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On the easy going coast of SW France

Costa Rica

There are plenty of fine sandy beaches, unspoilt villages, distinguished old towns and spectacular countryside at the very foot of France around Perpignan, terminus of the TGV express rail line and last exit off the A9 autoroute to Spain.

String of camp site resorts

Is the coast around Perpignan the coming corner of France? The British
are warming to a string of camp site resorts on the wide sandy beaches
on the western Med, from Sete down to the border with Spain. (Zoom up
and down it on the A9 in no time, or take the train.) Easier-going and
less glitzy than those pricey resorts to the east around Nice and
Cannes. But the sun is just as hot, and the sea quite as inviting. And
when it’s time to cool off, there’s calm and shade an easy mile inland.

Water jousting

We left Marseillan’s thronged beach and found the
old town almost empty on an August Sunday. (The Noilly Prat distillery
does free tours.) On the river at Agde the water jousting (also free)
was Jeux Sans Frontieres, but with skill. ''Knights'' balanced on the
bowsprit of boats powered by teams of oarsmen dislodge their opponent
with a fast lance. The African Reserve at Sigean near Narbonne is a
conservation gem They breed Somali wild ass, wild hunting dogs and much
more (£29 for two, .

Painter paradise

Hire a kayak (from £50 for two) from Argeles-sur-Mer, 00 33 4 68 95 86 93
www.ekm66.com, and paddle to Collioure, artist''s paradise in a bay under green Pyrenean foothills. Wander the streets to where Matisse and Dufy painted. The unique
interplay of sun, sea and sky put a special sparkle on their canvasses.
Then order a sangria down by the multicoloured anchovy boats, bobbing in
the harbour.

Centre of the Universe

History crams into this small sliver of France, with every town worth a
stop. Perpignan, once Catalonia''s second city after Barcelona, for its
elegant gardens and Salvador Dali’s outrageous ''Centre of the Universe''
quote on Platform 1 of the railway station. Beziers, all tight medieval
streets and grand tree-smothered boulevards. Narbonne, richly Roman, for
a stretch of the Via Domitia, the ancient Italy - Spain highway. Take the train (tickets cheaper than ours) eg to Carcassonne, Europe''s
greatest fortress city, and capital of the Cathars, religious rebels
whose defiant fortresses still brood over nearby heights. A World
Heritage site, along with the canal. (£24 from Perpignan.)


Grand Union spin

Hire a bike. Spin along the Canal du Midi towpath (flat
and easy) bordered with cypresses and umbrella trees, past fields of
sunflowers and steep woods where wild boar roam and nightingale sing,
under elegant pink brick bridges and into drowsy old villages. Opened in
1681, this 149 miles route unites the Atlantic and the Med, via
Carcassonne. (Velos Midi Cycle, Sallelles d''Aude, near Narbonne, 00 33 4
6846 1815. £35 for 5 days)

Secret feast

Behind a high green gate in the small village of Villeneuve-les-Beziers
is a restaurant so discreet that only the tantalising aromas wafting
over the wall betray it. Welcome to La Chamberte, a cool, graceful haven
in a converted winery. But you need to book a full day ahead before chef
Bruno Saurel will weave his magic for you. They serve Kir royal in the
secret garden, then move you into a cool atrium for a culinary gala
performance.

Forget menus: Bruno cooks up whatever caught his eye in the market that
day, served with whatever nectar he decrees from his cellar. A giveaway
£50 for two, including wine: 00 33 4 67 39 84 83, .
Or stay the night - this is one of the top 50 French B&Bs (0871 781 0834
.)
Many towns and villages celebrate the hot evening with a massive paella. Just
turn up and order a plate. And cassoulet, that sumptuous stew of haricot
beans, sausages, goose and mutton, is all around. Our night to remember?
Dining on Catalan food, like extras from Carmen, in the open air under
the massive walls of Le Castillet in Perpignan to the passionate music
of a Spanish guitar group. Any restaurant here around £60 for two.


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