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Sunday, September 25, 2011, in Port Vendres, France

Hi everyone, or Bonjour. After spending something near four months in Spain, we’ve arrived in France. Ooh la la. Last week, we were still in Barcelona, and our guests had just left us for their next port.

We left the marina in calm seas and began to sail immediately outside the harbor. For some reason, the winds were strong and we heeled over, making an unsustainable high speed through the water. This lasted less than a half hour, and the winds dropped to a slight breeze. We continued to sail, but at a comfortable, leisurely speed. We had all day to get to an anchorage, and a further anchorage if we made great time.

And we did, coming into our more distant anchorage at about seven-thirty. The day had begun with some leftover cool air, and warmed to loveliness as we sailed. The mistral had also ruffled up the sea a little bit, especially in our anchorage. That, too, would go back to summer stillness in time.

The anchorage was called Cala de Aiguafreda, which undoubtedly means “cove that looks nice but is actually freezing”. Maybe dunking in the aiguafreda was used as a punishment for those imprisoned in the crenellated tower overlooking the harbor. Though the tower is likely to be a centuries-old fortification, the curtains in the window imply that it’s now a hotel. It looks like the sort of place that Rapunzel once let down her hair, and tourists are undoubtedly doing just that on their own.

The anchorage had two arms, and we did like the one that overlooked the tiny town. But it felt like an alley, and we just didn’t think it was wide enough for us to swing around. After all, it was walled in by rocky cliffs on most sides. That makes it safe from wind, but only at a more comfortable distance than ours. We motored over to the other side, only a bit wider, and empty of buildings. This was a less anxious fit, and we settled in for the night.

In the morning, we moved on in light winds towards Cadaques. The short distance meant that we could sail in almost anything, but the winds shrank below our threshold in mid-morning. We anchored beyond a well-populated field of local moorings.

My guidebook did everything but gush about this cute tourist village. Its population of a few thousand swells by a factor of ten in the summertime. Geologically, it’s the first place that looks to me like my memories of the Mediterranean, mountains that slope steeply into the sea, beaches on which pebbles are conquering the sand, and a dry, rocky coastline that looks parched in the hot weather.

Architecturally, the place has benefited from the rich Cubans who emigrated to Cadaques (with their money) in the early 20th century. The houses they built are now the subject of postcards and tourist uploads to social networking sites. According to Wikipedia, those people are called “Americanos, among other things.” What other things, I wonder? “The guy who built a mansion in my fishing village and now I can’t afford to live here anymore, thank you very much?” “The guy who turned this village from my home into Epcot, the adorable replica of my home, with souvenirs?”

Such a rant against progress doesn’t capture the visual charm of this village, which looks like it’s been lifted from a Greek island. Some of the houses have the whitewashed paint and blue shutters of the Cyclades; others look like the more subdued, though sun-drenched colors of the Dodecanese. Low buildings line the waterfront, mostly cafés and shops that appeal to tourists. From your vantage point under a café umbrella, you can watch small boats, many of them brightly painted or wooden boats of antiquated design, bobbing merrily in the harbor on their bouncing mooring balls.

We tied up the dinghy on the recommended dock, and walked to town along the water, scented by roadside pine trees and then by oleander. By the time we got to town, we’d been enchanted just like everyone else. One of those was Salvador Dali, whose parents had a summer place just in the next cove. He built a house near Cadaques and said that he loved the light there. Picasso also stayed in the village, as noted by a plaque on a seaside hotel. Miro, Matisse and other painters were drawn to the place as well.

Avoiding the well-populated waterfront eateries, we found a place for lunch just inside the old town. There were about four tables outdoors, with a line awaiting seating, and seating for about twenty indoors. We opted to eat inside, looking at a Pullman kitchen that would be about the right size for an average American house.

The small streets that led to the shallow, inland part of town were uneven, paved in a sort of slate. But the slate was vertical, with its thin sides up, creating a lovely but bumpy way to walk. A car’s suspension system would have a lifetime of about a year on these roads, if it dared to squirm into the alleyways through town.

As we walked back to the dinghy dock, I noticed a post with a rectangular opening on top, as if there had once been a plaque describing the town for those who were just arriving. I looked through the hole, and there was the array of adorable houses across a blue harbor speckled with colorful day boats. It was an impressionistic tableau framed in metal. And then I wondered whether there had ever been a plaque there at all? Was Cadaques just showing us a Kodak picture spot? Is this town actually just part of Epcot after all?

I didn’t care. I was enamored of the place. The panorama of buildings around the harbor. The slight French accent only twenty miles from the border. The light that enraptured a generation of artists. I didn’t care if it was fake.

