Finding a catchy name for this trail along the Mediterranean shore can be a tricky task. In France, the area is referred to as the Côte Vermeille (the scarlet coast). But in Spain matters are a little more complicated. Spanish Catalonia’s main coast is the Costa Brava, which conjures up images of wide, long, flat, sandy stretches, but are not characteristic for the part of the coast between Cadaqués and Portbou. Some tour operators use the term Pyrenees Coastal Trail; not particularly poetic, but certainly an apt description. Hikers will encounter a magical coastline with beautiful vistas, pretty villages and a great dose of art, history, poetry, and politics. From Salvador Dali to Henri Matisse, via Walter Benjamin, Antonio Machado, and André Derain.
Statue of Salvador Dali, Cadaqués
Visitors to Catalonia might wonder why its people are spread across two states (France and Spain), and why there has never been a significant political movements aimed at unifying all Catalans into one coherent entity. A closer historical look might help to provide some answers. Catalonia came to prominence during the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne who in the 8th century established the ‘Spanish Marches’ as a buffer to fend off any invading Moorish forces. The territory was split in half by the unimaginatively named Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 which ended a 24-year war between Spain and France, and ever since all areas south of the mountain range belong to the former, with the northern parts being part of the latter. France very quickly renamed northern Catalonia into the politically more neutral-sounding Roussillon. The French Revolution resulted in another name change, and the area today is still referred to as the département of Pyrénéés-Orientales. No significant independence movements on this side of the border. Yes, around half of the population of its biggest city Perpignan speak at least some Catalan, the Catalan flag is omnipresent, but the Catalan Unity Party so far failed to make any inroads at the ballot box.
In light of the turbulent events of recent years, the same cannot be said of Spanish Southern Catalonia. At the beginning of the 18th century, King Philip V. unified his administration across all of Spain, resulting in the suppression of Catalan institutions and the eclipse of the Catalan language in government and literature. But the industrial expansion during the second half of the 19th century brought with it a renewed sense of national identity and a cultural renaissance, culminating in self-governance and the use of Catalan as the official language during the Spanish Republican years of 1933 to 1939. Then came Franco and Catalan nationalism was once again suppressed, only to be re-born once more with the democratic constitution of 1978. Catalan is now widely spoken, and the region enjoys a high degree of political autonomy. For some though, this is not enough, and a contentious independence referendum was called in 2017, with a staggering 90% of votes calling for an independent Catalan state. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was not amused. Many anti-independence voters had boycotted the referendum, which explained the low turn-out of barely 40%. Even more, the Spanish Supreme Court declared the vote illegal, and Rajoy subsequently invoked article 155, which gave the central government in Madrid control of most of the delegated powers held by Catalonia. Independence leader Carles Puigdemont was tried for rebellion, prompting the former Catalan president to flee to Belgium. As of 2023, several attempts to extradite him have been rejected by Belgian, German, and Italian courts, and should his immunity as a member of the European Parliament be upheld by an EU court, Puigdemont might soon return to his homeland. Hence, the issue of a Catalan state is far from being settled. This is Spain’s most prosperous region, and resentment over high central taxes, growing migration from other parts of Spain and a perceived erosion of the national culture are widespread: not so much in the bigger cities, but out here in the rural areas close to the French border, it is often rampant with independence slogans scribbled on many walls and bridges.
View towards Collioure and Perpignan
How to get there:
Most visitors to the area will fly into Barcelona, but there are also links to Perpignan or Carcassonne. On the Spanish side, there are train stations in nearby Figueres (with links to Barcelona), and also in Llanca and Portbou. Over in France, you are spoilt for choice with rail links to Collioure, and also Banyuls sur Mer. Yet, service can be limited at best (with maybe one connection every two hours) or at worst non-existent, as we found out when waiting in vain for a train that never materialised. Buses can be a better option, but there is no cross-border connection between Banyuls sur Mer and Portbou, while out of season, Cadaqués is not served at all by public transport. My plea therefore goes to the respective transport and tourism authorities in the area. If you would like to attract sustainable tourism (and walking holidays are just that), you know what to do … Hence, we had little choice but to rely on our rental car and the occasional taxi. We got our deal (100€ for 6 days in low season) through Holiday Autos.
