Onwards to Occitanie, and Céret and Collioure. These small towns are very near the Spanish border, Barcelona a two-hour drive away. We took a forested mountain road to the border, ears popping, taking in peaceful views over wild country and the Pyrénées Orientales. Down in the valley, we could hear the soft clang of cowbells. It is a primitive sound that shakes me out of the present every time I hear it.
The border was marked, but this being a Schengen zone there were no guards. How different being here must have been during the World Wars, when Spain was neutral and its villages harbored French escapees from the conflict who crossed these mountains. During the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s, leftist combatants and civilians reversed those tracks to seek refuge in France.
The language Occitan (or the language of the Occitanie, langue-d’oc), has largely died out. But Catalan is widespread and there is a common, far from cosmopolitan, identity between these people and the Catalans across the border. The restaurants feature Catalan dishes and in Céret street signs are in French and Catalan. Locals dance the Sardanes at festivals and bulls run the streets every year to celebrate Bastille Day.
The locals retain a distinct accent however, a little nasal, where they say “aine” instead of “oin” (in the French). I like regional differences, and more so if they stem from the middle ages, so I found it a thrill to hear, but I recall many northern speakers of pure French disliking it.
We were enchanted by little Céret, probably for the same reasons the many famous artists who spent several years there. The local art museum exhibits their works, including Picassos, Matisses, Derains, Chagalls, Braques and Soutines. Other than enjoying the ghosts of the past, there is little else to do but while away time enjoying the light (300 days of sun a year), the clean air, the tranquility and the trails into the mountains.
In our lovely Art Nouveau apartment we felt as if we were in a living diorama, with its decor evocative of the interiors seen in paintings of the earlier era and its classic view over a courtyard.
Collioure, on the Mediterranean Sea, also attracted those painters. Here, you could paint all day without being disturbed by noise, people, things to do, or unwanted stimuli of any kind. Being off-season during our visit, it had a particularly throwback vibe. The French Riviera must have been like this 60 years ago. First of all, there was hardly anyone there. Surrounding it were pine forested hills, with little sprawl. It felt cut off, the absence of crowds and dazzling light transforming the town into a blessed haven.
But don’t go there! It’s too quiet. You’ll be bored. No reason to check it out at all. Trust me.