Barcelona to Nimes

On The Road Travel Essays

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Barcelona to Nimes

(COURIER: You're not likely to be taking the local coastal road, so you won't see the coast, and don't need to say too much about it.)

Costa Bravas  "Brava" means wild and rugged. The town is full of pocket coves, craggy cliffs, and sparkling beaches. Hence, it has become a very popular vacation spot, especially among Frenchmen who drive across the border, or fly in on special vacation fares. If you drive along the coastal road, you'll see more French license plates than Spanish! The next largest group of vacationers are the Englishmen, who fly in on charters. The resort area stretches a good 90 miles, from Barcelona to the French border. This coastline is one of the fastest-growing areas in Spain, rivalled only by the Costa del Sol in the south.

Sierra de Montseny  This large mountain range looms up to our left, inland. It's a large spur of the Pyrenees that extends into the heart of Catalonia. You see a huge granite dome rising up from the beech and cork trees. There is much rainfall on the mountains, which streams down the rock faces, making an awesome sight during thunderstorms. Up in the mountains if the original Santa Fe, after which the Santa Fe mission in New Mexico was named.

Town of Breda, off the road: an old pottery making center.

Caldas de Malavella (The town may be barely visible from the highway.)  This town is nicknamed "The Vichy of Catalonia," because, like Vichy in France, it is famous for its mineral springs. In Roman times, people would come here to "take the waters" for various ailments (usually digestive). There are remains of an old Roman bath.

Gerona (You pass the airport before coming to the city.)  Population: 48,000. The capital of the province of Gerona, within the region of Catalonia.

The city stands on a promontory at the junction of two rivers: the Ter and the Onar. Old historic buildings are up on the hillside, the modern industrial center down below, on both sides of the river.

La ciudad de los sitios = City of a Thousand Sieges, because of its strategic location. A very old town, well established even before the Romans colonized Spain. The Romans called it Gerunda, as did the Moors when they overran this part of Spain. Charlemagne's forces defeated the Moors, and the battle is described in the Song of Roland. With all these sieges and battles, the city's walls were rebuilt many times, and still mark the north and west boundaries of the city. The most famous sieges of all: during Napoleonic conquest of Spain. Three sieges, involving 15,000 of Napoleon's best troops. Worst siege in 1809, lasted 6months. The French general Gouvion St-Cyr and the Spaniards allied with France beset the city. The defenders formed themselves into battalions, including one composed of women. Finally, beaten by starvation and lack of ammunition, the city surrendered.

Holy Week involves outdoor processions: barefoot penitents walk the streets, carrying candles and wearing black, Ku Klux Klan-style hoods.

Figueras  Population: 20,000. Figueras is the center of a busy farming area, producing excellent wines. The town is the birthplace of painter Salvador Dali, born here in 1904. A museum devoted to his works is under construction.

Crossing into France (COURIER: Once over the border, begin your Introduction to France, interspersing it with local commentary on passing sights.)

Between Le Perthus and Le Boulou  Le Perthus is a border town, divided between Spain and France. Between this town and Le Boulou, we drive through a narrow pass which was an important route through the mountains in Roman times. The present road is laid out lower on the mountainside than the old Roman road, traces of which can be seen on the mountain. The pass follows the River Rome.

Village of L'Ecluse: ruins of old Roman fortifications. The valley is covered with cork oak.

Village of Le Boulou: Also called Bains du Boulou, for its thermal springs. Natural mineral springs abound in this area of Southern France, especially to the west. The Romans quickly discovered these springs, and built many baths, remains of which still survive. We cross the River Tech in the town. The Tech, with its valley, drains the mountains in the area, carrying rainwater to the sea. Other rivers do the same, and the result is that the Mediterranean coast of France in this area is full of deltas and flat marshlands, created by silt brought down the mountains by these rivers.

Perpignan  Population: 100,000. A major agricultural and wine center. Early vegetables are shipped through the city on their way to other points in France.

A Roman town: AT the spot where the road to Spain crosses the River Tet, Romans established a small town, Ruscino, which was destroyed during barbarian invasions. Throughout the Middle Ages, this area was Spanish in language and culture (still is). In the 13th century, Perpignan was part of the Earldom of Barcelona. In the 14th century, the city was the capital of a separate kingdom of Mallorca. French and Spanish kings captured the city time and time again. Finally, the city became a permanent part of France in the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659). Still it remains more Spanish than French.

Legend of the founding: The name of the city comes from the legendary Pere Pinya, who was supposed to have founded it on a fertile spot on the River Tet, and started the area's first farms. The legend: Pere Pinya was a cattle raiser who lived up in a mountain hamlet called Cortals. Tired of the hard life on the mountain, one day, when the snows were melting, he led his oxen down the mountain, pulling a plow, and followed the banks of the River Tet. Hespoke to the river, saying: "You lucky one, who descends every day to the sunny plain, guide me." A voice from the river responded: "Follow me, I'll show you the path." The cattleman followed the river down toward the plain, his oxen cutting a path with the plow. When he arrived at a plain dominated by two hills, he heard the river murmur: "Stop here. Work and cultivate this land. I'll water the fields myself." Pere Pinya did so, and a village developed, and as Romulus gave his name to Rome, Pere Pinya gave his to Perpignan. The River Tet continues to water the fields, which produce abundant vegetables, fruits, and wines.