We stayed overnight and wandered through town on the next day, eating a meal that would have been at home in a seaside café in France, too, steamed mussels, grilled sardines, and grilled squid. Both of us nostalgically ordered the crema catalana for dessert. We’d be in France next, and crema catalana would be gone. Oh well, we’ll just have to get crème brûlée.

The winds were calm and we sailed as much as we could, making a pleasant if inefficient voyage past the spot where the Pyrenees meet the ocean and Spain becomes France. We’d called ahead to Port Vendres for a berth, and arrived at about one o’clock in the afternoon, in the center of the two-hour break taken by everyone in southern France except restaurateurs, who are feeding everyone else in the country.

Among the missing: someone to answer our phone calls and VHF calls inside the harbor, hoping for a docking assignment. When, after fifteen or twenty minutes, it became clear that nobody was listening, we docked on our own, side-to, in very light winds alongside the town quay that the marina normally docks boats stern-in. We waited until two o’clock, and I visited the office, which re-awakened. Lesson number one in France: lunch is taken very seriously. Don’t mess with it.

I began a conversation with the man in the office, whose English is much better than my French. Even so, I tried to repeat our statements in French, just to re-acquaint myself with a language I haven’t gotten near in ten years. What I discovered was that my head is filled with tiny shards of Spanish. I struggled to use verbs I’d learned in ninth grade, and I’d answer questions with “Si” for no reason. The language that I was using wasn’t Spanglish. It was Sprench, or more like Stench. I’m hoping that this is a temporary problem.

Port Vendres provided a good natural harbor to 6th-century Greeks and was known by the Romans as the “port of Venus”. It’s been a strategic location for centuries, expanded by rulers such as the King of Majorca, the Marquis de Vauban under Louis XIV, and by Louis XVI, who arranged for the construction of a 98 foot (30m) marble obelisk, which now commands the main town square. The obelisk is adorned with four bas-reliefs, one of which commemorates America’s recent independence from England. This is particularly meaningful, because the first stones were laid in 1780, nine years before the French Revolution.

This village would appeal to us for several reasons. The first, of course, is that it would be our entry to France. We’d been in Spain for the better part of four months, and it isn’t common for us to stay in a single country for such a long time. France would mean a new language and culture. Secondly, France would bring us French food. There’s nothing like it. I was ready. Third, this village essentially exists as a ring of restaurants and small boutiques around the harbor. The second street inland is about two stories uphill, but there’s almost no reason to climb it (as we discovered after we climbed up.) Everything is on the harbor. And there is nothing, really, to see. No important museums. No historic sites. No nature reserves. We could rest from travel, except the part where you dine on heavenly meals.

We did a few errands immediately and delayed others to our first full day. The mobile phone accounts were topped up, and the supermarket scrutinized. We strolled through the weekly open air market on Saturday and tried to no avail to fill a scuba tank that had last been inspected thirteen years ago. It’s prohibited in the European Union to fill a tank that hasn’t passed inspection within two years.

Port Vendres is sort of a bookend to Cadaques, our last port in Spain. While Cadaques had a sort of French feel, Port Vendres reaches out a little bit to Spain as well. There’s gazpacho on the menus (and bouillabaisse). Art got crema catalana for dessert; apparently in Port Vendres you don’t yet bother to call it crème brulee. There’s a painting of a bullfight in the barbershop where Art got a haircut. And the flag of Catalonia flies on government buildings.

Wooden kiosks along the waterfront are ubiquitous in holiday harbors, selling boat tours or dive trips to sunburned customers outfitted in backpacks and sandals. But the kiosks in Port Vendres had a throng of locals lined up. These elderly French ladies were interested in underwater life, but they weren’t looking for a glass-bottom boat run around the harbor. They were buying fish, from the fishermen. These small kiosks serve as the fish market in town. The counter was covered in ice, upon which rested the take from the well-worn boat tied up alongside. In Europe, nobody will buy a filet of fish, and whole fish commonly take up your whole plate in the restaurant. People have told us that you can’t really know whether you want to eat a fish unless you can look it in the eye.

When you’re moving around, it’s hard to decide why the weather is changing, and whether the changes are permanent. It rained all day for the first time in months. Whether this is a result of a nearby mistral, or if it’s because we’re farther north than we’ve been, or whether it’s just the end of the season in late September, we don’t know. But there’s something about the grayer colors of the day instead of the primary blue and yellow of the summer sky that confirms that the season is drawing to its end. And we’re within a few days’ sailing of the winter home for the boat.

We’re moving on tomorrow. Hope you’re all having fun, too. We miss you all.

Love, Karen (and Art)