Micro-Adventure: Banyuls-sur-Mer

The first glimpse of the Banyuls-sur-Mer (literally translated to Pond by the Sea – the pond was drained in the mid 1800s) area was of the Site of the Paulillies. It’s an abandoned dynamite factory that was reclaimed as a regional historic park. The factory still exists but the other 70 outbuildings have since been taken down. The vineyards flow right out to the edge of the coastline. The Banyuls red dessert wine produced here is supposed to be the best in France. We’ll have to find that out next time. We meant to pick up a bottle but got distracted later in the day.

After stepping off the bus at Avenue de Gaulle the air is immediately filled with the sweet scent of flowers, unusual for a sea side city. After setting Sami free from the bus bag that she dislikes — we both carry small day packs for traveling and mine is perfect for holding Sami’s bus bag while we hike around — we look around and find a sign pointing the direction of the tourist office. It is just up the street and sitting on the beach.

While Alan talks with the receptionist, I look through a rack of flyers. I was expecting them to be the same as those I saw in Port Vendres, and was surprised when they were different. I picked up several that looked interesting. Three for military forts; Fortress de Salses which is a national monument, Fort Lagarde designed by Vauban and Les Remparts de Vauban which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. One chateau in Castelnou, the Center for Roman Sculpture, a chapter house with a 9th century abbey that has been updated with 3 architectural styles since it was built, the Hospici d’Illa with art in both Roman and Baroque styles, and the one I am most anxious to visit Les Orgues. Les Orgues is a natural park in the Tet valley with what are called fairy-chimneys. It looks to have all the natural beauty of Zion in Utah or Garden of the Gods just outside Colorado Springs.

Alan returned with the city map and I waved my flyers telling him I have new places to visit on future trips. We offer the receptionist a “Au Revoir, Merci Beaucoup, Bonjourne” (Goodbye, Thank you very much, Have a great day) and head out to find coffee.

The day is breezy and cool, perhaps a bit more breezy than is comfortable but at least it wasn’t hot at 9:30 am. We walked past a few open restaurants and stop at one where another couple is enjoying a coffee. At Le Corsaire we found a table near the windbreak and grabbed a seat. Almost immediately the server is there asking what we would like to drink. Alan says “due cafe kreme” (two coffees with milk) and when they arrived a few minutes later I was pleased to find that the coffee was very, very good. Probably the best we’ve had since leaving Carcassonne and my favorite La Petit Moka in Place Carnot.

While enjoying our coffee, we took a look at the map. Banyuls-sur-Mer is a tiny town, a population of only 4,650. Across the street is a wide beach along the north side of the bay. The multi-arched main road into town is quite picturesque and though we would have loved to wander out to the point on the north end of the bay, the beach is not dog-friendly and it is the only access to the beautiful arched structure. We decided instead to visit the l’île Grosse first. The l’île Petit is also only accessible by the beach so wasn’t on our “to visit” list for the day.

After finishing our coffee, we cross the street to walk along the boardwalk next to the beach. There is a small park area just past the restaurants where there is a small statue of naked men dancing. It’s fairly abstract though I was quite certain all the figures were male. The shade from the trees offered a challenge to photography but we both stood there for a few minutes trying our best with our iPod cameras.

Normally we travel with a full range of cameras. Alan’s Olympus big camera and waterproof camera, My Nikon big camera with a 36x zoom and my AWS 100 waterproof camera. But lately we’ve just been using the iPod 5 camera trying to get used to a smaller camera for our upcoming Camino trip. There were several times throughout the day that I wished I had brought my bigger Nikon. Banyuls is a very picturesque city, from nearly every angle.

Just before the bridge is a small police municipale. We know this is a small town and that most of the northern side of town is pedestrian only. But we both had a laugh at the police vehicles in Banyuls-sur-Mer, no mini-vans, no cars, nope nothing but three small scooters parked out front. Just like the ones used for pizza delivery in Carcassonne! But it does offer a glimpse into the safety of the area that they have no need of anything more than a scooter to keep the peace!

As we walk along the coastline, crossing the bridge for the river which is dry and being used as additional parking, we made our way to the south end of town. Just beyond the bridge is the harbor and small boats are parked in neat rows. Nearly all the watercraft are white-hulled with sails wrapped in bright blue. Except one small bright orange boat with an outboard motor nearly as big as the boat. Alan made a comment about way to much motor while I countered with “one of these things is not like the others.”

The walkways have all been redone with neat red brick and the sidewalk is wide enough to allow the three of us to walk side-by-side while still allowing bicycles to pass two abreast. The street sits up higher and overlooks the harbor and we realize about halfway down the street that there are small shops underneath us.

