Perpignan is part of the colourful El Centre Del Mon shopping centre, encompassing the busy TGV railway station. In the 60’s Salvador Dalí claimed the station was the true centre of the universe after experiencing a spiritual “mental ejaculation of cosmic ecstasy” in its waiting room, giving inspiration for his famous ‘La Gare de Perpignan’ oil painting. I would love to know what his ‘chemical of choice’ was back then!!!
In the afternoonthe scenic bus journey from Perpignan along the Mediterranean coast to Banyuls-sur-Mer is an unbelievable single euro fare. With the demise of the old traditional industries, such as mining, etc., the subsidised bus network serves the Occitanie/Pyrénées-Méditerranée Region,supporting the reduced railway system.
Passing through dramatic coastal views from Collioure, the popular beach town of Argeles sur Mer and historic maritime Port-Vendres, is probably one of the best bus tours along the Côte Vermeille. All for the pricely sum of €1.
Saturday 8th October
Saturday morning as the French say “Il pleut des cordes” (raining cats and dogs), but, my visit to Vendanges en Fête (Grape Harvest Festival) in Banyuls-sur-Mer, a delightful Catalan seaside town, is still memorable.
Well protected from the harsh northern wind and backed by the vertiginous terraced landscape giving a scenic backdrop of the precipitous, russet coloured hillside covered in vines. Banyuls has fantastic red dessert wines, made from the Grenache Noir grape … one of the most widely planted grapes, especially along the Mediterranean coast.
The white-washed streets are steep and narrow with shaded patios delightfully filled with palms and thorny ornamental vines. Revellers pack the narrow streets with their wine glass held high and bopping to the magical street music. With the specially emblazoned wine glass hanging from a lanyard around your neck, the world is a different place here, graciously replenished with local spirit. The wine glass is available for €5, entitling the recipient to free samples from the vendor stalls in Village Vigneron on the beach.
And in the background brass bands play everything from Hank to Hendrix. Magic!
In the 1860’s, Francois Rous, the newly appointed Parish Priest at the Chapelle de la Rectorie, first tasted the local wine and realised its potential. So good in fact he decided through his church network to make it the sacramental wine across France.
It is widely believed Father Rous began wine production here in Banyuls-sur-Mer; a clever ruse of raising funds for the upkeep of his church rather than depending on the traditional collection plate.
Banyuls-sur-Mer is the birthplace of Aristide Maillol, and many of his works are proudly displayed on the promenade. One in particular, “Jeune Fille Allonge”, the sculpture of the young Dina Vierny, his source of inspiration and model, stands beneath the indigo blue jacaranda tree near the town hall.
She was one of the “passeurs” who secretly guided Nazi fleeing refugees to safety during the Second World War. Refugees were instructed to take the last train to Banyuls-sur-Mer and look for a girl in a red dress in the café near the station. They were told not to speak to her, only follow at a distance before arriving at safe accommodation. Next day they made their way to freedom by walking the secret escape route to the nearby Spanish border.
As I walk down from the train station through the narrow streets I’m reminded of those dangerous times and the sacrifices people went through in providing safe passage to freedom must never be forgotten’
I stayed in the unpretentious 2-star La Casa Dina Hotel, energetically run by four young ladies, and I’m surprised to see one of the street bands having breakfast there.
I had previously met them a few years back at the Lamb Cutlet Festival in the mountain village of Arrens Marsous. They were amazed I remembered and said they must have impressed. Living over the border in Spain, a happy group of brass and wind troubadours playing part-time at Festivals and weddings in Catalonia.
I’m often intrigued watching the behavioural habits of people, especially at breakfast, where it’s not unusual to see a French person dunking a piece of baguette into their coffee first thing in the morning, even if it’s slathered with butter and jam – no kidding, I’ve seen it done.
And another sight to behold is when they wrap a piece of the baguette around a square of chocolate and in it goes for the ‘immersion’ ritual. Strange ways indeed.
On Saturday evening the much awaited Spectacular Rock concert in Place Paul Reig is cancelled due to the earlier inclement weather and leaving many Orchestre Newzik fans very disappointed. It may have put a damper on proceedings but the ever agile brass bands played on to complete the jovial atmosphere as people bopped along the secluded streets and promenade. Music is the soundtrack of your life!
Sunday 9th October
Sunday afternoon is throbbing as the communal beach barbeque provides the necessary sustenance for the forthcoming intake of the season’s new wine, following the church blessing ceremony in a packed Église Saint Jean Baptiste. The pebbled beach is transformed into a colourful, animated mass of eating and drinking, brass bands, joyous musicians, jugglers, and above all, softening the winter ahead.
Thousands of happy revellers await the consecration after a weekend of excellent entertainment. The beach becomes more like a scene from a Hollywood movie, with charcoal smoke wafting in the warm autumn afternoon, providing a memorable backdrop as the colourful Catalan boats bring the precious grape harvest ashore.
Later, I take a leisurely stroll down to the harbour: the sound of halyard ropes slapping against aluminium masts in the gentle night breeze provides the perfect background sound. Out in the harbour the lighthouse beacon flashes, offering safe guidance for ships in the night. A perfect backdrop to a marvellous weekend of fun and bonhomie in the South of France: music, colour, laughter, and wine … This is the real France.
A most enjoyable Autumn weekend break in the South of France … note it in your travel diary for October 2023