Cap de Creus
Where to stay:
Given its superb attractions, one might assume that accommodation options ought to be plentiful. Far from it. Even in high summer, the area’s main tourist jewels Collioure and Cadaqués have only limited hotel capacity. And during the time of our visit, in mid-March, the tourist infrastructure in Llanca, or Banyuls was virtually non-existent. But we managed to pre-book a private apartment in Port de la Selva and did what we always tend to do when hiking a lost-distance trail. We drove to the day’s final destination, parked the rental, before taking public transport (if available) or a taxi to the start of the hike. This approach has the undeniably practical advantage of allowing us to unpack and to avoid slogging all our belongings when hiking the trail. But it did not come cheap. For instance, the 15-minute ride between Port de la Selva and Cadaqués set us back a whopping 33€. Yet, it was easy to organise, since every town along our way had a designated taxi stand with a sign displaying the phone number of the taxi operator.
Port de la Selva
When to go:
It gets hot here in the summer; very hot in fact, so you might want to avoid hiking the trail in July or August. The season gradually kicks into gear after Easter right up until the end of September, so spring or autumn might be your best bets. Yet, this is also an area that seems perfect for catching some Mediterranean winter sun. The highest point of the trail is the Madeloc Tower at at modest elevation of 670 m, so you would be very unlucky to encounter any snow or ice. Yet, as described above, travelling off-season will pose extra challenges when it comes to transport, accommodation, and catering. On the plus side, you will have the place to yourself, as we discovered to our delight.
Monastery Sant Pere de Rodes
Our daily search for a decent restaurant had an almost hilarious quality. At our base camp in Port de la Selva, only one restaurant had bothered to stay open during low season. Yet, we were at the mercy of the cook, who on one occasion just had to take an extended rest (he was probably watching the footie), despite pleading phone calls from his mom and an embarrassed waitress. In the end, he did manage to rise, grabbed a bottle of tequila, and rustled up some dishes which were served between 9.00 and 10.00 pm before he retired once more to his bed chamber. In Llanca, we came across an unappealing pizza parlour and a nightclub joint serving burgers. But matters improved immeasurably in Cadaqués, with numerous restaurants along the beautiful shoreline vying for our trade. In the end, we settled for and returned to a place called Terra Nostra, located right on the waterfront, which to our surprise had some terrifyingly bad reviews. Yet, our meals were flawless, and spiced up by the senior-citizen waiter, who entertained us with childhood stories of his encounters with Dali.
Day 1: Cadaqués to Port de la Selva 22.5 km, 6 ½ hours
Total Elevation: 750 m
Highest Point: 197 m
A taxi drove us the 15 minutes from our base in Port de la Selva to the sweet, artsy, and appealing seaside village of Cadaqués: a very enchanting setting with white-washed houses tumbling down the hills, rocky coves, a couple of beaches. Unusual for Spanish resorts, no high-rise developments here, yet plenty of shops, restaurants, cafes, that offer a hint at how busy this place will get during the summer months. In early spring however, there was hardly a soul around. Dali seems omnipresent. A statue of the great man right on the waterfront, and unmissable signposting for the short walk to his nearby house (the one with the eggs and horse heads on the roof) in the adjacent village of Port lligat. The green/red signs of the trail led us inland, partially on a paved road, then through a desert-like landscape with sparse vegetation. After just under two hours we reached Cap de Creus, Spain’s easternmost spot. With a little bit of sunshine, the cape could have passed as photogenic, but it was grey and blustery, and we made a mental note to return one sunny evening.
