Living the dream

 

Go France: Gemma Tiptonmeets people who loved their holidays in France’s Pyrénées-Orientales region so much that they packed up and moved there

BARRING TOTAL travel disasters, I always fall a little in love when I go away. These holiday romances aren’t with handsome Frenchmen or enticing Italians, though, but with the destinations. Like many of us, I can’t visit a place without imagining a life there, seeing picturesque apartments or villas and dreaming of them as mine. I’m also entirely unfaithful, as it only takes another trip to a different place to cure me of one obsession and awaken the next.

On a visit to the area of France known both as French Catalonia and, more formally, Pyrénées-Orientales – or, if you think of France in terms of wine, Languedoc-Roussillon – I met many people who had fallen similarly in love, but who had gone further, taking the plunge and staying on. So what is it about this particular part of the world that makes it so enticing? And if you go on holiday there, will you find it just a fling or a love that lasts?

Pyrénées-Orientales, shortened to PO, is the exotic- sounding region that reaches across the Roussillon Plain and, in three valleys, from the slopes of Mount Canigou to the Mediterranean Sea, at the point where France borders Spain.

Changing with the seasons – in spring there is a riot of peach and cherry blossom, in summer the creeping green of vines – the different altitudes mean that in the early part of the season you could be skiing in the morning, relaxing in a thermal spring – the Bains de St Thomas (www.bains-saint-thomas.fr) – in the afternoon and sipping a sundowner on the beach by teatime. By midsummer the snows have gone and Canigou becomes a walker’s paradise, the beaches and pretty coastal villages full of sun-kissed visitors, and the vineyards a hive of activity.

Penny and Mike Statham came to the region in search of a holiday home. Penny had been an interior designer in Dublin; her husband spent much of his time away, working on ships. After their daughter and son-in-law moved to Villefranche de Conflent, a medieval walled city in PO that is now a Unesco World Heritage site, the Stathams decided to make their own move permanent and bought an old house and barn in the nearby village of Fuilla, “halfway between sea and snow”, as Penny puts it. “It was a totally new life for us both in every way. New language, new home and full time together, with Mike giving up working on the ships.”

But the biggest change came when their daughter decided that she missed Ireland and moved home again. “I can’t say we weren’t surprised, but we did understand and never once considered returning ourselves.”

Now the couple run gites – self-catering holiday homes – in the barn, which they have converted, and which have benefited from Penny’s design expertise. “We have a wonderful life here,” says Penny, “with good friends and a healthy, active lifestyle, skiing and walking. The landscape is beautiful, and it’s always changing.”

Most of Penny and Mike’s guests hire a car at Carcassone or Girona airport, but the couple can also arrange to collect guests, and give guided tours.

Another pair seeking a more relaxed (and warmer) way of life are Belfast-born Sharon and Declan O’Kane, whose Maison 225 is an elegant guest house in the town of Prades. The most beautiful bedroom at Maison 225 is at the back, where a stained-glass sunroom leads to a balcony with views of the ever-present Mount Canigou.

Prades is a typical market town, where the charm is local rather than touristy, and a major advantage is its convenience for many day excursions.

One of these is to Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, a beautiful 10th-century monastery whose cloisters have had to be reconstructed because part of them now forms the Cloisters Museum in New York, having been sold off during the French Revolution and shipped to the US. Having been to both, I think I prefer it in its original setting.

Jonathan Hesford and Rachel Treloar came to PO by a different route. Jonathan, who is English, was working in IT for Merrill Lynch, living with his New Zealand-born wife, Rachel, a block from the World Trade Center, in Manhattan. After 9/11 “we left our home with what we could carry. In the aftermath of that disaster we lost our home, my job and our right to live in the States”, says Jonathan. “The experience made us think about what really mattered in our life. We wanted a different environment for our children.”

This dream led to a wine course in the UK, followed by three years’ study in New Zealand. The couple then brought these new-found skills to France, and their Domaine Treloar wines (www.domaine treloar.com) are now listed in the Hachette guide, regarded as the French wine bible.

The advantage of taking a wine tour at Domaine Treloar (followed by a delicious lunch, made by Rachel) is that English-speaking visitors can ask all those winey questions that are so often lost in translation when your French hosts speak only their own language. The wines are excellent, too.

Any romantic dreams of owning my own vineyard were quickly dispelled after speaking to Jonathan, and also to a Welshman, Corin Fairchild, of Domaine Vella Frontera (www.vellafrontera.com). Priding themselves on the high quality of their production, the grapes at both vineyards are hand tended, and hand picked, which means hours of back-breaking work in the hot French sun.

A final morning in Perpignan – well worth a longer visit – and afternoon in the almost-too-pretty seaside town of Collioure left me strongly considering making my love affair with PO longer lasting.

I pictured myself enjoying a noisette– an espresso coffee with a dash of milk – and croissants for breakfast at atmospheric cafes, visiting vineyards, skiing in the season and swimming in the sea in summertime. I would walk in peach blossom in spring and perhaps follow in the footsteps of Picasso, Matisse and Braque, all of whom were inspired here, to take up painting.

Meeting the people who have taken the plunge, it’s an enticing idea. I haven’t quite decided, but I will definitely be back.

Where to stay, eat and go

Where to stay

Maison 225. 225 Avenue du Général de Gaulle, Prades, 00-33-4-68055279, www.225prades.com. Run by Irish couple Sharon and Declan O’Kane, this 19th-century townhouse B&B has a sunny back garden and shady terrace, plus stunning views of Mount Canigou. No credit cards.

Les Hirondelles. Fuilla, 00-33-4-68056308, www.fuilla66.com. Peaceful cut-stone gites, run by Penny and Mike Statham, in a quiet village. Ideal for walking and, in season, skiing.

Village Catalan. Vernet-les-Bains, 00-33-6-06897998, www.villagecatalan.com. Self-catering village of stone cottages on the side of a mountain. Shared courtyards, some with private balconies.

Where to eat

La Table. 5 Rue de la Poissonerie, Perpignan, 00-33-4-68285321, www.latable-restaurant.com. Atmospheric restaurant that manages to be both trendy and fun – and all at the same time. The food’s good, too.

Le Cortal. Rue du Chateau, Vernet-les-Bains. 00-33-4-68055579, www.bistrot-lecortal.fr. Hot-stone cooking, with a dining terrace in the valley that Rudyard Kipling described as the paradise of the Pyrenees.

L’Auberge du Cellier. 1 Rue de Sainte Eugénie, Montner, 00-33-4-68290978, www.aubergeducellier.com. For a fancier feast, try this “neo-Catalan” experience, in the tiny village of Montner. It also has rooms.

Where to go

If you can ride a motorbike – I can’t, so I hitched a lift with someone who could – Roland Thomas runs jaw-droppingly-unforgettable tours of the spectacular Galamus Gorge. After hurtling along stunning roads, we parked and walked down to the Hermitage of Saint Antoine. Ring the bell here and, legend has it, you will be married within a year. See www.globetrotters.org.

Take the Petit Train Jaune from Villefranche. This little yellow train climbs through scenic mountain passes along a line originally laid to transport miners in the Tet Valley. www.trainstouristiques-ter.com/train_jaune.htm.

Go there

Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies to Girona, in Spain, from Dublin and Shannon. The Frogbus (www.frogbus.com) connects Girona airport to Perpignan train station. Ryanair also flies to Perpignan via London Birmingham, Bristol and London Stansted.