Two Grand Dames. I’d calculated a return trip of around 2 hours, about 60kms out and back south along the coast to the French/Spanish border. No need to upload GPS tracks in preparation, this was a known route. Though, in this region “Le Vent”, the wind, is one of the unknown quantities.
Extreme in its violence, it soothes you breathlessly on a summer’s day too. An unpleasant day in Le Vent once evoked mass thrashing on pedals down a 10% hill in the easiest gear at the grand total of 8km per hour.
The coastal route from Collioure to Cerbere in the Pyrenees-Orientales is quickly becoming a second reference to “Beach Rd”, the other one, a cycling mecca located in Melbourne, Australia. A rolling coastline it delivers 500m of altitude gain one way delivering vineyard pretties, terraced villas, longing vistas of the mediterranean and tours through seaside Catalan villages.
The benefit of residing in this area for some time means the usual detailed planning of the route, destination, timelines, GPS down/upload and packing of essentials can be discarded. Traveling light, just two bidons (bottles) and a bar, lightens the mind just as much.
Boundaries and Borders
There’s something different about heading to an international boundary as opposed to a state-border when out for a ride. Over the other side of the line is not just another set of rules and regulations, there’s hundreds of years of cultural differences, friction, atrocities, battles won and lost, tastes, sounds and visual elements. Previous regional subtleties in flavour suddenly sit at the head of the table.
The French-Spanish border is hallmarked by two towns, Cerbere on the French side and Portbou the other. Connected by road and train tunnel Cerbere was once an important trade hub for the transfer of goods between France and Spain. Advances in transport have since changed some of that. It is a pity, because sitting proudly at the entrance to Cerbere is the most evocative building I’d never planned on seeing.
Will I ever Get Home?
Returning by train from Girona (Spain) on a previous occasion, a pause in the train schedule awarded me a few hours to sit at the station and wonder if I was ever going to get home. The coastal towns are populated with around 1500-2000 permanent residents, not a lot of people, especially on the back-end of the high season and when all the tourists have well and truly departed. Many businesses follow the tourists and close quickly after summer, leaving the towns ghost-like. With hours between trains, it’s not ideal.
Is That the Titanic?
Wandering from the station and across the bridge my mind leapt, there along the tracks commanding a strong position was a curved grey monolith. Flashes of the Titanic, memories of QE2 sightings, visions of the Ritz Paris steps, little did I know what I was in for.
About a 1000 photographs later, the entry beckoned me. There was a note hand-written in French at the door and the door was ajar. Stepping into the foyer the 1930s engulfed me. Ladies dressed in sculptured dresses, wearing hats and looking like film-stars, black A-model Ford cars escorting guests to and fro. Looking decidedly unattended, if not abandoned, history invited me upstairs.
By the chess table, mouth agape at noticeboards and press-clippings, into the tea-room. Crowded with eighty years of bookings, stories and guests, the desire to be served tea in a white china cup and take a round of petite-fours was overwhelming. Sadly, a lady disturbed me in 1932 and I awoke in 2012 to a row of tables and chairs, a small photographic exhibition and a barrage of pleasant French that I really wanted to understand. One-in-five just wasn’t cutting it.
Gracious as 1932, Jakye Roubaix, the caretaker of Le Belvedere de Rayon Vert, took me under her wing for just a moment. Perhaps it was the look of wanton petite-fours all over my face, probably just the awe-struck and fumbling French dialogue that charmed her.
Intently engaging all senses as one does in the company of a gracious foreigner in a building that one shouldn’t have been, ears spoke of an impending gathering, nose noted delicious beef stew on the stove and eyes clipped trays of coffee mugs. Mouth tried to work out how to convince Madame Roubaix to take me on a tour.
Somewhere in the ether, someone calculated that I was to be rewarded with an unplanned guided tour. Mme Roubaix led me out of the tea-room, down the hallway across the colourful tiles towards the doorway “Interdit” (Forbidden).
Things were looking up. Mind your head she said, or just ‘votre tete’ as I heard it. Through a few wizard like doors, don’t mind the exposed wiring or the half-installed light-switch box hanging off the wall. Click! Click! Click! Mme Roubaix threw the switches and we emerged from the back-halls right of stage in the theatre. There sat the audience awaiting the curtain to be lifted for the show to go on. An audience of 20 years of dust unfortunately.
Mme Roubaix came and went a few times as I took front row seats under the dress circle for the full presentation. A ‘modern’ cinema screen whirred and rolled its way up to reveal theatre stage and tapered curtains. (Sidenote: A quick internet search failed to reveal another hotel with its own theatre).
Left to deliver a solo tour, Le Belvedere revealed a separate salon for black tie opulent occasions or perhaps intimate marriage ceremonies. On the upper floors, there remains a small number of rooms available for booking with an indoor courtyard for the 60 days a year that it rains in the region.
In its day the hotel Le Belvedere du Rayon Vert most surely would have been the Grand Dame of Cerbere, if not the region. It is fortunate that another Grand Dame in Jakye Roubaix now tends its place on the list of historic monuments.
Designed in Art Deco style it was built between 1928-1932 and even in its current state its a testament to those days. Who needs a time-machine.
Two Grand Dames
And that’s what’s drawn me to ride to the border a few times, just to whoosh past those Two Grand Dames and rejoice the day when time to spare between trains took another track. Is it the magnetism of the Belvedere or the magnetism of the reward of the unforeseen that fulfils the spirit on that route; calculation unknown.
Thanks to Avery for the inspiration for this article.