The infamous GR-11 (the GR stands for Gran Recorrido, or Grand Route) ends here. Regarded as one of the toughest long-distance trails in Europe, it weaves its way for an arduous 840 km from Cap Higuer in the Basque country through Navarre, Aragon, Andorra and into Catalonia, along the southern, Spanish slopes of the Pyrenees. The trail is split into 45 sections, with a massive total elevation of 39,000 m (that’s 4 times up Mount Everest). We got a very mild taste of it, as we followed the GR-11 for the next two days. Mercifully, the weather started to improve. And so did the scenery for the final 10 km into Port de la Selva, as we hiked through meadows, up and down ravines, passing the odd trees (hooray), and abandoned farmhouses and crumbling church buildings. At just over 6 hours, this was the longest stretch of this trip. One down, three to go.
Salvador Dali (1904 – 1989)
The notorious surrealist artist was born in the nearby town of Figueres, which now houses the Dali Theatre Museum, referred to as the world’s largest surrealist object. Dali achieved world fame in 1931 through his painting ‘The Persistence of Memory’ (the one with the melting pocket watch). He escaped the Spanish Civil War by moving to France before emigrating to the United States in 1940 before returning to his homeland in 1948, where he settled in Port Lligat just outside of the picturesque fishing village of Cadaqués. Unlike many artists, and in particular his fellow surrealists, he was a vocal supporter of the fascist Franco regime, which prompted Picasso to refuse to mention his name or even acknowledge Dali’s existence. With the demise of fascism in the mid-1970s, Salvador hardly faced a moral conundrum in praising the hymns of democracy, prompting many to refer to him as a ‘Chaquetero’ (literally a coat changer, describing someone who never reveals his true beliefs). Controversy also followed him to Cadaqués. He was the village’s cash cow, bringing in much needed tourist money. Yet, during a harsh winter in the 1960s, the local olive farmers, fearing that their harvests were all but destroyed, pleaded with the government for financial assistance, which duly arrived. Come spring however, Dali wrote to the authorities that the crop had recovered and that the money was no longer required. Surreal indeed.
View towards Roses
Day 2: Port de la Selva – Llanca
14 km, 5 hours
Total Elevation: 716 m
Highest Point: 632 m
We had the choice of walking along the seashore on a path that pretty much ran parallel to the coastal road linking several seaside villages. Better to head into the foothills of the Pyrenees: from Port de la Selva we followed the white/red markers of the GR-11 up to the gorgeous village of Selva de Mar, nestled within a narrow valley with a picturesque stream running through it. The next hour was tough: straight up a steep hillside until the imposing Sant Pere de Rodes Monastery appeared on the horizon; first mentioned in the 9th century and according to the website of the Catalonia tourist authority, the ‘finest example of native Catalan Romanesque architecture’. If that’s not enough of a superlative, the views were also stupendous. In the distance, we could clearly make out yesterday’s starting point in Cadaqués while further north along the coast, we saw the hill range that leads to tomorrow’s destination of Portbou. What is it about church properties, that they always seem to bank the most scenic spots? The GR-11 made a little detour here. Further up the hill side for another 30 minutes or so to the church ruin of Sant Salvador de Verdera (at 632 m the highest point of today’s section), where a whole new vista opened up in front of us. To the east, the resort of Roses with its wide, sandy arc of a beach; in front of us the agricultural plains around Figueres and to the west, the snow covered mountain tops of the Pyrenees. We were bathed in sweat from the climb, spring sunshine in our face, gorgeous 360 degree views. Neither of us expected this coastal stetch to be so beautiful. Yet one could not fail to notice the bone dry conditions. Just like in many other parts of southern Europe, the winter rains had not materialised; a fact which was confirmed by a local taxi driver who told us that reservoirs in the area were only at 20% capacity, and that water had already been imported from other parts of Spain. And it was only March!
