If you’re desperate to escape the sultry city heat, and get horizontal on one of the delightful beaches of the Pyrénées-Orientales, c’est du gâteau! Accessible resorts all along the P-O coastline offer long stretches of golden sand, intimate rocky creeks….. Something for all the family.
However, if the idea of sand in every orifice doesn’t appeal, why not drop the sun worshippers off at the nearest ‘station balnéaire’, and do a bit of exploring nearby? Enchanting butterfly world, the ancient art of glass blowing, biscuit making, cool cathedrals, fishing lakes….
A ten minute drive from the coast brings you to the ancient historical capital of Roussillon, Elne, so named in the fourth century when the Christian emperor Constantine changed its Roman name, Illiberis, to Elne, in honour of his mother Helena.
Wander the well-signed circuit of the ramparts, or the cobbled, oleander lined alleys full of small galleries and workshops, to the huge Cathedral consecrated in 1069. Its peaceful cloisters, made of blue Céret marble are amongst the most beautiful in France, its gardens sweet with traditional herbs and medicinal plants.
Now head for the colourful workshops of ‘Les Souffleurs de Verre’, talented glass blowers working in the ‘place St Jordi’ near the Tourist Office. Fascinating to watch, their highly original glass makes ideal gifts.
The Maternité Suisse in Chateau d’en Bardou, is also worth a visit. This moving memorial is to young Swiss nurse, Elisabeth Eidenbenz, who rescued pregnant women from the misery of the internment camps of Argeles, Rivesaltes, Barcares and St Cyprien. She saved the lives of almost 600 babies before being closed down by the Germans in 1944.
As you leave Elne, direction Argelès, you can’t miss the large blue butterfly sign of Le Tropique de Papillon, butterfly paradise, filled with exotic plants, tropical flowers, caterpillar nursery, and hundreds of delicate butterflies from all over the world.
A relaxing and magical place, with murmuring fountains, greenhouse garden of bananas, lotus and hibiscus and the magnificent colours of the softly fluttering butterflies all around you – gentle oasis of peace and beauty. A cooling drink or ice-cream in the charming garden is an added bonus.
A further 10-minute drive heading towards Argelès and you enter the village of Palau del Vidre, for many years under the authority of the influential Knights Templar, during which time the village was fortified. A very small section of the ancient fortifications remains today, reminder of a colourful past.
Originally Palatium Rodegarium, the name was changed to Palau de Vidre, ‘palace of glass’, in 1442, when glassmakers from around France settled in the area. Attracted by plentiful resources such as sand from the River Tech and wood to sustain the high temperatures required for glass blowing, the industry flourished, only dying out with the start of the French Revolution.
Today revived, it is fascinating to wander the glass making workshops and boutiques around the village centre, different styles, from intricate handmade glass jewellery to glass blowing, to exquisite stained glass and engraving – original gifts for every pocket. Most of them put on demonstrations so that you can watch the glass being crafted.
The Festival International des Arts du Verre takes place every August and brings glassmakers together from around the world, with music, castellers, Batacuda, (samba style Brazilian percussion), street entertainment, and glass making and blowing on every corner (no info for 2020). Look out in particular for the evening session when the glass blowers toast their trade, and, once a little tipsy, allow the public to have a bit of a blow!
Look out for La Verrerie d’Art, where master glass blower Jorge Mateus will be happy to show you his impressive showroom…..and the kids can have a go at glass blowing and go home with a sphere with their name on it! Cool or what?
Or pop across the square to l’Effet Verre where Marie Munos creates exquisite jewellery out of Murano glass and pearls, painstakingly crafted by blowtorch.
Alternatively, you may find that perfect gift in Susanna Fonserè’s collection, on the corner (opposite the café) in the main street. She produces a range of beautiful objects using the same blowtorch technique.
The 11th century église Sainte-Marie is also well worth a visit, financed by the wealthy glassmakers of yore, with a fascinating, perfectly preserved set of ancient artwork and ‘retables’. Or how about a spot of fishing, no permis required, for only 10 euros, payable on site? The Sant Marti lake is stocked with trout and carp, has a ‘parcours de sante’, (fitness trail) to encourage you to hop, skip, and jump around the lake, and makes a delightful day out with a picnic, the dog and the kids.
After picking the lounging lobsters up from the beach, try ‘Au Remp’arts at the top of ancient Elne for a delicious, quality lunchtime or evening alternative to a sand filled sarnie, for a perfect ‘gourmet’ ending to a fabulous day.