Micro-Adventure: Port Vendres

July 7, 2015 we decided to visit the nearby harbor town of Port Vendres (Vond-rah). Okay, to be honest we meant to go to Perpignan, but after getting up at 5:30 am we still missed the 6:50 am bus. The Perpignan bus stops right outside our favorite patissiere, so we sat down for chocolate croissants and cafe kreme . . . then we decided to visit Port Vendres.

We try hard not to let those “oh crap” moments, like missing our bus, wreck our day and rather like to view them as a serendipity intervening to encourage spontaneous decision-making.

After enjoying our quick breakfast, our new destination planned, we walked back to the house and made the dog deliriously happy by letting her out of her crate hours earlier than usual. We grabbed her red plaid “bus bag,” a requirement for all dogs riding on the 1 Euro buses, her water bottle and her leash and headed to the bus stop for the 400 bus to Port Vendres. A short 1.3 kilometer walk from the house.

Taking the 8:18 am bus, we arrived in Port Vendres by 8:35 am. The short ride was more than enough for Sami who hates her bus bag almost as much as she hates being on the bus! We got off at the first of three stops the bus makes in Port Vendres wanting to see as much of the town as possible. We walked down the hill from the cemetery, crossing traffic a couple of times as sidewalks came and went, ending up at the north end of the harbor and the obelisk. We stayed for a while taking photos and watching people purchasing the morning’s catch from small vending stalls stationed along the edge of  the harbor.

From the north end of town we headed into the city center by way of the sidewalk across the street from the harbor looking for the tourist office. All along the harbor were ornate street lamps that had 12″ x 8″ black and white framed photos of the harbor’s history. We stopped around 9 am needing to sit down and cool off for a minute. The mornings bright sunlight and the city’s excellent humidity had made us all quite thirsty. We passed by two war memorials along the way. One for free French and British pilots who were lost during WWII, the other a memorial for French soldiers lost during the war with Algeria.

While enjoying a cold drink and the shade from the sidewalk cafe, we watched a sailboat leave the harbor for a pleasant day at sea. The older couple who owned the boat made the business of backing out, turning and leaving the boat parking look like a small, simple exercise while we both know that neither of us could have done so with such ease and gracefulness.

While watching the couple leave the harbor we commented on the beautiful clock tower that was opposite us on the south side of the harbor. The older looking tower seemed to grow out of the top of a more modern building. We later found out that the clock tower was original to one of the three redoubts (forts) that made up the harbor defense in the late 1600s as the harbor city was turned into a naval base under the rule of Louis XIV by Vauban.

There were a couple of old cannons along the sidewalks, remnants of the city’s older defense system. The sidewalks were decorated with red bricks the design blending into the scenery in such a way that it enhanced the look of the street. Along the side streets we noticed nothing but stairs, a very pedestrian area for sure explaining why the main road along the harbor was so busy. It reminded us both of time spent walking around San Fransisco. Alan mentioned that once you left the harbor area there was nowhere to go but up.

While we were sitting, an older gentleman sat nearby and ordered a small beer, followed by an elderly lady who sat in the far corner who also ordered a small beer. It was about then than Alan realized he had also ordered a cold beer at 9 am. Apparently this is not uncommon and, in fact, appeared to be a local custom.

Finding the tourist office was easy enough, signs are posted pointing the direction and giving the distance. The nice young lady inside spoke beautiful English with a British accent and was more than happy to supply us with a city map, directions to the nicer beaches and point out that all of the main city sights (buildings and monuments) were denoted on the map in yellow, while other sights of interest (forts, lighthouses, trailheads) were numbered. We asked if any of the beaches allowed dogs, they don’t. Sami was slightly disappointed as she truly loves the beach. After thanking her for her assistance, we went out front and found an empty bench to review the map and decide what to see first.

I wanted to see the fort, Alan the lighthouse. We decided to do both even though they were on opposite points of the harbor. We are training for the Camino de Santiago so long walks are not really an issue. Making sure Sami was hydrated, we headed across the street to follow the pedestrian trail out to the lighthouse.

The trail out to metal pier lighthouse on the breakwater was approximately 3 kilometers. Passing by several fish and seafood restaurants which the city is known for, we eventually left the “tourist” area and found ourselves passing by the commercial district of the harbor.

Port Vendres is different from the other sea-side cities along the Côte Vermeille. It is a rocky, deep-water harbor that can handle both commercial freighters and cruise ships. It is a typical Mediterranean fishing port as well and we saw fishing boats coming and going alongside pleasure craft and sailboats throughout the day. There was one enormous freighter parked next to the industrial cranes used to remove shipping containers from freighters. It was nearly emptied of its cargo.

