South of Roussillon

21/02/2018 09:47

Where the coast becomes sharp and, before it be called brave it is just called red, in a land surnamed La Marenda, and where the Pyrenees on its way down to the sea become soft and take the name of the Alberas.

In any case they are two logical place-names, Albera comes from the Latin alberia, meaning white, and Marenda is a derivation of marsh, rare in a coast with few beaches that is inhabited from long ago. It is believed that Port Vendres could be a Phoenician settlement and later Greek, perhaps as Agde or Rosas, not far away, but the name is Roman, Portus Veneris, the port of Venus, probably the Venus of Pyrene mentioned by Strabo, Pliny and Ptolemy. During the Middle Ages was along Collioure an important port of call for Majorca Kingdom and when its name derives to the Catalan Port Venres de Cobliure first until end up as Port Vendres.

Town’s Roman past is reflected in the many traces of maritime trade of the age that have been collected. In 1929 the wreck of a Roman vessel was discovered, but it was not until 1953 that submarine excavations were systematically taken and the Groupe de Recherches Sous-Marines du Roussillon was founded. A coin of the Emperor Constantine made it possible to date the time of this shipwreck.

Currently Port Vendres is a relaxed town that lives around its harbour as tourism hasn’t replaced fishing and shipping trade. In front of the port there is a large square, the Place de l'Obelisque, displaying king architect Charles de Wailly monolith which since September 1780, during the reign of Louis XVI, recalls in its bas-reliefs the master lines of the king's policy: freedom of commerce, abolition of slavery, reconstruction of the navy, and fourth to the royal ship Le Sensible, arriving on 13 April 1778 in Falmouth, Massachusetts, carrying the copies of the treaty of alliance with the newly independent North American colonies.

In another square overlooking the port, la Castellane, there are a couple of lovers, Fenouil and Fenouille who embrace each other forever under the shadows of the trees.

Here, the ubiquitous French military architect Sébastien la Preste de Vauban, built three bastions to defend the port, Fanal, Béar and the Presqu'île bastions. Now just the Tour de l'Horloge remained to give the hour. Most recent is the church of Notre Dame de la Bonne Nouvelle, 1888, with a neogothic nave. The sculptor Aristide Maillol was in charge of the monument to the fallen in the Great War.

On the coast, in addition to the crowded beach of Paulilles there are points with curious names at least: Punta del Genovés, Punta de Phyteas, Greek navigator, Rec del Cony or Punta del Mal Cagar - Genoans Point, Phyteas Point, Pussy Creek, Bad Shitting Point -.

If Port Vendres surrounds its port, four mail to the south, Banyuls surrounds its beach, in Fontaulé cove, at least since it became a compact nucleus around the St John Baptist church which over the year 1280 would be renamed as St. John the Baptist. This was the second parish church; the first one is the remote hermitage of Notre Dame des Abeilles. Two texts attest to the antiquity of the temple, one of 1135 when Gausfred III, Count of Roussillon, grants a donation to Sant Quirze de Colera, mentioning it as Santi Johannis de Baniuls. In 1197 the marriage contract of Ramon de Castell Rosselló with Saurimonde de Peralada quotes Sancti Johannis de Banullis de Maresma. Today, next to a cemetery is part of the Rectory neighbourhood.

Banyuls is known for its generous wines, the main economic activity in the area is turned into the vineyard and the twenty wineries that make sweet wines, protected by a controlled appellation of origin. Banyuls wine is a fortified one, of the type of Oporto, Madeira or Jerez, but the one produced here comes from Grenache grape variety. The broth is aged by maceration, when the fermentation reaches five percent alcohol is added another eighteen-degree distillate before beginning the aging process in oak barrels. Depending on the variation in the process they are subsequently marketed as traditional, vintage, late harvest or white. For the so-called Grand Cru it is required to contain a minimum of 75% Garnacha grapes in its composition.

In 1861 was born in town Aristide Maillol, one of the most representative sculptors of the twentieth century, who at the age of twenty would move to Paris. When he returned to his homeland in 1910, he settled on a farm in the Roume valley, on the outskirts of the village. Currently the house has become a museum about Maillol work where are exhibited drawings and, of course, statues, including the small Leda of 1900. About this, a letter from the art critic Octave Mirabeau addressed to the sculptor and published in La Revue on April 1, 1905 explains the reaction Auguste Rodin had in front the statuette: : Il la retournat dans tous les sens, sous tous ses profils, il la regardait, l’observait, l’épiat en toutes ses parties. “C’est absoloutament beau, disait-il, … et savez-vous pourquoi c’est si beau?...c’est que ça n’accroche pas la curiosité…je ne connais pas dans tout la sculpture moderne un morceau qui soit aussi absolument chef-d’ œuvre". (He then turned it in all directions, in all its profiles, looked, watched, scrutinized it all over. "It is absolutely beautiful," he said, "and do you know why it is so beautiful?... it does not captivate curiosity... I do not know in any modern sculpture any piece that is so absolutely a masterpiece ").  In the gardens is his tomb beside a statue representing the Mediterranean. The sculptor had some doubts about the title, it was Pensée, Douleur, Jeune Fille au Soleil (the Thinking, the Pain, Young girl under the Sun) until he found this argument: Mon idée, en la sculptant, était de créer une figure jeune, lumineuse et noble. Tout cela, n’est-ce pas l’esprit méditerranéen? (My idea, sculpting it, was to create a young, luminous and noble figure. Is not this the Mediterranean spirit?)

Cervera de la Marenda, Cerbère for the French, is a border town, particularly for the railway line. The first Spain-France cross-border line was agreed in 1864, twelve years later, in 1876 the Belitres tunnel was opened and in 1878 the Gara, the station, was inaugurated. Gauge difference, about 24 inches, between the peninsular lines and the rest of Europe forced to make here the change of goods and passengers from one to another convoy. The railway employed many workers, initially for the construction of the infrastructure and later to manage them. A job in vogue between 1787 and 1970 was that of orange shuttle. A common export was that citric, and like the rest of merchandises, it was necessary to change them from one wagon to another. It was common to employ women. Once the freight cars were placed in parallel with the doors facing, workers were arranged in groups of five, two unloading and three loading. It is estimated that about five thousand people were used to handle 20 million tons of oranges and 15 million tons of other products. A monument composed of a closed freight wagon and a bronze figure remind the loaders. The improvement of the roads and the inauguration in the sixties of the highway that crosses the border by the Junquera marked the beginning of the decline of the use of the railroad for the transport of goods. The change of gauge would not be automated until the end of the 20th century. In 1998, fifteen thousand trains travelled carrying two and a half million tons of goods.

Next to the roads was built in 1932 the hotel Belvédère du Rayon Vert – Green Ray lookout -, a particular building that, in 1987, was declared historical monument of France. The hotel was designed by Perpignan architect Léon Baille, at a time when art-deco was booming and accommodation in the town was filled with passengers in transit. The building, to take advantage of the shape of the land enclosed between the train tracks and the road, has a triangular plant with a corner that recalls the prow of a boat. In its time it enjoyed all the comfort that could be offered to customers: games and dance rooms, restaurant, a car parking place, a tennis court on the roof and even a movie theatre. The name of the hotel refers to the famous green ray, which lightens the seaside horizon at the last instant of the sunset, though here, west lies behind the mountains.

And if the green ray is referred to a Jules Verne book, another one by the same writer talks about the lighthouse at world’s end. Without being so apparent, the same name that has been given to the one that points the coast beside Cerbère, built at 260 feet above sea level in 1904.

© J.L.Nicolas


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