Where the Pyrenees meet the Mediterranean, its deep harbour bustling with activity, lies the attractive fishing village of Port Vendres. On the N114 only 30 odd kms from Perpignan, with its own railway station and bus service, it is easy to get to.
No one knows the exact position of the temple dedicated to Venus that used to dominate the port 2000 years ago, but wrecks, roman amphorae and coins found in the deep waters of the harbour bear witness to an illustrious past and it has been an important harbour for fishing boats, ferries, yachts, cargo ships and cruise liners ever since. Vauban fortified Port Vendres in 1679, making it an important military base as well as fishing port.
Marechal de Mailly made the major changes in the name of his King Louis XVI deepening the harbour and building the Route de Collioure. King Louis graciously allowed Monsieur de Wailly, his royal architect to erect an obelisk in his honour in the place d’Obelisque commemorating the major events of his reign, notably the abolition of the slave trade, American Independence and the development of French maritime commerce.
The Dôme, now occasional art gallery, was part of the grandiose buildings of the time.
The El Fanal lighthouse looking down on the entrance to the port and the fish market bears a few Vauban trademark lookouts and bastions. It is to the fish market, La Criee, that you must go to buy the freshest fish in the Mediterranean, or to sit and enjoy a glass of chilled white wine and a dozen oysters.
Port Vendres today it is a delightful, sparkling seaside town, full of restaurants, cafes and shops. It is also the most active fishing port of the Côte Roussillionnaise. The large fishing boats arrive every afternoon in a cloud of seagulls and smaller ones come in early in the morning and moor opposite the tourist office to sell their wares.
In the same corner of the quay you may see a few lamparos. Small boats with large lamps overhanging the water, they set out at night from March to October. Attracted by the light the fish, mostly anchovies and sardines, gather round the boat and are caught in nets.
The Promenade en Mer boats leave from Quai Jean Moulin, Some make a trip down the coast towards Spain, others head straight to Collioure. This is by far the best way to visit the famous artist village without getting into Collioure’s nightmare parking scenario.
Collioure’s markets are on Wednesdays and Sundays and that of Port Vendres, a particularly good one, fills the Place de l’Obelisque every Saturday morning. Locals fish off the quays and fishing excursions at sea are easily arranged.
Several dive schools operate out of Port Vendres and more than 2000 boats and yachts use the “Port de Plaisance”. A walk past them on the way to the restaurants, bars and cafes lining the Quai Pierre Forgas idles away those moments before lunch or dinner very happily.
The vineyards of Collioure and Banyuls AOC wines cover the slopes to the edge of the town and tastings are encouraged in the wine shops and cellars of local vignerons. The Scottish architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackingtosh spent the last four years of his life with is beloved wife Margaret in Port Vendres. His paintings can be seen, displayed in distinctive metal stands, reminiscent of the chair backs of his furniture designs in the positions from which he painted the originals.
From 1838 onwards Port Vendres’s trade with North Africa was on the increase, particularly with Algeria. A connection brutally broken in 1962. The Sidi Ferruch Monument, originally one of Vauban’s defences, houses a small museum of French Algeria. Today the cargo trade is on the increase again, huge ships manoeuvre in the tight space between the quays.
There are two sandy beaches and numerous little coves line the coast in either direction. The walk to Cap Bear is easy and has marvellous views. Not surprisingly there is a semaphore station and Phare Bear (lighthouse) when you reach the point. From there the coastal path leads along cliffs covered in wild lavender and rosemary to Paulilles.