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Experiencing the riches of Roussillon

Historical county in southern France has it all

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WHENEVER I'm asked to recommend a vacation destination in France where you can eat and drink well, my one-word answer has always been Collioure.

Located in the south, just 42 kilometres from the Spanish border, this touristy harbour town has everything you need in a gourmet summer getaway: beaches, hot weather, great people-watching, excellent restaurants and superb local wines.

Granted, it's not as glamorous as Provence, but it's also a lot less crowded and not nearly as expensive. One could easily set up shop in this idyllic French town, soak up the rays, eat and drink yourself silly, perhaps take a side visit to Barcelona for a tapas feast, and have plenty to talk about around the water cooler back at the office.

Yet having toured Collioure and its environs last fall courtesy of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon, I'm now convinced the beach is the last place you'd find me today in this part of France. There is so much else to see and do here, including in Collioure itself.

The historical county of Roussillon, in the present-day department of Pyrenees-Orientales, is an underappreciated area that boasts castles, cathedrals, hilltop villages, yet-to-be-discovered restaurants and world-class vineyards. And, according to the late, great artist Henri Matisse, the bluest of skies:

"In France there is no sky as blue as the one in Collioure. I just have to open the shutters of my room and I have all the colours of the Mediterranean before me."

The equally bright-blue-skied Perpignan, the capital city of the department, is the gateway to the area; it's where you'll disembark from your train or plane.

My first stop in Perpignan was the Palace of the Kings of Majorca. It's rather austere and heavy on cut stone, towers and staircases, but it makes a good start to a tour of the region's historical sites and provides a great viewpoint from which to overlook the city.

Originally built when Perpignan was the continental capital of the Kingdom of Majorca in the 13th and 14th centuries, this fortified Gothic palace dates back to 1296, with several additions being made after sieges and power struggles between France and Spain to rule the region, which ended when France finally took possession in 1659.

Guitar enthusiasts take note: On the last weekend in August, the palace and its gardens are the setting for a free, three-day festival, La Guitares au Palais.

My next stop was Perpignan's once-walled old city, where you can admire the few remaining ramparts, most of which were destroyed in 1904 to accommodate urban sprawl. Architecture buffs will no doubt marvel at the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, whose incongruous style is epitomized by the portico and clock tower added to the Catalan-Gothic cathedral in the 18th century. And art lovers should take a stroll down the city's central Promenade des Platanes to admire its sculptures, monuments and towering plane and palm trees, and then perhaps peruse the art galleries and cafés on the recently rejuvenated Rue de la Revolution Francaise.

There are Michelin-starred restaurants in Perpignan, but a better way to get a taste of the local scene is to frequent one of the small bistros or wine bars. Locals, especially young locals, flock to tapas bars like Ben Aqui, where you can order plates of fried squid, grilled gambas, local sausage, stuffed peppers and charcuterie platters to be enjoyed with some of the cheaper local wines.

For something more fancy, though, Restaurant Al Tres is the place to be. Located in the city centre on a tiny side street, this colourful establishment features a fish- and seafood-heavy menu and one of the best wine lists in the city. Menu prices are fair, but wine prices can be steep if you delve into rare bottles and older vintages.

Those looking for friendly hosts, good food and the best place to taste and learn about some of the top-notch wines in the region couldn't do much better.

Wine lovers are spoiled in Roussillon, not only because there is a plethora of choice here in the appellations of Cotes du Roussillon, Cotes du Roussillon-Villages, Collioure, Banyuls, Maury, Rivesaltes and so on, but because you can visit many of the vineyards for tastings.

My Roussillon wine education began north of Perpignan near the town of Rivesaltes at the largest organic vineyard in the world, the incredible Domaine Cazes. At the tasting counter of their boutique, I sampled red wines, white wines, roses, muscats and aged sweet wines under the appellation Rivesaltes.

Better yet, you can taste those very same wines over lunch at the Domaine's restaurant, La Table d'Aime, where the cuisine is 100-per-cent organic and uses the best local ingredients.

From a plate of Spanish pata negra enjoyed with a Rivesaltes tuile, to a cote de boeuf savoured with a heady red and, finally, a coffee parfait enjoyed with a glass of the mind-bogglingly delicious 1978 Cuvee Aime Cazes, I enjoyed every sip and nibble at this remarkable winery.

No doubt, the draw of the Mediterranean in this region is ever-present, and that's why a trip to seaside Collioure is a must. The pebbled coves and sandy main beach of this village are packed with tourists in high season, as are the waterside restaurants and galleries that dot the side streets.

On Wednesday or Sunday mornings, foodies will want to head out before noon to check out the open-air market, where you'll find terrific produce, honeys, bread and sausages ideal for a beach picnic.

For a taste of another local specialty, cut through the crowds and make a beeline for the Maison Roque anchovy factory.

Founded in 1870, Maison Roque is located on a side street, yet the majority of production now takes place at a facility outside the city. There is an enormous variety of anchovies, either oil-or salt-packed, as well as anchovy cream and olives, many of which are stuffed with -- you guessed it -- anchovies.

