Ah, by the sea. Even before we started looking outside of the US for a retirement spot, our spreadsheet of must-haves included being on/near/having a view of water. At the time, the beautiful Florida home of one of Bill’s sisters could have technically qualified on all three of those points. A similar house for sale right next door to her had a one million dollar price tag and while that would have been fun, we decided to expand our horizons across the Atlantic to France. In Carcassonne we’re a 5-minute walk from either the river or the canal, so we’re definitely near the water but you still can’t look out our windows and see the birds gliding across the surface or fish jumping out to catch insects. However, if one of those birds were to fly from our house directly to the Mediterranian Sea, that’s only 67 km (42 miles), where lots of vacation accommodations await with the promise of “les pieds dans l’eau” or “your feet in the water.”
Like many locations along the coast, Banyuls-sur-mer was settled by the Greeks around 400 BC followed by the Romans. They were drawn here by the climate that is perfect for growing olives and grapes, both of which still provide significant income to the area, 2000 years later. The continued success of those crops was considerably aided by a rainwater channeling and filtration system installed by the Templars during the Middle Ages that still functions today.
While wine and oil have maintained their importance through the centuries, for 200 years there was another source of revenue: smuggling. In 1659 with the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees, Banyuls became a part of France and soon thereafter a black market developed with Spain for items such as salt, sugar, rice, and tobacco. By the time the railroad arrived in 1880, the influx of tourists seeking to “put their feet in the water” provided a much easier and legal way to make money.
And it was with that railroad that we too arrived with a travel time of just under 2 hours from home and close enough to walk to our apartment across the street from the sea. For vacation it’s worth it to us to take the time to find accommodations with the view that we want and to pay a little extra, if necessary, for the panorama that we don’t have at our house. Morning coffee and evening drinks out on the terrace overlooking the sea, yes, please!
Sculptor Aristide Maillol was born in Banyuls in 1861 and got much of his artistic inspiration from the area and from his contemporary, Paul Gaugin. Auguste Rodin said that Maillol’s work was so good, he would not need any guidance from this creator of “The Thinker”. Sculptures by the Banyuls native son are on display in Paris at the Musée d’Orsay and outside of the Louvre in the Tuileries garden as well as many locations here in his hometown. We followed the walking map through the neighborhood where he lived that the tourism office aptly says,“has kept all its charm with its narrow streets lined with colorful houses and cascades of bougainvillea.”
Since the seafront is lined with restaurants, bars, and shops, including a few wine cellars, we had plenty to do in addition to the simple pleasure of walking along the beach. I read that George Orwell, author of Animal Farm and 1984, visited Banyuls in 1937 and found it “a bore and a disappointment”. Luckily our experience was just the opposite.