Céret, who knew?
By Ronnie Smith
My wife had made the booking months before, two nights bed and breakfast at one hundred Euros per night. The day before we were due to leave, the owner sent us an email with words to the effect that there was some renovation work underway that had started later than planned but which should cause only minor inconvenience. We decided to continue as planned and headed west, for Céret, on Saturday morning.
Taking the A9, Céret is only one and a half hours from Pezenas and we were simply looking for a change of air and different scenery closer to the Pyrenees, whose distant mass so tantalises the imagination when seen from Agde on a clear day. It’s a very pleasant drive, going west, passing Narbonne, remembering numerous trips to Carcassonne off to the right, catching glimpses of the sea to the left and the mountains coming ever-closer up ahead. We reached Céret in good time and found our way through the strange new streets to our intended accommodation with the help of Hector, our GPS with the chosen voice of a grumpy ex-RAF Wing Commander.
Even taking the incongruities of language into account, the phrases ‘some renovation’ and ‘minor inconvenience’ completely fail to describe the scene we encountered on arriving at our ‘pension’. Here was a three storey building, immersed in scaffolding, being comprehensively taken to pieces before our eyes. We were concerned.
One of the workers helpfully hailed the owner whose head eventually appeared through a second floor window beside that of the curly-headed baby he was holding. He smiled a rather deranged smile and said, “S’OK!” while offering a wave of vague reassurance. We remained concerned.
After a few moments enough scaffolding was removed to allow the front door to be opened, revealing the owner in a pair of quite rustic pyjamas with the half-dressed baby glued to his side. “S’OK…” Our concern increased. However we are open-minded people and agreed to follow him inside to look at our room, somehow hoping that things were actually “S’OK”. But they weren’t and, without going into any more absurd detail, I can confirm that we allowed our concerns to guide us and we left the house convinced that the owner was completely out of his mind. The look on his face as we bid him farewell led me to believe that he completely agreed with us and that, while our concerns were temporary, his had become permanent.
But, you know what? I wasn’t worried because we’ve experienced this kind of thing before and every time, everything turned out far more than alright in the end. And that is exactly what happened in Céret.
We went straight to the Office de Tourisme and were efficiently directed to meet, after a medicinal beer, M.Patrick Massines at ‘L’Escalivade’ chambre d’hotes. Patrick is a very warm and helpful host and his ‘L’Escalivade' proved to be the perfect base for our two day exploration of the area, situated peacefully at the edge of the town centre. If you would like more details, they can be found at any of the usual travel and accommodation websites.
Now, having sorted everything out, it was time to concentrate and get on with our visit to Céret. The town sits at the entrance to a valley which takes you deep into the high mountains that run along the Spanish border. Catalunya and the Costa Brava are only minutes away as are the beautiful coastal towns on the French side of the border.
I can tell you that strolling through the streets of the old town centre is very enjoyable and, although walking through the streets of any old French town is enjoyable, Céret has something special. Perhaps it’s the air, combining the sea and the mountains, that provides a very high level of energy and a micro climate that sees exotic flowers still blooming in the gardens and squares of the town in mid December.
Céret, to our enormous surprise possesses an outstanding museum of modern art, including many paintings and profoundly simple drawings by Picasso and a few pieces by Raoul Dufy and Joan Miro. The museum was founded by Pierre Brune, one of a large number of artists drawn to the area by its special light and the landscapes unique to the lower slopes of the Pyrenees. My particular thing (there’s always a particular thing) was being introduced to the work of Auguste Herbin which, for whatever reason, got ‘right into my head’.
The Saturday market in Céret is actually pretty incredible, winding its way through the town in a way that made every corner a surprise especially as there were so many artists and such a variety of artisans selling their work. I overheard one local woman complain, “Pah, everyone is a painter in Céret”. As if that were a problem. It may not be Musée d’Orsay but the colour and positive vibe of the market is extraordinary particularly when the choir started to sing in front of the Roman church.
On Patrick’s recommendation we managed to secure a table for dinner at L’Atelier de Fred, the best restaurant in the area and, until recently, the proud holder of a Michelin star. I possess a limited knowledge of Michelin stardom, of how one obtains and then loses such a thing, but I do know that everything about Fred is excellent. From the warm greeting at the door, which never wavered throughout a performance of wonderful service, to the food itself which was absolutely perfect.
We had such a good time with Fred that we can’t fully remember what we had to eat. This is partly because we were joined by a fabulous Irish/Indian couple that we had met in a brasserie only an hour before Fred guided us to our table. The joyful habit of making new friends in new places only makes travelling even more enjoyable and is a very important part of the adventure.
I’ll tell you about the magic of Collioure next time.
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