Mediterranean Waves

gruissan 1The siren song of the beach beckons every summer, and we always succumb. Even though we aren’t beach lovers. The wind, the sand in everything, the traffic, the fear of sunburn. Summer wouldn’t be summer without at least an afternoon at the seaside. I grew up on that sea of grass known as the American prairie, about as far away as you can get from any sea or ocean. I was in my 20s before I saw the ocean. Now, I live a 45-minute drive from the Mediterranean. Close enough to go on short notice and come back to sleep in my own bed. Far enough that my life in July and August isn’t ruled by the traffic jams snaking to and from the beach.gruissan 5Our strip of the Mediterranean is lined with beaches, some quite famous: Cap d’Agde, for example, is known for its naturalist (i.e., nude) beach, so much so that if you say you’re going there people assume you are going to go naked, even though there are also parts of that beach for people whose limit on undressing stops at the tiny, strategically placed triangles of cloth known as bikinis and Speedos.

That said, at almost any beach you’ll find plenty of topless sunbathers. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Nobody bats an eye. However, very few of them are young nymphs with perky breasts, so don’t get your hopes up. On a recent trip, there were two topless sunbathers nearby. They must have been in their 70s, and their breasts dangled limply on either side of their torsos. My first reaction: “Sun cancer!” (I wear a high-necked, long-sleeved rash guard myself.) My second reaction: “Elles sont bien dans leur peau.” They are good in their skin, which is a French expression for being at ease with oneself. Though in this case, it works literally as well as figuratively.gruissan 6Starting at Montpellier, you have Palavas-les-Flots, upscale and reminiscent of the beach at Barcelona, with high-rises nearby. Beach time segues seamlessly into shopping and nightlife. And eating, though that goes without saying, no matter where you are in France.gruissan 4gruissan 3Next comes Sète, followed by Cap d’Agde (the city of Agde is inland). The beach by Béziers–the city itself is inland and on a hill–is Valras-Plage. Just south, Narbonne, likewise inland, has Narbonne-Plage and Gruissan. These are equidistant from us, but we prefer Gruissan, whose beach is a little wilder, lined with little wooden cottages on stilts, vs. the concrete high-rises of Narbonne-Plage.

Onward to the south come Port-la-Nouvelle, Leucate and le Barcarès, which are even more hard-core beach vacation destinations. And then you get to Perpignan and its beaches, such as Argelès, then down to Collioure, Banyuls and Port-Vendres. Then you hit Spain.gruissan 7gruissan 2Gruissan, shown in all the photos here, suits us for many reasons besides being nearby. The road to Narbonne-Plage climbs then descends through the Clape mountains, which are G.O.R.G.E.O.U.S. But if you are behind a camper or a bike, both of which are very common, you can’t pass them until you’re practically at the beach. The road to Gruissan isn’t as pretty, but it’s flatter and has a bike lane, keeping the traffic moving. gruissan 10Gruissan has high-rises, but only around the port, which is also where most of the restaurants and shops are located. The port is a bit far to walk from the beach (a good thing, insofar as you don’t see the high-rises when you’re on the beach). As the road to the beach passes by the port, we just stop the car on the way home and have dinner. The port area is very lively and fun in its own way, but there’s a quieter, quainter option: the ancient village of Gruissan. It circles around the ruins of a hilltop medieval château (protection from pirates–before pirates of the Caribbean, there were pirates of the Mediterranean). The charming, narrow streets have several good restaurants, especially for seafood. gruissan 11gruissan 13Our modus operandi is to go to the beach around 3 or 4 p.m. Usually the folks who had arrived early have left or are leaving, making it easy to find parking and a spot to spread out by the water. We avoid the peak hours for sun exposure, as well. gruissan 14gruissan 15Our “must-have” equipment has diminished over the years. We had a windbreak that I had bought when I lived in Belgium and did a beach trip to Ostende; we were freezing, and the windbreak made it a little more bearable. On that trip, I got a sunburn–on my hands only, because otherwise I was completely covered up, shivering. Here, we don’t have to worry about being cold, but it is windy. We upgraded to one of those pup tents, which are nice for shade (the wind often makes parasols fly away), keeping gear in one spot, privacy for changing, and a bigger angle of protection from the wind. gruissan 8gruissan 9Our gear also used to include many plastic buckets and shovels and molds and balls and lifesavers and waterwings and goggles and so on. Now, it’s just sun block, hats, anti-UV rash guards and lots of water in a cooler.

Beach tips: put your phone in a zip-lock plastic bag. Take a book or magazine if you want something to look at and keep your phone safe from the sand. Put your clean change of clothes in another zippered plastic bag to keep it sand-free. A straw bag to carry everything lets the sand fall out if you shake it vigorously before putting it in the car….

Any tips to add? What do you look for in a beach?

Bye-bye Beach

footprintsJust before school started, we went to the beach. Our first trip this year, though it’s just 45 minutes away.

We aren’t sun worshippers. And that grit of sand in one’s hair and mouth, sand that sticks to everything, even to dry skin, even to dry clothes that were put into a zippered plastic bag at home–well, meh.

peopleThen there are the crowds. The drive is 45 minutes in winter. In summer it can be two hours. Bumper to bumper. And then, you have to park.

We usually head out around 4 p.m., when most people are leaving. This is a good policy in general in France. The French love their schedules. Pretty much everybody does the same things at the same time. By being out of step, you get the place to yourself.

sand-sculpture
Note the cigarette in the mouth and the belly-button shell

For example, the supermarkets have 20 checkout lanes but operate a maximum of eight. I often have spent more time waiting in line to pay than shopping. If you go to the supermarket at noon (supermarkets being among the few businesses open between 12 and 2), there are only two or three checkout lanes open, but nobody in line. On the autoroute, the time not to stop for lunch is at noon, when the rest stops are packed, lines for the restroom are miles long and the sandwich selection is depleted by 12:30. No, lunch time is the time to enjoy the unencumbered highway before all the French get back in their cars and cause traffic jams.

beach-bar
A little bar on the beach where you can rent a fancy bain de soleil, which is what they call the loungers. It isn’t just a brand of sun lotion!

