Saturday, 10 August 2013

The journey back to Collioure

Etangs between Narbonne and Perpignan
It was just before 8am when the train pulled into Collioure. The journey from London had taken around 16 hours, but you hardly notice it when most of that is overnight.

We Brits might have almost forgotten about sleeper trains, but they’re a boon. In this case, it means that we don’t lose the first day of our holiday traveling.

We left work in the afternoon, walked the short distance to St Pancras, and after relaxing in the lounge for a while, boarded the Eurostar to Paris.

It’s approximately 30 minutes to the coast – whipped out of central London in no time, through tunnels, then past Rochester and on into Kent – before a further 30 minutes, at a somewhat slower pace, takes you under the Channel and lands you firmly on the Continent.

From there, it’s little more than an hour to the French capital.

There was blue above, and green and burnished gold below; trees and grass, bushes and scrub; hedgerows and harvested fields.

And occasionally, girded by a copse, the immaculate stone teeth of a war cemetery; some tiny, some larger, and serried ranks of clouds, grey shadow below pure white, marching into the distance, as far as the eye can see.

Rows of poplars started in the middle of nowhere and finished as abruptly as they’d begun. Small villages rushed past, arranged neatly around stocky, simple church towers topped with simple, stocky spires.

Modernity and industry have broken through in places, but these are the characteristics that dominate this landscape as you pass through northern France.

Once we’d disembarked at Gare du Nord, the main question was what to do with the time before our sleeper departed, just before 10, from Gare d’sAusterlitz.

We got a cab across the city and decided to wander into a nearby park that we hadn’t spotted when making the same trip last year.

It turned out to be le Jardin des Plantes, which is France’s main botanical garden, with four science museums – entomology, paleontology, mineralogy and evolution.

We strolled along one of the main walks – well, as much as one can ‘stroll’ when dragging bags behind through the sandy gravel.

The restaurant, though, was closed. So we sat down for a few minutes, only to find a park warden making his way to everyone still in the gardens to warn them that it would be shutting within four minutes.

Up again and out of one gate, we spotted a potager alongside one of the buildings, between the main gate.

A potager – not a bit of a flower bed in a carpark, but a real, live French potager, tightly packed with a vast array of fruits and vegetables.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to examine it in detail. That will have to wait for another day.

Determined to take things easy, we then found ourselves slogging up inclined streets before we found our way back to the main road to the station.

Still with two hours to go, we spotted a small Italian restaurant – a trattoria, in effect – and decided that, since locals seemed to be dining there, it was a far better option than the row of brasseries opposite the station itself, which, as we discovered last year, are not providers of the finest Parisian cuisine.

Il Vero turned out to be very nice indeed, although it was a good thing that we had plenty of time, because they really, really do believe in taking everything slowly – even getting your bill.

I opted for a puttanesca, never having had one actually cooked for me before.

Colloquially known as ‘tart’s spaghetti’ – possibly because it’s hearty and simple – it was an absolute delight.

It’s a tomato sauce with anchovies melted in to it, and olives and capers added. Gutsy, big flavours. Mine came with finely chopped parsley as a garnish, and I added a sprinkling of grated Parmesan.

The waiter/patron/maître d’ was a character who was happily joking with all his diners. In our case, he was deeply suspicious of The Other Half for requesting a mushroom risotto – and then asking that there be no cheese near it. I understand this sentiment entirely.

Later, he was equally suspicious when neither of us could finish the huge portions placed on the table – and I really do mean huge. In my case, it won’t have been less than 300g of pasta. The Other Half estimated that there was half a pound of rice on his plate.

Both dishes were fabulous to taste, and we enjoyed a small jug of a sparkling rosé that was recommended by a fellow diner and which was light and refreshing.

It left us enough time to comfortably make the train and get our bags up and onto the racks. We’d been given the top bunks in a cabin for four. At this time of year, you don’t get to have a cabin to yourself, even for a supplement – it’s too busy.

Not that that was a problem last year. A very quiet couple boarded just after us (we were on the lower bunks) and left at Narbonne.

Yesterday, we set off from Paris, with dark having just descended and with nobody else in the cabin.

About an hour later, we pulled into a station – my guess is that we were at Orléans. What sounded like a veritable hoard of small children came aboard and then spent the next half hour or so being bedded down by adults dealing with the excitement of a late night and a bed – on a train!

Your berth comes with a packet containing earplugs – kept for home, where they’re of far more use when some nearby residents decide to party late – and a very valuable bottle of water.

A knock on our door alerted us to the fact that we were not going to be alone for the entire journey. A man crept in quietly and went to bed with barely a sound.

He left at Narbonne in the dark, but the stop was long enough for dawn to brush past.

An apricot glow blossomed behind lilac clouds as we passed the first etangs. Hills in the background showed purple. The water was like metallic mirrors. It is a magical landscape that leaves me breathless every time in see it.

Morning over the Mediterranean, Roussillon
A couple of stops and we were in Perpignan. Just 20 minutes left. Elne first, then Argelès-sur-Mer. And five minutes later, you pass through a tunnel bored into the foothills of the Pyrénées and pull to a halt at Collioure itself.

We piled out of the train, almost mad with delight.

Down the hill and into the centre of the village, with a first stop for coffee while Aux Délice Catalans opened for business.

Then more coffee – and the butteriest, lightest croissants you can dream of, after we’d been welcomed by the man of the house, who shook our hands and welcomed us.

Tiny, delicate clouds scudded out to sea, and simply disappeared. Whitecaps were visible out beyond the harbour. The sky was as blue as could be and the light reminded you why Matisse loved the place so much.

After breakfast, it was on around past the chateau and to Port D’Avall beach, where Cyril and Vincent host the Bora Bora Beach Club – café, sun loungers (transats), pedalos and kayaks (give it a few days and I’ll be out in one).

Kisses and handshakes abounded: Cyril, quite wonderfully, lets us stash our bags at the back of the café until we can get into our rented home, while we get to start lounging around in the sun – by just 9am.

And so it is: Collioure – we’re back.

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