Beside the Seaside….from Blackpool to Banyuls-sur-Mer

Basil Howitt emerges from convalescence to enjoy a day out in Banyuls-sur-Mer. He also listens to several Catalan Cobla bands.

“Oh I do like to be beside the seaside!
Oh, I do like to be beside the sea!
I do like to stroll along the prom, prom, prom,
While the brass band plays tiddley-om-pom-pom! ….”

What on earth, I hear you asking, has this rollicking Edwardian music hall refrain got to do with the Languedoc-Roussillon?

The answer is absolutely nothing at all – except that on some strange inner, ancestral prompting, I burst discreetly into song with this jolly ditty as we were strolling along the promenade at Banyuls-sur-Mer. It was probably a stirring of archetypal English childhood memories of seaside holidays at Blackpool and its famous Wurlitzer organ at the Tower Ballroom. Reginald Dixon – nicknamed “Mr Blackpool” and organist there 1930-1970 – made ‘Beside the Seaside’ his signature tune, as the Wurlitzer rose from the under-stage depths for his daily show. You can hear him playing the tune in the link below.

Enough of that! It was our first day out together by the seaside for a long time, after my lengthy hospital treatment involving 24 blood transfusions. The wonderful nurses joked that with so much local blood in my veins, I would wake up one morning speaking fluent Catalan! So far, no such luck.

We chose Banyuls because it is my favourite resort along the Côte Vermeille, the stretch of coast between Argelès and the Spanish border. As a watercolourist, my wife Clare prefers Collioure, formerly so favoured for its quality of light by Matisse and the Fauvists, but kindly gave way. Both resorts are easily reached by train on the local line between Narbonne and Cerbère. So on a recent glorious Saturday we left the car at Rivesaltes railway station (a few kilometres north of Perpignan) and bought two day returns totalling a mere 15,20€. In Clare’s photograph you can see the graffiti-ridden train pulling out of Banyuls towards the border town of Cerbère – the end of the local line – with the French/Spanish Albères mountains clearly visible under the blue, blue sky.

La Cobla 

In this part of the world there are no brass bands playing tiddley-om-pom-pom, but in Banyuls we heard one of the many Catalan coblas (there are reportedly some 130 altogether) playing equally catchy, if more complicated, rhythms. Omnipresent on festive occasions throughout Catalonia and beyond, coblas are essentially wind bands producing a uniquely strident sound.

Here is the standard cobla line-up of 11 players/12 instruments.

Front row from the left in the videos below:
– flaviol-tambori (a recorder-type fipple flute and a small drum played by one player), 2 tiblas, 2 tenoras. The tibla is a double-reeded, penetrating oboe-type instrument playing the treble lines, the tenora is a larger version of the same instrument playing lower lines or doubling the melody.
Back row from the left:
– 2 trumpets, 2 fiscorns (flugelhorns), trombone, double bass.

These coblas most often accompany the sardanes: folkloric Catalan dances performed in a circle with complicated footwork. However, the best coblas also give concerts with a wider repertoire in their own right, especially in Spanish Catalonia.

One band based in French Catalonia is La Principal de Rosselló (Roussillon). Here they are in informal mode:

The most professional band I have come across is La Principal de La Bisbal, based in the eponymous town west of Gerona. This is the officially appointed band of the Generalitat or Spanish Catalonian government. They are frequently booked also on our side of the border, and no wonder. Here are the Bisbal musicians kitted out in black ties and performing immaculately in a concert with a conductor:

Le Restaurateur Claude, très connu sur la côte Vermeille. 

Back to Banyuls. After a couple of beers on a very hot morning tempered by a lovely sea breeze, we made our way to ‘Chez Claude’ – easily the resort’s most popular fish restaurant, facing the sea front with a terrace shaded by spreading plane and palm trees. We have eaten there most summers for the last ten years or so. Claude is a lovely, charismatic showman d’un certain âge who makes every customer feel welcome and cared about – in spite of the 100 or more covers. Apart from the daily specials, the menu has remained barely unaltered in price for years – still only 19 euros for three generous courses, wine included, with a marvellous choice of fish dishes including shark, turbot, squid, monkfish …

Alas, we arrived this year to discover – as we sipped our apéritif of honeyed Banyuls poured from a huge two-litre flagon left, as usual, on the table – that “le patron” wasn’t there. He had been mugged in his garden as he took home the day’s takings (it is a strictly cash-or-cheque business – no credit cards). One of his staff arrived at his house the next morning to find him immobilised in his garden after an eight-hour night of agony – bound, gagged and with an excruciatingly painful shoulder injury. Fortunately the house alarm prevented the muggers from getting at his safe. And fortunately for us all, we gather he will soon be once again presiding over his restaurant.

There is so much else to write about Banyuls – the museum of the Banyuls-born sculptor Aristide Maillol with its bronzes of his fleshy females; the magnificent aquarium, marine reserve and underwater trail; the unusual eucalyptus and carob trees along the prom; the recent national and European honours conferred on the resort; the irresistible Banyuls wines … but these must all wait. Or you can learn a great deal on the resort’s excellent official website.)

© 2008 Basil Howitt


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