Leaving the commercial zone, we followed the pedestrian path past a supermarket and gardening center. The entrance to the gardening center had a number of old wooden boats stacked up to one side and just beyond that were train tracks that lead to nowhere. On the hill above the supermarket were the ruins of what looked to be an old factory of some sort. The small, sharply-pointed, four-sided roof at the top of the main structure was almost completely caved in on the side facing us.

We eventually came out to a camping area where tents and trailers were scattered all over. Camping here is quite different than in the U.S. Though most of the camps have areas for RVs and tents many of the spaces are filled with small mobile homes that are basically turn-key mini apartments in wooded areas. These were no different.

On the opposite side of the street was a closed up building that had once been a nice sea-side resort called Les Tamarins. Four stories and a terrace that overlooked the deep bay. There was a small sandy beach to one side that some swimmers were enjoying.

I had to shake my head that there were swimmers there at all. The water of the harbor was beautiful with the rainbow hues of oil on the water. I couldn’t believe anyone would willingly swim in that water. At the next beach up the path, I noticed a stack of towels and a bottle of laundry detergent. I couldn’t help but wonder if someone was using the detergent to keep the oil off while swimming or just planning to do laundry on their way back to the camp.

The path turned off the road and headed up along the rocky coastline of the small bay. We began noticing old bollards, rusted and set into the large, black rocks along the shore. I began to see the images from the street lamps, old cruise ships full of well dressed people and could imagine the boats tied up to these rusting bollards. Along the trail there were a couple of old cannons which were part of the port defense system at an earlier time in history.

As we climbed a bit higher we spotted an older man who was clearing ignoring the “No fishing” signs posted around the bay. I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would fish in oil-coated water, but noticed later that many others were ignoring the signs as well.

Just beyond the law-breaking fishermen was the remains of what appeared to be an old terrace area belonging to a house higher on the cliff. The stone steps leading up to the house were filled with debris and looked like they hadn’t been used in a century or two.

A few minutes later we descended into a parking lot for a restaurant. It was built right next to the water and apparently opened for lunch from 12:30 to 2:30 and then later in the evening for dinner. There was another small beach next to it with a few more swimmers.

Just beyond the restaurant was another old fort structure and on the hill opposite the street were the ruins of a round battlement. It’s hard to tell which period they were from but the round structure was clearly older. The area has been inhabited since the Iron Age and was at one time inhabited by the Romans. The city gets its name from this era, the Romans called it Portus Veneris after the goddess Venus. Such a long history makes trying to identify old ruins a bit difficult for those who don’t know the area’s history well, but they are always interesting to look at and we stopped for a few minutes and took turns holding Sami’s leash to take some photos.

The trail followed the road for a few hundred meters and came out to a parking area opposite yet another small beach with more people enjoying the sunny morning. Just beyond the beach was the breakwater and the lighthouse. The side of the breakwater facing the harbor was a solid, wide, cemented area with a huge cement wall. At the end of this cement platform was a small four-legged lighthouse.

More fishermen ignored the posted warnings and lined the edge of the cement platform with all manner of fishing equipment. On the opposite side of the 10-foot wall were the beautiful gold and red boulders that give the area its name, La Côte Vermeille.

While sitting on top of yet another large, cement platform and taking photos of the colorful rocks against the green water, Sami saw Alan and took off to meet him. The handle of the leash was snatched out of my hand, following Sami. It had enough speed and weight to go right over the edge near the largest boulder leaning against the cement wall. It fell down about six feet and got stuck under yet another large rock. Alan had to climb down between two large boulders to free the leash. Sami had the decency to look like she was sorry . . . for about 3 seconds . . . before heading off to explore another interesting scent.

By now it was about 11 am and we headed back toward the harbor to have some lunch before checking out the other side of the bay.

Once we made it back into the “tourist zone” we found a nice sidewalk cafe for lunch. Our selection of restaurants had nothing to do with food and everything to do with the amount of shade available. Selecting one with a nicely shaded dining area and sitting at a small table in the corner we ordered lunch. I had a salad with tuna, potato and mushroom garnished with slices of tomato. Alan had his favorite the moules et frites, or mussels and fries. The mussels here come with a variety of cooking options. Alan normally has the mariniere cooked with wine and onion, but other offerings were garlic, bleu cheese and one called Banyuls style. We didn’t have a clue what that meant but later found out it refers to a delicious red dessert wine. Banyuls-sur-Mer is a little further south of Port Vendres so we’ve decided to visit there soon and try the moules et frites Banyuls style while we’re there.

After lunch, we headed off to the north end of the harbor, stopping again at square housing the obelisk. The obelisk square is part of a larger area with a garden and domed building. Military barracks used to be situated here and the Dome used to be the head of the regiment’s house. Today it’s an exhibit hall housing a permanent exhibition by Charles R. Mackintosh, who brought the city to life on his canvas through watercolor.