Where the sidewalk ends is a pretty rock garden with the name of the city and a few iconic statues, an anchor, a bunch of grapes and a sailboat. Above is the curved path that leads to the Universite de Pierre et Marie Curie and the Arago Laboratory and Aquarium. The aquarium was open but there wasn’t anyone at the desk so we continued out to the l’île Grosse. Sami got very, very excited at this point. She LOVES the ocean.

Just before the gate at the start of the path out to l’île Grosse there was a small opening to the breakwater with a couple of stairs. Sami ran up the stairs and was wiggling with excitement. The wind was making for some active wave action and the water was crashing against the large gold and red rocks. Sami just couldn’t help herself and ran out onto the breakwater ready to chase the waves away.

We called her back over and continued walking toward the point along the walled breakwater. The entire area is a protected marine reserve and the wind is kicking up beautiful waves. The water near the point is the same bright blue that you see in glacial ice; so clear you can see the rocks under the water. Sami was in heaven. We were alone both at the base of the breakwater as well as at the top of l’île Grosse where there is a wonderful 360 degree view of the Mediterranean and the city. Another sculpture by artist Aristide Maillol sits at the top of l’île Grosse. Maillol is a native son of Banyuls-sur-Mer he was born there and died there. His works of art are scattered throughout town.

Just to the south of l’île Grosse is the cliff area where the Pyrenees Mountains meet the sea, the area is beautiful and wild, waves were crashing so high that a lone house visible from where we stood was getting misted by salt water. We rather liked having a glimpse of the Eastern Pyrenees as soon we will be heading west to cross the Pyrenees from France to Spain on day one of our hike to Santiago.

We stayed for a while enjoying the view, watching Sami chase scents of the sea and laughing at her exuberant behavior, enjoying the breeze as the day warmed up. On our return we noticed a small fort overlooking the start of the breakwater. The stairs are hidden to the back of the University de P. et M. Curie so we missed them when we walked past them on the way out to the l’île Grosse. Once we spotted them Sami dashed up the first set to the landing then looked back to see if we were going to follow. We decided to give in to her request. Following her up the remaining two flights we arrived at a small lean-to style shed. It was obviously being used as a home by someone as there was a mattress and bedding on the floor to the right and a few shirts and a pair of jeans flapping in the breeze from a peg on the left. We opted to continue climbing and not disturb this makeshift home. At the very top was another great view of the Med and the city. Another statue, this one of a fisherman, sat in a small rock garden, though inaccessible due to a locked gate.

On our return trip to the ground level, we spotted a small set of four steps leading to a barred window. I was pulling out my iPod to snap a photo when Sami dashed up the steps to see if anyone was inside. Alan was standing to one side and I managed to get a photo of Sami looking into the window and seeing her Daddy’s reflection. The next four photos were of Sami looking from Daddy to his reflection in the window. Sometimes she is just too funny to watch. Reflections really confuse her. Her least two favorite things are “reflection” dog and “shadow” dog, she hates them and they follow her everywhere.

We walked back toward the row of restaurants along the upper path, stopped to snap a few shots through the metal frame thoughtfully provided by the city to denote a photo op. When we reached the staircase leading to the harbor-front shops we decided to walk back toward the University/Aquarium building and see what shops were open and what they were selling. Most were art galleries of varying quality. One had a painting we both really liked, but without a permanent home here we don’t really bother with artwork for the home. A couple of dive shops were tucked in between the galleries and we even watched a group getting ready for a dive. Reaching the end, we walked back again on the upper level in search of lunch.

After checking all of the posted menus and specials for the 5 or 6 restaurants with ocean views, we decided on Les Corsaires again. We were so not disappointed by our choice. The food was amazing. Even more so was the server who had to dash across two lanes of traffic to place the order and again to bring out plates to waiting customers. There is a cross-walk between the two dining areas (one on either side of the busy street) but we noticed the cars didn’t slow down for our busy server as she gracefully glided across the street and back. It was a little like watching a real-life game of Frogger. I know there were at least three times that I grabbed the edge of the table as if I were about to witness an accident.

Our lunch arrived and while Alan’s burger looked amazing, especially with the hand-cut fries, my salad was a work of art. Served in a tall while bowl four slices of a hard cheese with a peppered edge, similar to parmesan but not as salty. lined the bowl. The mixed greens were baby shoots of five or six different greens. The ones that always remind me of weeds, but taste very good. At least one of the them tasted peppery. On top of the greens around the edge of the bowl were thin slices of Spanish serrano ham and in the middle were paper thin slices of cantaloupe. There was no dressing, but honestly the salad was so good it really didn’t need anything.