That taxi guy was a hoot. On our way down to the uninspiring and sprawling resort of Llanca, we passed yet another picturesque church ruin called Santa Helena Santa Creu, before he picked us up at the taxi stand at the local Eurospar supermarket. Just like my travel companion Carlos, he was from Andalucía, and after 40 years in Catalonia, he still struggled to integrate. We asked him why there are so few open restaurants at the moment; something that would be impossible to fathom further south, where going out and socialising over dinner is part of a way of life. ‘It’s because they’re all penny pinchers here and prefer to sit on their money instead of wasting it on food and drink.’ Germany has its Swabians. Britain has its Scots. And Spain has its Catalans. Yet, taximan had a point. The seasonality here was quite stark for a coastal strip that is still relatively populated. No local buses until June, hardly any shops open apart from supermarkets, and the area only seems to come alive for a few precious months during the summer. My travel companion Carlos, who had guided us so expertly on our trips to the Canaries and the Fisherman's Trail in Portugal, was appalled.
Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940)
An eclectic German thinker and philosopher, Benjamin was associated with the Frankfurt School of Thought, and counted amongst his friends, playwright Bertolt Brecht, novelist Hermann Hesse, composer Kurt Weill, and political theorist Hannah Arendt, whose first husband was Benjamin’s cousin. Nazi Germany was no place for a Jewish, left wing intellectual and with the impending rise of Adolf Hitler, Benjamin emigrated in 1932 and had settled in Paris by the time the Wehrmacht invaded France in June 1940. With the Gestapo hot in his heels, Benjamin fled to Lourdes in southern France. His plan was to escape across the border into Spain and then on to neutral Portugal from where he intended to take a steamer to the United States, for which his Frankfurt colleague Max Horkheimer had secured him a visa. He made it to Banyuls sur Mer, one of the last French villages on the Mediterranean coast. On September 25, 1940, he was part of a small group of Jewish refugees who hiked inland and across a nearby hill range and safely made it to the Spanish border village of Portbou. But custom officials informed the group that the Franco regime had issued an order to send all refugees back into France. Assuming that he would soon be in the grip of the Gestapo, Benjamin committed suicide by taking an overdose of morphine tablets. In a brutally ironic twist, the following day (and probably prompted by the shock of Benjamin’s suicide), the other members of the group were allowed safe onward passage to Portugal. Benjamin’s body is laid to rest in the Catholic cemetery of Portbou, with the grave’s epitaph (in German and Catalan) quoting one of his most famous lines. ‘There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’.
Day 3: Portbou – Banyuls sur Mer
12.5 km, 4 ½ hours
Total Elevation: 591 m
Highest Point: 553 m
Readers might have spotted a gap in our trail. The section from Llanca to Portbou was just too uninspiring; a series of holiday apartments stretching along an admittedly beautiful coastline of bays and cliffs, but with a path that often followed the N-260, the main coastal road along this stretch. So we drove with our rental to Banyuls on the French side of the border, waited in vain for a train, before hitching a ride back to Portbou. What an odd looking place. The townscape is dominated by two massive train stations that sit in the hills above the waterfront. Nowadays, high speed trains rush through on their way to Barcelona or Montpellier, but just 40 or so years ago, before Spain joined the European Community in 1986, Portbou was a proper border town, with an armada of custom officials and many rail workers busily engaged in heaving trains from the European standard gauge to the much slimmer Spanish version. Carlos told me the story of an elderly German couple whom he had encountered when growing up in Marbella. Up until 1982, Spain charged a luxury tax for electronic equipment such as Hifi stereos (those monsters that took up most of your living room) or colour TV sets. So this couple, before setting off for their annual summer holiday in Andalucía, filled their old banger to the rafters with electronic gadgets, approached the border at the dead of night with Mrs Pensioner pretending to be fast asleep and Mr Pensioner coming across as a quasi-comatosed driver who can barely keep his eyes open. Name me one customs officials who would have smelled a rat. And indeed, the German elderlies were never caught, and in the process managed to boost their retirement budgets by flogging their ware to the likes of Carlos’ family. Genius. Our plan for the day was to hike the recently established Ruta Walter Benjamin in reverse. After escaping from France into Spain, the German-Jewish philosopher had committed suicide here in 1940, fearing that the authorities would extradite him to France and into the hands of the Gestapo. The trail suitably ends (or starts in our case) at his grave in the towns’ cemetery. From there it was a gentle 4 km hike into the valley and up a ridge to the Col de Rumpissa, on the Spanish-French border, and at just over a modest 550 m, the highest point of today’s section. And from there, an hour of scrambling over rocks, followed by another one-hour descent along vast vineyards, and into the sleepy village of Banyuls.
Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954)
Together with Pablo Picasso, Matisse was arguably the most influential artist who shaped ground-breaking developments in the visual arts at the beginning of the 20th century. He became famous for using intense colours and beautiful decorative patterns and was notorious as one of the ‘fauves’ (French for wild beasts). And the charming seaside village of Collioure played a rather important part in his artistic development. He first came to this part of the Mediterranean in the summer of 1905, apparently rather miserable, depressed and short of money. But his mood must have changed immeasurably given that almost instantly he started to create a number of master pieces that were inspired by the town’s setting and its intense light and colours, for instance ‘Landscape at Collioure’ or ’Open Window, Collioure’. Maybe the most famous is ‘View of Collioure’ (1907). The painting’s black lines that form a screen in front of the townscape represent umbrella pines that used to grow on the hillside next to the town (now filled with expensive real estate). Matisse returned regularly until 1914, renting the upper floor of a small house overlooking the harbour, complete with studio and skylight. Collioure celebrates its famous former resident (and that of his fellow fauve André Derain) in a very tasteful fashion. Wherever the two had planted their easels to work on yet another fine piece of art, the town has hung up a laminated replica of the painting for you to enjoy a comparison between art and reality. It provides for a fascinating walk around this atmospheric place.
Banyuls sur Mer
Day 4: Banyuls sur Mer to Collioure
14 km, 4 ½ hours
Highest Point: 654 m
Okay, today we cheated. Our initial plan was to follow a path that was suggested by All Trails with the website referring to it as the Collioure – Banyuls loop. We scouted the area with our rental: from Banyuls the trail made its way into the vineyards above the town, roughly along the D-86 road, then onto the widely visible landmark of Tour Madeloc – a signal tower and former army garrison and today’s highest point at 670 m - before descending down to the coast and into Collioure. We realised that the first section of this path offered pretty much the same vistas that we had encountered the day before. So we decided to spend more time enjoying the significant delights of enchanting Collioure and opted for a shorter hike by taking the rental along the D-86 to its highest point, before hiking up to Madeloc Tower. So today’s hike came in at 2 ½ hours and 5.5 km. Our knee joints and calf muscles thanked us profusely, and the scenery was still magnificent: behind us the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees, in front of us the sparkling Mediterranean Sea and a string of coastal settlements; and in the distance the flatlands and more densely populated areas around the region’s capital Perpignan.
Antonio Machado (1875 – 1939)
was one of the most famous and widely read poets that Spain had ever produced. He was also a prominent figure of a literary movement called ‘Generation 98 (and that’s 1898 of course). At the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Machado worked as a professor in Madrid, and found himself separated from his beloved brother Manuel who was trapped behind fascist enemy lines. Fleeing Franco’s army, he was forced to evacuate first to Valencia, then to Barcelona and finally in 1938, with the Falangists gradually closing in on the last remaining Republican strongholds, across the border into Collioure. Within months, he passed away, heartbroken. Machado is buried at the local cemetery, just a short walk from the town’s seafront. For decades, Spanish authorities have pleaded to move his remains back home, yet the Machado family remained firm in their conviction that Collioure should be the patron’s final resting place; a highly cogent response, given that it was not until 2019, that a representative of the Spanish government (on this occasion prime minister Pedro Sanchez) paid their respect. Machado’s grave has become much more than a pilgrimage site for poetry aficionados. In the words of Alfonso Guerra, Spain’s deputy prime minister in the 1980s social-democratic government of Felipe González, Machado’s burial place is now a national shrine to those 450,000 Spaniards who had to flee from fascist persecution. Next to the grave, the Fondation Antonio Machado Collioure has placed a letter box for those seeking closure, with any documents being carefully archived. A moving Netflix documentary entitled ‘Los Dias Azules’ takes a closer look at the poet’s life and work. The opening sequence was filmed at the grave.