The obelisk was erected by the Comte du Mailly under the direction of Charles De Wailly, architect and painter to the king. The first stone was placed on September 28, 1780, by Mailly’s wife, Felicite de Narbonne Pelet. The event was witnessed by much of the Roussillon nobility. The obelisk is adorned by four bronze bas-reliefs representing the newly independent United States of America, the abolition of serfdom in France, free trade and the strengthened French Navy. In commemoration, the Fete de Mailly takes place every September. It features a fancy dress parade through the streets followed by a re-enactment of the placing of the first stone, circus workshops, historical games, rides in a carriage, Xim Xim concert (featuring traditional dance music of central France), Catalan ballet, enactment of a pirate fight, jeu de foulard (bandana game), and more. We will be in Spain in September but will try to attend in 2016.

Heading down the staircase we walked along the water’s edge looking at the fishing boats and trying to keep Sami away from the small fish vendors stalls that were already closed for the day but still full of enticing smells and the small hope of something edible. Sami does tend to think that all walks are like a trip down a buffet line, it is a constant battle to keep her from eating everything she stumbles across. I keep thinking that non-English speaking people think her name is “Don’t Eat That!”

Alan spotted a pretty little fountain next to the staircase with a beautifully carved marble fish. I don’t often like French sculpture finding it far more parochial than my favorite Italian sculpture but can still appreciate any well executed design. I found the fish sculpture fascinating. None of my photos turned out though, Sami was helping point out the need of anti-vibration on my iPod by constantly tugging on her leash. I had a few odd photos of a blurry marble fish when I finally downloaded my photos to the laptop.

Just up the ramp to the sidewalk was the church of Port Vendres. Notre-Dame de Bonne Nouvelle was built in 1888, with a curious mixture of Romanesque-Byzantine facades and, according to the city’s website, has Neogothic touches in the very high nave. We didn’t go inside however as dogs are not allowed.

Continuing up rue de la Mirande we came to a fork and took the lower rue Arago, called “rue du soleil” or sunny street, stopping at what we thought might be a restaurant, but may have been the fish auction hall. Realizing that we couldn’t go further because the next area was an industrial area, we turned at went back up the hill to rue de la Mirande to get out to the fort.

Rue de la Mirande has beautiful old homes, a few more contemporary, and all of them draped in flowers. At the end of the street was the Redoute du Fanal and just beyond on the headland facing the sea was a statue of Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle. The original bronze statue was replaced by a lighter one in resin sometime in the past and more recently someone added an empty wine bottle to the Madonna’s arms. We chose not to shoot the statue’s full length.

The fort was closed but we were able to follow a winding stone stairway to the base and wander around the harbor side. Redoute du Fanal dates back to the late 1600s. The architect was Vauban, Sebastien Prestre, Marquis de Vauban was an engineer, architect, military planner, hydraulics engineer, and French essayist. He was appointed Marshal of France by Louis XIV. La Redoute du Fanal was built between 1673 and 1700 for the defense of the port and part of Louis XIV’s plan to turn the area into a naval base. The green lantern lighthouse marks the harbor entrance. In 1780 the light of the lighthouse had a range of more than five leagues. Though it still marks the harbor entrance, there is also a modern light set in the shallows below the fort.

Taking a moment to sit on the short wall overlooking the cliffs and water below we checked on Sami’s feet and tested the heat of the asphalt before heading back down the hill.

Upon returning to the harbor area, we stopped back at the same restaurant where we took a break in the morning. Ordering cold drinks and sitting at one of the umbrella topped tables. We noticed that the same old guy from our first stop was sitting at a table next to the street, drinking another beer.  A few minutes later the sailboat we had watched leave was heading back in and parking. Is it called parking when it’s a boat? Well, they parked the sailboat just as we were finishing our drinks. It seemed like the day had come full circle, so we headed to the bus stop.

The bus took us as far as Port Argeles and we walked the 3.1 kilometers home. Stopping in the tourist area of Centre Plage for Alan’s new favorite ice cream. A sorbet made with poire (pear), which was surprisingly refreshing and light. We took turns sharing a bite with Sami and made it back home about 40 minutes later.

Along the way we passed a mirror someone left propped against their fence obviously meant for the trash. Sami was very interested in the MinPin who appeared right before her eyes, then looked behind the mirror to see where it went!

Sami immediately laid on the couch in front of the fan and slept for about 90 minutes. All-in-all we walked just over 12 kilometers (approx. 7.5 miles) and Sami did just great. We are hoping to continue taking her along while we explore other nearby cities accessible via the 1 Euro buses. Next trip will be Banyuls-sur-Mer, probably tomorrow.

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