Part 16 of a 2006 Cataluña/Pyrenées/Roussillon travelogue
by Thor Iverson
26 October 2006 – Bize-Minervois, France
Whatever the overall merits or demerits of our hotel, they do put on quite a breakfast spread. In one case, literally: rich, decadent Beurre Échiré slathered (why is butter always “slathered?”) over house-made pastries that probably don’t need additional butter, but get it anyway. Then there’s house-cultured yogurt, freshly-pressed orange juice, fine coffee, and so forth. The only thing that detracts is the daily ritual of invitations – more like pleas, really – to book dinner at the hotel’s restaurant. However, we’re departing today, so this is the last time we have to hear them.
Abbaye de Fontfroide – What starts as an interesting detour on the way to our final destination becomes an exercise in utter tranquility. This beautiful abbey, restored not for a religious order but for the purposes of tourism, reveals itself in gentle layers of silence. The architecture is lovely, the isolation magnificent…and the forested setting is worth exploration, as well.
A confusing study in contrasts, this well-known village is as compelling as it is baffling. Descending from the hills towards the blue expanse of the Mediterranean, one winds through pristine suburbs, then surprisingly rough commercial streets, before entering a tangled, touristy epicenter. The first section looks like any moneyed rural French suburb, the second like many a coastal town, but the third is an absolute riot of color and non-perpendicularity that seems like it would be better-placed in the Caribbean. And for such a tourist destination, signage and parking are a disaster.
Once our hotel is finally located – no easy task – I spend the better part of forty-five minutes looking for somewhere to put the car. That’s not easy either, day or night, and I circle the town in ever-increasing frustration. Finally, a distant spot is acquired…a mere twenty-minutes from the hotel.
Casa Païral – Perfectly situated right in the heart of the waterfront, and yet protected in an interior courtyard that buffers the touristy din, this island of relative calm amidst a sea of bustle is hidden at the end of a tiny alley, and thus very hard to find unless one is armed with rock-solid directions. Those directions are not to be found on the hotel’s web site, so be warned.
The main building comes straight from central casting, a request apparently having been issued for something ornate and colonial; here, too, one thinks of some gold-exporting New World outpost’s government mansion, rather than a weather-beaten Mediterranean fishing and artists’ village. Our room (#3), on the second floor of this building, is furnished in the same style as the rest of the hotel, and has a small balcony overlooking the hotel’s own beautiful courtyard. Standing on this balcony, the doors flung open, feels like the opening scene to some historical drama. We’ll fall in a certain kind of love with this hotel, though I do think that requesting a room in the main building is central to the experience.
We make use of our balcony right away, nibbling and sipping at some of the last of our porcine, vinous, and cultured treats from La Boqueria.
Pagos de Quintana 1999 Ribera del Duero (Castilla & León) – Restrained fruit, herbs, earthen mushrooms, and dried black pepper powder. Well-oaked, for sure, but pleasant to drink, even if it’s not really all that interesting. Drink it in haste, however; an hour or so of air turns the wine to raw oak, dill, and scratchy nastiness, and after a few glasses we end up pouring the rest down the drain.
Port Vendres, France
While the upper hillsides of this fishing village feel as upscale as the rest of the coast, the waterfront and commercial district have a well-worn, working-folk feel to them that Collioure lacks (and in fact, if one arrives early enough, this is even clearer as returning boats line the quays), yet it’s still, as the businesses and byways attest, a tourist-oriented town. We wander for a while, enjoying the fairly aggressive pulse of the waves against long-beaten stone walls.
La Côte Vermeille (quai Fanal, Port Vendres) – The address does not lie; this restaurant is at the end of a quay. And while it looks like it might be some sort of French version of a clam shack from the outside, and the semi-nautical theme continues within, the food within is anything but casual. Nor is the service, which is seriously impressive.
We start with an amuse of anchovy (a local specialty; canneries are a common roadside sight) over a tomato/pepper purée, a pure blend of Mediterranean sea and land. Vivid olives, great bread, and Échiré follow. Next up is pumpkin soup with Roquefort sorbet; visually it’s sort of a photo-negative of the interior of an egg, and it’s absolutely delicious, especially as the sorbet melts into the silken soup. More anchovies follow, this time with fresh peppers, after which is a perfect piece of dorade over cèpes and cream, classically French yet gaining all its quality from the taste of the fish. Fruit with crème anglaise provides a sweet finish. This is a terrific restaurant, by far the best we’ll visit – in France – during our five days in Collioure.
The wine list is broad, but the focus is as local as it should be. I start with an un-noted glass of Banyuls Blanc, stone-fruited, lush, and mildly sweet, and finish with a Marc de Banyuls that’s…well, let’s say it isn’t my favorite. In the middle, however, is something much better than either.
Parcé Frères “Domaine de la Rectorie” 2005 Collioure Blanc “l’Argile” (Roussillon) – Stone fruit, baked nuts with their oils, and whitish-grey earth, with good acidity and a very pleasant hint of oxidation, though in comparison to many wines of the region it’s actually quite fresh. Delicious and deft.
After dinner, back in Collioure, I spend some time wandering the waterfront, admiring the rich gold and black of this well-lit village.
Copyright © Thor Iverson.