Fascinations with the Vermillion Coast
Originally published on The Adventure Collection.
Oops. I fell in love. Maybe it was the wine, maybe the locals, or maybe it was the cerulean sea…but after spending ten days on the grey and golden-shaled Vermilion Coast, which runs between Argelès-sur-Mer to the border village of Cerbère, I decided to call Banyuls-sur-Mer my home for a while.
With a population of roughly four thousand people, everybody knows everybody’s business in Banyuls, but to my surprise, that’s not always a bad thing. People live much more collectively here, always looking out for each other, and the barter system is still very much alive. Here are five fascinations that called me to stay.
The air is rife with mysticism here: whispers of witches and various superstitions that keep out the bad juju. Imagine, the town closest to the Spanish border was named Cerbère, French for Cerberus, the guardian dog of Hell. What they call the tramontana is the northern wind that sometimes swirls in softly from the mountains, and at other times roars in like a lion disrupting everything in its path. It’s a constant reminder that nature is in control here. The only thing bigger and more powerful than the sky is the sea. Pictured above: Chapelle Notre Dame de la Salette
Wine is a major player in the local economy here, and I am witnessing a shift in its politics and production. Recent news of the GICB’s (the wine cooperative representing the Cote Vermeille) impending bankruptcy is accentuated by changes brought on by a new generation of wine producers who are focusing on quality over bang for your buck. More and more producers are retreating from the cooperative to explore small collectives producing natural and organic wines.
I have stumbled into a family of wine makers with what seems to be a bottomless supply of fantastic red wine. We have been drinking a 2005 from Domaine de la Rectorie from unlabeled bottles. They call it l’entrée de gamme, in other words, the most inexpensive offering, and it still shines.
The slow food concept is no stranger to Americans, but I was surprised how relevant the movement was in France today. Originally, I thought slow food was normal food here. Not always so. Slow food is natural, organic, and most importantly comes from farming only plants, seeds, and animals originating from the local ecosystem. This particular department of France, the Pyrénées-Orientales, is known for its dedication to organic farming and preservation of traditional agricultural techniques. In Banyuls, just steps from the sea, El Xadic is officially a natural wine shop, and unofficially a one-man-show of a slow food restaurant. Chef Manu Desclaux designs exquisite slow food meals in his own style, at his own pace.
Perched at the top of a hill overlooking all of Banyuls and its bay, a military fort built in 1883 belonging to neighboring Port-Vendres sat lonely and abandoned until a family team of four drew up the Association “La Galline” in 2013 with the promise to breathe new life into the space for the next 50 years. They have plans to open a slow food restaurant, artist workshops, a wine laboratory, and much more. The concept is collective, dedicated to community and sustainable development, and powered only by wind-generated energy. I’m thrilled to witness the birth of such a beautiful project.
The vineyards of the Cote Vermeille are made of stories of steeply sloping vineyards, divided and organized by intricately hand-built stonewalls, or murets. Apparently, if you were to line up all of the murets on the Cote Vermeille, the length would trump that of the Great Wall of China. The vineyard workers tend to the vines without machinery, like they have been doing for hundreds of years, simply because the land is too steep for heavy equipment. At harvest time, I’m told, a palpable happy energy permeates the air among winemakers and vine workers alike. I am convinced to stay long enough to participate in the harvest, and to celebrate among the locals at the annual Fête des Vendanges this October.