There's a boutique on-site where you can purchase all sorts of fishy foodstuffs, but be sure to purchase goods that need not be refrigerated, or you may have some unexpected surprises when unpacking post-holiday.

In Collioure, casual dining options are many and the focus here is on small-plate tapas and Catalan dishes rich in cod, anchovy, sausage, peppers and braised meats.

For something more refined, check out Restaurant le Neptune. Located on a cliff above the city offering stunning views of the port and village, Le Neptune specializes in French nouvelle cuisine made primarily with local seafood, with riches like foie gras and Catalan lamb on offer for carnivores. Ä la carte prices are high, but the 38-euro menu is a steal considering the artistic plate presentations and those killer views.

From Collioure, you can drive south along the coast to Banyuls-sur-Mer, the home of some of France's most famous sweet wines ideal for pairing with desserts, especially chocolate.

Banyuls is in no way as pretty -- or touristy -- as Collioure, yet the drive that winds up hills and past beaches is awesome.

On the main-strip Rue de la Republique facing the water, you'll find the Vignoble St-Sebastien, where winemaker Romuald Peronne has opened a restaurant next to his wine store and cave (winemaking facilities). The menu here emphasizes casual food and local wines and the majority of the space is taken up by an open-air patio facing the water. Peronne also organizes boat trips from the Banyuls marina along the coast toward Spain.

On a sunny day, there is no better way to admire the steep terraced vineyards and soak up the surroundings.

No food- and wine lovers' trip through Roussillon would be complete without a pilgrimage to the Mas Amiel vineyard in Maury. From Perpignan, you head straight north toward Rivesaltes, and then due west. Dining options aren't many in this area, yet halfway between Rivesaltes and Maury is the town of Montner, where you can eat very well at l'Auberge du Cellier.

A three-course lunch enjoyed on the Auberge's chic terrasse will set you back a mere 19 euros, with menu items including pork, rabbit, fish, pigeon and a plethora of vegetables with beautiful desserts and great local wines. You can also stay at this elegant inn, where rooms start at a reasonable 59 euros.

And finally on to Mas Amiel, my last stop in Roussillon and certainly the most ethereal. Founded in 1816 when Raymond Amiel won the property in a card game with the Bishop of Perpignan, this 155-hectare property changed hands twice before being purchased by Olivier Decelle in 1997. In this region steeped in age-old traditions, Mas Amiel's modern facilities stand out like a gleaming Ferrari in a line of vintage Citroens.

Though renowned for its old-style Grenache-based fortified wines, the Mas Amiel portfolio also counts table wines, as well as quaffable, modern-style Maurys with lively fruit flavours. And yet it's the traditional-matured, non-vintage Maurys that are aged and allowed to oxidize in open-air demijohns (bulbous glass jars) that result in the more complex sweet wines that make this installation worth visiting.

There is a cool store on site for tasting and purchasing these unique wines, only a handful of which are available in Canada. And while their sweet taste still lingers on your palate, take a last look at those sloping vineyards (up to 150 metres altitude!) and those demijohns sparkling in the sunlight.

No doubt, any thoughts of planning a beach-only vacation will seem a very distant memory.

-- Postmedia News


How to get there:

By train: Via the direct-connection Paris-Port-Bou or TGV Paris-Perpignan.

By plane: Via the international airport Perpignan-Rivesaltes.

Where to stay:

Hotel Mercure, Perpignan Centre: A centrally located hotel with rather small rooms but comfortable beds and all amenities. Rooms starting at 89 euros.

Mas Boluix, outskirts of Perpignan: A mas (small farmhouse) situated right in a vineyard. Not very luxurious, but certainly authentic. Great breakfasts and nice innkeepers make up for this site's off-the-beaten-track location. Rooms starting at 73 euros.

L'Auberge du Cellier, Montner: A chic boutique hotel with a great restaurant, which includes a pretty outdoor dining room. Located near several vineyards north of Perpignan. Rooms starting at 59 euros.

Where to eat:

Restaurant le Neptune in Collioure: High-end cuisine, beautiful plate presentations, relaxed ambience, great views.

La Table d'Aime au Domaine Cazes in Rivesaltes: All-organic menu, with menu designed to pair with the Domaine's wines.

Restaurant de l'Auberge du Cellier a Montner: Upscale cuisine served on a pretty terrace. Reasonable prices. Located near many of the region's top vineyards.

Restaurant Al Tres, 3 rue Poissonnerie, Perpignan, 0468348839. Located right in the city centre, this restaurant offers excellent local cuisine and a great wine list packed with the region's best bottles.

Vineyards and shops to visit for tastings or purchase:

Domaine Cazes in Rivesaltes:

Domaine du Mas Amiel in Maury:

Vignoble St-Sebastien in Banyuls sur Mer:

Maison Roque in Collioure:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2012 D1

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