Holidaymakers in the department of Pyrenees-Orientales could be forgiven for thinking they had unwittingly strayed over the border into Spain, the influence of its near neighbour is so strong.
In this sunny Mediterranean garrigue landscape backed by fertile plains, where the Eastern Pyrenees descend to the red rocks and sparkling blue sea of the Cote Vermeille, many inhabitants regard themselves foremost as northern Catalonians with allegiance to its red and yellow flag.
Unsurprising perhaps since this old province of Roussillon was ruled by the kings of Aragon until the mid seventeenth century and, more recently, Pyrenees-Orientales welcomed refugees from the Spanish Civil War.
In the capital, Perpignan, Spanish combines with Moorish and North African influences. Visit the Palace of the Kings of Majorca, Casa Pairal Folk Museum and shops selling Catalan ceramics and textiles. Life here is lived outdoors - narrow streets lead to bustling markets and there are palm lined squares where locals hold hands to dance the ‘sardana’ in summer, setting the mood to sample the Catalan dish of boles de Picoulat - meatballs made with onions and olives in a tomato and herb sauce - and a Cotes du Roussillon wine.
The nearby Mediterranean coast, packed with lively modern resorts such as Argeles, has wide sandy beaches backed by olive groves and vineyards. Watch fishermen auctioning their catch at Port-Vendres or drink in the colours around pretty Collioure which charmed Fauvist Mattise.
Inland, the Roussillon plain is dotted with orchards - most of France’s apricots are produced here. Ceret, painted by Picasso and Braque, has a famous cherry harvest, large Saturday market and Museum of Modern Art, along with summer ‘corridas’ and international ‘sardana’.
Touring Pyrenees-Orientales’s lovely Romanesque abbeys will take you to some of the department’s most beautiful and remote places. Many, such as St-Michel-de-Cuxa, hold summer music festivals. Visit Prades where exiled cellist Pablo Casels made his home beneath the dominant 2,784m Pic du Canigou. Panoramic views from the summit attract hundreds of Catalans for the summer solstice.
A definite ‘must’ is the 64km Yellow Train journey from Villefranche-de-Confolent with spectacular views and ascent to Bolquere-Eyne, the highest station in France. Hike or ride trails around the Catalan Pyrenees Regional Nature Park, enjoy mountain watersports or fish glittering lakes like Lake Bouillouses at 2070m, ski in neighbouring Andorra and at spa resorts like sunny Font-Romeu, geared to families.