Back to the beach. We drive smoothly past one 80-kilometer-long traffic jam in the opposite direction, then arrive at the beach to find the empty parking spot of one of the cars now stuck in that traffic jam. We get our fill of sun and sand in an hour or two, then look for refreshments. Ice cream is always a good idea. Sometimes, if it’s still crowded, we’ll stick around for dinner (fresh fish!) rather than join the throngs on the highway.

flamingos
Pink flamingos in the etangs, or lagoons.

The two nearest beaches are Narbonne and Gruissan. Narbonne is a little more built-up, with a few apartment high-rises on the beach front. A parking strip runs the length of the boardwalk (which isn’t boards here, but you know what I mean). But the shops and restaurants are right there, too, which is nice.

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The lifeguards’ station, with “secours,” or “rescue” written artfully in red.

Gruissan has a bigger beach, and little chalets on stilts line the edge. The parking lot is very small but close by and hidden from view. More charming by far. We’ll take you to the pretty port and the adorable town, which are away from the beach, another time.

emptyOn the day before the new school year, the beach was mellow. Only half had a lifeguard on duty, and the side without was nearly deserted. Walking the length of the beach, I thought a gentleman emerging from the water looked familiar. Indeed, it was a neighbor! Lots of Carcassonnais have beach chalets at Gruissan or Narbonne.

baby-coverup

I didn’t see any burkinis, but I did see lots of kids wearing a high-SPF version, left. A good idea–better than a wrestling match to apply sun lotion, which then immediately gets washed off. There also were a frightening number of naked and badly sunburned kids.

We’ll be back. Our favorite time to visit the beach is winter. The sun is bright but not burning, the beach is empty, and a few restaurants stay open. We only need one.

footprint

Another round of Banyuls

flowers 1There were too many photos to put into one post, so you’re stuck with Banyuls again. Hardship, right?

police stationThis time we’ll zoom in on a few charming details around the town. For example, how often does the word “adorable”  come up in connection with “police station”? And that scooter is cuteness itself.

Plus it had CLEAN public toilets on the other side! Four of them! With soap and everything!

The wise people of Banyuls knew to leave well enough alone in some cases….

old sign

while keeping most of the place spiffy. There was a lot of Belle Epoque architecture.

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building

belle epoque house

They had some interesting ideas about electricity, sometimes charming

electric box

sometimes not. I suppose it’s inevitable with stone walls.

electric wires

There were some cute vehicles.

But parking is difficult.

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Better not forget the parking brake. (Do you see the van, up high?)

parking flood sign

This sign near the beach says: Attention drivers. In case of a storm, please URGENTLY evacuate your vehicle. The town cannot be held liable in any case.

Of course, steep hills + solid rock or buildings everywhere + sudden rain = flash flood. Get a load of these foundations:

The people of Banyuls like to decorate, whether it’s a rock outcropping, an electric meter cover or a paella pan.

paella painting

Mostly with good taste.

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Nicely planted palms around a little bandstand and square.
olive tree
This olive tree must be a couple hundred years old.
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Wonderful street lamps. The wiring, not so much.

On the flatter, more spread-out end of town, the villas hid behind grand gates.

gate 5

gate 4

gate 3

gate 2

gate 1

More modest homes also had handsome entries, even if they seemed sized for third graders.

And they are crazy about flowers. Especially bougainvillea, in every neon shade.

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flowers 13 cactus

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There was another verbiose sign:

boules rules

“Thank you for your public-spiritedness”! These pétanque players seemed to be minding the rules.

boules

Must be rough playing right next to the beach, especially on hot summer nights.

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Banyuls is a highly recommended day trip from Carcassonne. And until you can come, you can pretend, by getting a bottle of Banyuls’ famous fortified wine (it’s like port, but DO NOT say that to anybody from Banyuls). Santé!

Banyuls-sur-Mer

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The renowned Banyuls vineyards in the distance are just as vertical.

We had a visitor for a few days and wanted to play tourist. We escaped the heavy rains that are flooding the north of France, but we still got some showers. It’s one thing to brave a few drops to visit something new, but another to see the same sites for the hundredth time, no matter how fabulous, when the weather is meh.

mairie
La mairie, or city hall, shows Spanish influences.

Our visitor hadn’t been to Banyuls, near the Spanish border, and it had been years since our last trip. One weather report suggested  scattered showers, while another promised peeks of sun. We ended up under mostly gray skies but dry. A perfect afternoon jaunt that felt like we’d gone on away on vacation.

restoThe weather held out for us to stroll around and have a leisurely lunch en terrace with a view of the beach.

view w beach
The rocky beach. Usually every centimeter is covered with bare skin.

As beautiful as Banyuls is I cannot imagine going there in July or August, when it’s absolutely overflowing with people. But on June 1, there were enough people for it to feel alive and yet for us to find ourselves alone on its charming, vertical streets.

port
A port, of course.

If I went nuts over a tiny village like Malves, imagine what I did with Banyuls. So today you get to see its charming streets, appreciate its beauty, and thank your lucky stars that you don’t have to carry your groceries home like the folks here. Though I bet all the residents are in great shape.

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little street 13little street 12little street 14little street 9little street 10little street 7little street 5little street 8little street 4little street 2little street 6little street 3

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The house on the right is for sale!!! View of the beach!!! No privacy though.
trop tard
This is what happens if you don’t buy that house right now: “Too late!”