Over the next few days we went on a series of train adventures: to the beautiful but melancholy site of Walter Benjamin's grave in Port Bou, 10 minutes away through the tunnel between France and Spain; and to medieval Girona, an hour from Port Bou; and to Collioure, a picturesque town beloved by artists and very crowded, 15 minutes from Cerbère. We also spent a day in equally crowded Carcassonne, and visited lovely Narbonne, a dignified but lively city whose Roman past seemed almost tangible.
En route to the station for these trips we kept passing a huge Art Deco building, sporting the word "Hotel" in fading letters but looking as if it had been closed for years. It turned out to be Le Belvédère du Rayon-Vert, a luxury hotel built in 1928, which closed during the Spanish Civil War and never regained its former glory. But it has retained its grand staircase and high ceilings, and, I discovered, some of the rooms have been converted into holiday flats, with original tiled floors, iron-shuttered windows and balconies overlooking the Med.
Life centres around the grandly named Place de la République, in reality a small village square, where we watched an impressive display of the local Catalan dance, la Sardane. It is a circle dance which anyone can join at any moment, accompanied by an 11-piece orchestra, la Cobla. It looks easy, with grandparents and children joining in, but isn't, as I discovered when I joined the free dance class held every Monday on the seafront. After that we were part of the local life.
On our last day of this second trip we walked across the hills from Collioure and decided to carry on down to Port Vendres, founded by the Phoenicians in 600BC, its name a corruption of Portus Veneris (Port of Venus). It is still a major port for fruit from Africa.
It was a contrasting pleasure to return, via an 11-minute train ride, from this astonishing discovery to the quiet, faded splendour of the Belvedère, drink a Banyuls blanc (the local aperitif) on the balcony, watching the sun going down over our deserted little beach across the bay, then stroll down to La Plage for freshly grilled sardines, before joining what seemed like the entire population of Cerbère, men, women, teenagers and children, already seated by the seafront and singing along to traditional songs played by the 11-piece orchestra.
People here are relatively poor, but they are rich in other ways. When we ran out of 50-centime pieces for the table-football machine at La Coba, the patron gave us another. "Pour vous faire plaisir," he said, smiling.
By Annabel Simms
May 2012- Daily Telegraph
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