7. Prats- de-Mollo to Perpignan
The morning saw an influx of cyclists, mostly Lycra clad super fit middle aged men who paused for an espresso outside our hotel while we ate breakfast. We chose not to relive our own cycling exploits and studied a plan of the town.
Prats de Mollo is exactly the sort of medieval town that history lessons taught us about in school. High walls enclosing the town, a series of fortified gates and crucially a river is channeled to run securely through the middle. The town itself sits on a steep bank of the river Tech and the streets form terraces as they cross the hill linked by a beguiling mix of stairways and passages. It is entirely in the spirit of the town (but nevertheless surprising) to see a communal hand washing facility (tanks for washing, rinsing and public washing lines) in use near the Pont de la Guilleme. The walls have come and gone over the years (they were demolished early in the 17th century when the inhabitants didn't just avoid paying tax - they murdered the tax collectors much to the kings chagrin) but the most recent additions date from 1683 when Marshall Vauban fortified the tower on the hill overlooking the town. The resultant building, Fort Laguarde is an impressive multi walled edifice that looks near impregnable and which is connected to the town by a covered walkway that runs steeply up the hill. Vauban made much impact on this area as if you've followed this account from day one you may recall the we mentioned the fortified walls of the Palais des Rois de Majorque in Perpignan and the imposing garrison at Mont Louis - all his work. We spent a pleasant morning wandering around the town and fort.
We drove down the river to Arles-sur-Tech, slightly disappointing after Prats as its medieval quarter is obscured by poorly preserved and new buildings which are built right up to the walls of the Abbey of Sainte-Marie so you have no sense of its shape. The cloisters of the Abbey are picturesque though, when you actually find them. I misread the Rough Guide's account of the traditional fete de l'Ours: in the folk tale, the town was plagued by bears so the inhabitants used a girl as bait before capturing it and shaving it. The modern take is to have a man dressed in a bear suit and when the townspeople capture him they strip him. In relating this tale to Antony I explained that the townsfolk shaved the bear suit!
It became apparent as we left Arles that after almost a week we were leaving the mountains behind and as the road leveled and became wider it made us a little sad. The weather, overcast and misty, didn't help improve our spirits, but we felt we ought to see the sea before leaving and we were pleased at the symmetry of our circular tour: we left Perpigan on following the Tet. We returned following the Tech.
On the recommendation of our Ryan Air hostess on the outward journey, we drove to Collioure. The weather didn't improve and a low mist obscured the craggy coastline as we descended into the cove the town lies in. The town was packed with people which didn't improve our humour, but after a light lunch, we wandered around the streets. Some of the town still retains a fishing village charm and it was quite interesting to see the reproductions of the Les Fauvres paintings alongside the views they are meant to represent. Collioure looks a nice place but it is probably better to see it in sunshine. After circumnavigating the Napoleonic fort we decided to head for Perpignan for a last beer before driving to the airport. Out of interest we took the coast road, and were pleased we'd avoided the place, a dreary procession of clubs, bars, hotels and villas, the beach we stopped at was filthy. On a brighter note, the sun came out.
Our return to Perpignan didn't give us much time but we sat in the square close to the Cathedral and watching the passersby and enjoying the sun. Some 6 hours later I joined the midnight train from London Victoria to Brighton and sitting in a carriage of spotty, burger chewing, vomiting youths I was definitely not pleased to be back. The sign of a good holiday I think.