We are back in Céret in the foothills of the Pyrénées mountains, having visited last October for a few days with friends. Now we are ensconced for just under one month. Like the Auvergne and Creuse regions we passed through on our road trip south from Brittany, Occitanie has a lost world ambiance which we love. The bourgeoise in me couldn’t last here forever, but the part of me that disdains superficiality, consumerism and hyperactivity gets a massive lift.
Like an aged wine with loads of character, these parts of France are an evocative blend of peculiar environments and history. Here in Occitanie, the architecture is pre-Gothic, the towns are built through mountains on ancient pilgrimage paths, the many fortresses recall constant war between rival dynasties, and impressive Cathar strongholds such as Carcassonne tell the story of the violent persecution of Christian heretics.
The southern accent is decidedly a fading relic, but its coarseness still a reminder that we are far from the large and culturally sophisticated cities.
Céret is a relatively large town in this area, with 7,705 people at last count. Occitanie means “the west” in Catalan, the dominant culture of the area, encompassing the former regions of Langedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées (France made changes to the official categories of regions in 2016). Languedoc itself was derived from the terms “langue d’occitanie” or “the lingo of the west.” To further complicate matters, the administrative département is Pyrénées Orientales.
From its immediate appearance, Céret would not be the most important attraction in the area. But it doesn’t take much of a stroll through town to feel yourself relax, unwind, pick up the laid back vibe, note the many small artist ateliers and want to join the locals in a glass of Catalan red at a café under the leaf canopy of mottled plane trees.
If you are a fan of Romanesque cathedrals and abbeys, you’re in luck. You could visit one a day and not run out. The medieval art outpost of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, called The Cloisters (and one of my favorite hangouts when I was in college), obtained its Cuxa cloister in this area. If hiking gorges and forested mountain trails are what you live for, welcome. If 20th century art is a passion, you can follow the footsteps of the Fauves and others at the Cèret Musée d’ Art Moderne. There are several fine options for a thermal bath cure nearby. Mediterranean beaches? Collioure and others are a 40 minute drive or bus ride away.
These are just a few of the attractions. Soon, I’ll also be testing out the Catalan restaurants, for example. Stay tuned.