Sami had dry kibble, which she grudgingly ate while sitting under the table. But then the clumsiness gods smiled upon her when Daddy knocked over the bread basket. Happiness ensued. Sami finished her meal in high spirits.

There is something so uniquely European about al fresco dining and whenever possible I like to sit outside, even if it’s raining. Les Corsaires had a great view of the Med and a lovely rooftop providing plenty of shade while still allowing the breeze to come through. It was one of those rare moments when the food is great, the company terrific, the weather gorgeous and the dog is behaving that just seems like a small glimpse of perfection. I live for those moments.

Upon finishing lunch we decided to do the”Circuit Cap d’Osna,” or artists’ walk through the fishermen’s quarters, outlined on the map.* Heading to the north end of town where most of the streets are nothing more than staircases and no cars can possibly travel, we easily found the first of 15 markers that would lead us around the historic part of the small city. Winding through the steep and staired alleys we saw the most beautiful houses in what used to be the fishermen’s quarter or perhaps smugglers’ den would be more accurate.

* Note: the city map is wrong. The route has changed. The city map will get you to the first marker, the directions on the first marker will get you to the second, and so on. 

In addition to one famous artist, the area was most notorious for the amount of smuggling that took place, with impunity. I had to ask Alan what that meant, it always reminds of punitive but is in fact the opposite as in “getting away with it.” So the area is famous for smuggling first; artist and native son, Aristide Maillol, second; and the best red dessert wine in France third. Walking through the back alleyways of the old fishermen’s quarter it was easy to see that smuggling must have paid pretty well. The homes are truly remarkable.

The 15 designated stops on the self-guided tour of the fishermen’s quarter is easily navigated and all of the signboards have English translations. We wandered through the same streets Maillol traveled, saw the places he liked to sit and sketch, read about the many local models that were some of his favorites and viewed the house where he was born and died. There were only two photos of the artist, one of him at favorite window spot in the library of his home, the other of him in front of the garden gate. Alan recreated the gate photo for me. Or at least tried to, he would need to be a foot shorter for an actual recreation!

At the last stop of the tour we were at the top of the Rue St. Pierre which runs parallel to the main street near the water front. Following it downhill lead us past shops and restaurants that are not in the “tourist zone” but where many locals were shopping and dining. We stopped for a cold drink at one of the small restaurants and Sami made friends with the lady at the table next to ours. She was probably in her late 60s or early 70s and squealed with joy as she complimented Sami with a lyrical voice and charming French accent. Sami was beside herself. One of her favorite things is when someone speaks French to her in that sing-song way you talk to babies and animals. She couldn’t contain her joy and was actively trying to wriggle out of Alan’s lap. Giving in, Alan handed Sami to the lady who held her for a moment and received a couple of kisses before Alan took her back.

Normally Sami is very shy around people but there are a few that will capture her interest right away and become like a second family in mere minutes. French baby-talk is Sami’s kryptonite. She was still looking back at the woman as we walked away. A friend for life.

Having seen as much of the town as possible without breaking the NO DOGS rules, we headed back to the tourist office and waited for the return bus. Sami, still on a high from her new friend, sat quietly and didn’t give us too much trouble getting back into her bus bag for the trip home.

The 400 bus doesn’t stop anywhere near our apartment on its return to Argeles-sur-Mer, so we must walk the three kilometers from Port Argeles. About five blocks from home there is a small alleyway that has been turned into a multi-plex of mini restaurants. The alleyway is covered and provides a lovely shaded area to sit and eat or have a cold beer. As we were walking past the owner of the corner restaurant called out her regular “Bonjour Monsieur/Madame” which we returned as we walk by. This ritual happens every time we pass. As we got to the corner of the street I looked back at Alan and asked if he’d like to stop for a cold drink. We turned around and found a seat, surprised to see our Pizza Guy sitting at the bar with another man we see there often. We believe they are related. Alan ordered two beers and they all suggested we try the Sagres, a Portuguese beer. So we ended our day at a Catalan restaurant, drinking a Portuguese beer, five blocks from our French apartment . . . not a bad end to the day!

Our only regret was that bottle of dessert wine the area is known for; we also did not walk Sami the 4 kilometers to the museum and Templar winery. But now we have plenty of reasons to return to this quiet little town with the really friendly people and gorgeous views. If you’re looking for a great spot for diving or snorkeling, this would be the place to visit. The protect marine sanctuary covers a large area and the diving is supposed to be amazing in these pristine waters. We would definitely recommend this lovely town as a stop-over or destination.

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