Canet-en-Rousillon is a charming old town with the Pyrenees on its doorstep

I AWOKE with techno music still beating in my head. 

This is not the representative sound of Canet-en-Roussillon but sometimes you end up digging deeper to do your research than you initially planned to.

For me, it involved checking out what kind of nightlife there is in a seaside resort town on the Mediterranean just 10km from Perpignan.

Canet-Plage is, as the name suggests, the “beach” part of the ancient village of Canet-en-Roussillon. Situated less than an hour’s drive from the Spanish border, it is in the heart of Catalonia. Everywhere, the red-and-yellow stripes of the Catalan flag are to be found on display in all conceivable forms in more numerous quantity than the French tricolour.

In fact, centuries ago, Canet-en-Roussillon was a walled fortress of a city that profited from trade along its route as part of the Catalan kingdom.

That particular era of financial prominence ended when feudal France took over from the kings of Catalonia and Majorca and Louis XIV ordered all city walls in the area to be dismantled in 1645.

Today, the ancient city walls are no more, the citizens of Canet having absorbed the stone to build their own houses over the intervening centuries. Two of the 14 original towers remain, as well as large vestiges of the castle. There is also a completely intact ice well from the 17th century and a major rebuilding project of the original chapel is underway.

The old town is a charming French village with a mixture of ancient, 19th and 20th century styles that blend together in sun-kissed ochre-coloured bliss. On the day we visited, following a sprightly 60-something female tour guide, the town was in full preparation for a medieval festival, lending an even more authentic feel to the town’s ancient monuments.

Back then, nobody cared much for the coast, apart from a means to transport goods, harvest salt and catch fish. By the time the railway reached these parts in the late 19th century, however, the word “tourisme” had entered the French language and the crowds began to arrive into Canet-en-Roussillon from the north and beyond via a tram link from Perpignan.

In the last century, the beach extension of Canet-Plage was created. Up to that point, there were no tourists along this stretch of coastline. People went much further east to places like Nice or west to the resorts of the Atlantic coast. The Catalan coastline was a place only for local residents and fishermen on the lagoons. It was all quiet and traditional, smelling strangely and plagued by mosquitoes. Standing on the freakishly long, wide fine sandy beach at Canet-Plage today, it’s virtually impossible to imagine that now. It’s the last busy weekend of the season and town, beach and coastline are buzzing with activity.

It’s 29 degrees with a refreshing warm breeze. Far over to my right, the dark outline of the Pyrenees stands watch over the Languedoc-Roussillon coastline that has seen so much transformation over the centuries. You’re only an hour’s drive from the Pyrenean ski stations here. It’s clearly a point that many Irish had in mind when they bought properties in Canet. Even in the post-boom-bust world of today, the Irish represent the largest foreign grouping of owners of second homes in Canet-Plage. Behind us, the plains extend west towards the nearby regional capital and rugby citadel of Perpignan. Just inside the coastline on either side of Canet-Plage, there are the large lagoons. These are now protected natural spaces, where members of the public can go (ideally on the well-maintained special cycle routes) to see the huge variety of natural wildlife, which includes the local rosé-coloured flamingos. You can also see the traditional fishermen’s huts along the shoreline of the nearest on, the Etang de St Nazaire. They were constructed using a variety of reed that grows traditionally on the lagoon. They have almost no windows and were used as homes by the fishermen up until the 1950s. Now, they are mostly used for storage by the ten fishermen that are still licensed to fish the lagoon.

Towards the other end of the beach is Canet’s deceptively huge port. Traditional boat-building still goes on here but that’s dwarfed by the marina and the various other commercial activities.

The area is due to undergo major rejuvenation works in the coming years, which will open up the more newly-extended port areas to the town, as well as moving their excellent (if a little dated-looking) aquarium to more salubrious surroundings.

The main pier and harbour is the principal embarkation point for fun activities too. These include jet-skiing, scuba diving and sigh-inducing sailing excursions up and down the coastline with the Navivoile company. The latter includes the popular sunset cruise, where you can watch the sun go down and the twinkly lights come out on a beautiful stretch of the Mediterranean.

You generally eat extremely well in these parts. The French — and particularly the Mediterranean French — seem to have mastered the art of eating and drinking copiously but never to idiotic excess. You arise from the table full and satisfied but never fit to burst.

You can see a similar pattern on the main night-life strip in Canet-Plage, where a mostly young crowd drink and hang out in the many bars of a street that is known locally as “Rue de la Soif” (the Street of Thirst).

Here, even at 1am, the atmosphere is hopping but never threatening, like it can be in Irish towns. It made me wonder about the differences between our cultures in this town that has recently been twinned with Maynooth (believe me — there’s no resemblance). I concluded that it was all down to the weather. Down here, there’s no real rush; there’s no need to drink and eat like there’s no tomorrow because tomorrow is going to be another sunny day.

Getting there

Flights

Aer Lingus ( www.aerlingus.com ) operates direct flights from Dublin to Perpignan three times a week from May to September, with affordable twice-daily links from Kerry via Aer Arann/Aer Lingus Regional ( www.aerlingus.com or www.aerarann.com/ ).

Accommodation

The Hôtel Host et Vinum ( www.hostetvinum.com ), 34 Avenue du Roussillon, 66140 Canet-en-Roussillon, France, Tel +33 4.68.80.32.63 is a recently revamped superior 3-star hotel in tranquil pine-pocked gardens with swimming pool on a quiet street close to the beach.

What to see

The very impressive Arboretum Mas Roussillon ( www.arboretum-canet-en-roussillon.fr ) is run by a local trust, whose members are bursting with enthusiasm and who have collected a huge array of trees, plants and flowers, including every species of vine grown in Languedoc-Roussillon — the world’s largest wine-growing region.

Difficult though it may be to drag yourself from the best beach around for many kilometres, the truly alluring medieval town of Collioure is too close by to be given a skip — just 35km down the coast.

What to do

Jet-skiing is not for the faint-hearted, the weak-hearted or the generally lethargic. It is, however, exceptionally brilliant fun. Check out Jet Center 66 (www.jetcenter.fr) at the port. An hour’s trip will bring you all the way along the coast as far as Collioure; make sure to wear protection against inevitable wear-and-tear on your thumbs.

Navivoile ( www.navivoile.com ) offers a range of sailing excursions, including the enchanting Sunset Cruise.

Where to eat

Host et Vinum offers an excellent Mediterranean menu with highly creative levels of presentation.

Nearby, The Horizon restaurant at the four-star Les Flamants Roses ( www.hotel-flamants-roses.com ) offers an altogether more glamorous setting closer to the shoreline with attractively-lit outdoor poolside seating.

For lunch, the Estelle de Mar (Route de Saint-Cyprien, 66140 Canet-en-Roussillon, tel +334.68.62.21.59) has a highly affordable and superb menu in beach-shack-style setting right on the beach.

Where to shop

The market on Canet-Plage is a seasonal one, but it’s on every day during summer, with stalls selling everything literally under the sun along the seafront and some adjoining streets. Off-season, the town market is held every Wednesday, with a good variety of fresh seafood and local artisanal food produce.


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