Now that the French government has started to ease travel restrictions, we enjoyed a day trip to the little coastal town of Port-Vendres.
The name of the town originates from Portus Veneris, the Port of Venus.
From Narbonne on the Mediterranean coast south toward Spain, the countryside and the beaches are flat. Then, announcing the border with Spain, the line of the Pyrénées marches into the sea, creating an attractive landscape of coves, steep hills and high ridges. In France, this picturesque coastline is called La Côte Vermeille, which means the vermilion coast. Once you cross into Spain, it is called the Costa Brava, or the wild coast.
Port-Vendres lies just a few kilometers from the Spanish border, and about 90 minutes from Carcassonne. The small harbor and town nestle in the rocky coast.
Port-Vendres has a very ancient history. Founded by the Phoenicians during the 6th century BC, it was a commercial port connecting the western world to the eastern world, in this case the only one in Roussillon. The geographical situation of the city, in the Pyrenees, did not allow it to flourish; however, in 1272 we find in the will of Jacques the conqueror a mention of the city of “Port-Vendre of Coplioure.”
By 1599, Port-Vendres was falling into ruin. 100 years later, faced with the need more warship anchorages, the French authorities decided to dig a new port for galleys. The engineering and excavation requirements proved to be too difficult, so they abandoned the work in 1709. It wasn’t until 1772 that they were able to complete the re-construction.
The commune of Port-Vendres was officially created in 1823 from territories of the communes of Collioure and Banyuls-sur-mer. At the end of the 19th century, Fort Béar was built on the rocky outcrop north of Port-Vendres.
The inspiration for this little trip was an article in a local foodie magazine, Midi Gourmand. The article highlighted Joël Lefrançois, who is a transplanted Breton who smokes Mediterranean and other fish. Apparently, there is a style of meat and fish smoking in Brittany that M Lefrançois has adapted to this Mediterranean environment. He has a shop called Les Poissons Fumés de Port-Vendres. We love smoked meats in general, as well as local products. We had to check out shop.
We met M Lefrançois in his quay-side store. He was dressed in a big white apron. We noticed that all the smoked fish and seafood in the refrigerated cases were not Mediterranean; there was cod from the Atlantic, and salmon from Scotland. He explained that the pandemic lockdown had stopped local fishing for almost three months. If we come back later in the season, he will be able to offer more local seafood. Since he sells food, he was allowed to keep the shop open during the lockdown. Unfortunately, however, almost all of his customers stayed away. He kept the shop open for three days, during which he had one customer each day. After that, he closed the shop since he would only lose money by staying open. He did say that customers were at last slowly returning.
We bought a selection of smoked fish and seafood: cod, salmon, tuna (with a nice dry texture like thin-cut Spanish ham), mussels and scallops. By now, we’ve eaten all of our choices. Nice subtle smoke flavor, but we wish it were all smokier.
World War II
Port-Vendres was heavily damaged in 1944. The Germans had taken up positions on the rocky coast. Rumors circulated among the local population that an Allied landing on this coast was imminent. On August 19, 1944 the Germans began their retreat from the region. Not wanting to leave weapons behind, they blew up their ammunition and weapons stores. They ignited the sea mines that they had placed in anticipation of the possible Allied landing. They blew up the fortified structures around the harbor, then the Quai Oly, and finally the ferry terminal. They sunk all the local coastal vessels. They blew up the oil tanks, the smoke from which aided their retreat.
When we left Carcassonne at around 10 am, it was chilly and gray. In Port-Vendres, it was mostly sunny and about 10 degrees F warmer. It was a beautiful day to stroll around the harbor, and more importantly, have some lunch on the sunny terrace of a restaurant. This was our first meal out at a restaurant since the start of the lockdown. Quite the milestone! We found a pleasant local menu, which was very tasty. Probably the pleasure of being out and about again doubled the tastiness.
Our masked server was a young woman. We asked, “Are you happy to be back at work?” She replied instantly, “Oui!” and we think she smiled, at least her eyes did. We said to her, “Thank you for being here.” And she said, “And thank you too!” We imagine that the restauranteurs who have so suffered during the lockdown now fear that the customers are too cautious to come back. On this sunny day, the terrace and near-terrace tables were all full. Of course, half of the tables had been removed in order to maintain proper separation.
After lunch, we strolled around the little harbor.
Unlike neighboring Collioure (about which we published a post last year), this port is a working port. Fishermen (we didn’t see any women) were mending nets and stringing hooks.
Picturesque houses and buildings make up one side of the harbor…
And industrial buildings sit opposite.
The obelisk is a monument to the glory of the independence of the USA. The bottom of the obelisk has 4 bronze bas reliefs recalling the treaty of alliance and commerce (signed on February 6, 1778) between France and the “insurgents” after their victory at Saratoga. The bas relief represents the arrival of the frigate “La Sensible” with the King’s envoy carrying the treaty on board. The architect Charles de Wailly broke ground for the obelisk on September 28, 1780.
Early June is normally pre-tourist-season; July and August are primetime. Of course this year there are even fewer visitors, at least so far. A few restaurants and shops were open, but not all. The attractive promenade along one side of the harbor was empty.
Tour boats for excursions along the Côte Vermeille and the Costa Brava wait for company.
We plan to enjoy one of these scenic boat tours one day soon, once it feels safe.
Source for history notes: https://www.les-pyrenees-orientales.com/Villages/PortVendres.php