For most of its life, the Pyrenees-Orientales region (formerly called Roussillon) of Languedoc was Spanish, only reverting to France in 1659. Since then it has retained a distinctively Catalan flavour, with Catalan spoken widely, and the Sardana dance, Bullfights and Paschal rituals still performed. The food too has a Spanish flavour, with spicy chorizzo and paella popular.
The landscape of the Pyrenees-Orientales is perhaps the most dramatic in Languedoc, dominated by the towering Pyrenees, the foothills of which hold some of Languedoc Roussillon’s most interesting sightseeing.
As the plain nears the coast, huge etangs appear (inland lakes), home to fishermen and wind surfers alike. The coast is mostly flat, but suddenly (thanks to the Pyrenees) starts to undulate at Collioure, creating picturesque bays and headlands (more like Provence). Collioure is particularly pretty and even, dare I say it, glamorous, with chic restaurants and cafes looking out over the battlements and pastel-coloured houses.
The mountains of Languedoc’s Pyrenees-Orientales give way to huge river valleys of the Tet and Tech rivers, where fruit farms abound growing apricots, apples, almonds and much of France’s early vegetables.
The valley of the Tech is particularly beautiful, with Cathar castles visible on high peaks, and rolling foothills covered in vines and fruit trees. The Cherries from Roussillon are the first picked in France, and a ceremonial bunch is presented to the President each year.
This is also Cathar country (along with the Aude), with some of the most famous Cathar ruins located in Pyrenees-Orientales, Languedoc. Constant wars between the Spanish and French have also left a number of forts (Salses) and fortified towns (Villefranche) – all of which add to the rebellious flavour of the region.
Places to visit
The department’s capital, and the last major city in France before the Spanish border, Perpignan was once Catalonia’s second city after Barcelona and it continues to feel as much Catalan as it does French, despite being transferred to France in 1659. The vibrant city today is a mix of wide boulevards and winding streets and is the setting for the lively Estivales festival in the summer.
Pyrénées-Orientales is home to five Plus Beaux Villages (France’s prettiest villages): Castlenou, Eus, Evol, Mosset and Villefrance-de-Conflet. The latter was fortified by the famous French military engineer Vauban, and is the departure point for the Little Yellow Train through the Pyrénées. A trip aboard The Little Yellow Train of the Pyreenes is a must; the line rises through the department’s dramatic scenery showcasing spectacular views of the rocky mountainous landscape, pretty villages, two historic fortresses and the Hermitage de St Antoine-Galamus buried below the cliffs.
The area is also home to the town of Céret, which is considered to be one of the birthplaces of Cubism; its Musée d´Art Moderne features a number of works by iconic 20th-century artists including Picasso, Matisse and Chagall. After admiring the modern art, there’s plenty of charming cafes to refuel with a local delicacy.
Local specialities reflect the historic Catalan presence in the department, therefore dishes such as paella, cargols à llauna and calcots are popular while Banyuls is renowned for its fortified Grenache-based dessert wine. Visitors are likely to encounter lots of seafood with Collioure being famous for its anchovies.