Perpignan is dominated by the Citadel, inside which is the palace of old Kings of Mallorca (14th century).

The Roussillon  We're traveling through the old province of Roussillon, southern-most of France's provinces. The name comes from the red color of the earth. The Spanish influence persists here: in the costumes worn (seen mainly on festival days), and in the dialect widely spoken (Catalan, the dialect of Spanish spoken in Barcelona). Because this area was passed back and forth between Spain and France, many castles were built as strongholds. The Citadel in Perpignan is a good example.

Salses (16 km north of Perpignan)  The castle of Salses is a rare example of a fort in Spanish style, built at the end of the 15th century. During this period, castle architecture was evolving toward a new style because of the growing use of gunpowder: walls were lower and thicker than before. No other castle in France exists today which illustrates this transition from medieval to modern fortification.

The passing of Hannibal: In 218 B.C., Hannibal passed through here on his way to the Alps and Italy. The land was flat here, and made it easy to cross with his army. Rome, learning of Hannibal's passing, hastily sent five ambassadors to the Gallic tribes in the area, asking them to resist Hannibal's forces. The tribal assembly, gathered to hear the Roman ambassadors, became an uproar: the Gauls were outraged that Rome wanted them to bring war with the Carthaginians upon themselves, just for the sake of sparing Rome the fighting later on. Hannibal himself served as "host" at the gathering, and made the Gauls an offer. If any Gaul had a complaint about the behavior of any of the Carthaginian soldiers, he, Hannibal, would hear the complaint. On the other hand, if any of the Carthaginians had a complaint against the Gauls, it would be heard by the wives of the Gauls themselves! The Gauls agreed, and a treaty was signed, allowing Hannibal to continue his march toward the Alps.

The Romans never forgot this episode. When they colonized Gaul, they founded a camp at Salses, connecting it by a good road with the nearest city, Perthus. All through the Middle Ages, Salses was a stronghold, sometimes held by the French, sometimes by the Spanish. Its castle was besieged many times.

The Etangs  After Salses, we pass close to an inlet from the sea known as the Etang de Leucate. There are many etangs along this coast; they are saltwater lagoons, often long and shallow, separated from the sea only by sand spits.

The old border: Just here, north of Salses, is the old border between France and Spain. Even today, the Catalan-speaking people in the Roussillon district speak of anyone living north of Salses as a gabatg, a Catalan word meaning "foreigner," and not very complimentary.

Sigean  If you look toward the coast, you should get a glimpse of another etang, the Etang de Bages. Our next city, Narbonne, was once a port, and it was reached through this lagoon, which sheltered it from the sea.

Narbonne  Population: 40,000. An important trade and transport crossroads, especially for the wines of the Aude region. Tourists come for its religious monuments, but there is also modern industry. A major uranium-processing plant is operating near the city.

Ancient Roman port: Though it's an inland city today, Narbonne was once a very important port, situated on the Etang de Bages. (Silt has built up since then, cutting the city off from the lagoon.) The city was founded in 118 B.C. by a decree of the Roman Senate, which named the new town "Colonia Narbo Martius" (hence, Narbonne). It flourished as a port, and by 49 B.C. it had become a greater trading center than Marseille! Goods passing between Spain and Italy moved through it. It exported (mainly to Rome) oil and wine, linen and rare woods, plants for dyeing (used in making togas), aromatic plants, butter and livestock (the Romans liked the beef coming from this area). Coming back from rome in exchange were marble and pottery. With this wealth, the city's citizens built handsome houses and public buildings.

La cite la plus belle: By this time, narbonne had a reputation throughout the Roman world. The area around it became a province, named "Narbonnic Gaul." Romans spoke of Narbonne as "pulcherrima" (most beautiful). Latin writers like Martial and Cicero praised it. Cicero called the Narbonnese, "a boulevard of Latinity," i.e. displaying its full variety. Narbonne, with its sister city Lyon, was the major population center of Gaul.

Barbarians: The conquering Visigoths made Narbonne their capital. Charlemagne created a dukedom with narbonne as its capital.

Silting up of the port: Up until the 17th century, Narbonne remained apart. But the silting of the lagoon cut if off from the sea, and its days as a maritime center were over. However, there was one benefit from this: the new soil created by the silt was extremely fertile, and well suited to vine growing. This replaced trade as the city's mainstay in modern times, until the coming of industry.

Cathedral of St-Just: Begun in 1272, this cathedral was never finished: its builders were too ambitious. They planned a Gothic arch higher than any other except at Amiens and Beauvais. All that was built was the choir. But this choir remains one of the Gothic wonders of Europe.

Beziers  Population: 70,000. This town goes back to the old Roman Colonia Julia Septimana Biterrae, the last word evolving into "Beziers" (people of Beziers are still called "Biterrois"). A commercial center for wines and spirits. Before coming into the city, try to spot the Enserune Hill, full of excavations of early Celtic settlements, carried out between1916 and 1924. Archaeologists have found the only complete pre-Roman Celtic settlement remaining. In the 3rd century B.C., 8,000 people lived in this town. Tombs, decorative pins, and bronze belts worn by Celtic warriors have been found.

Montpellier  Population: 100,000. One of the loveliest cities in southern France, due to its many old houses, dating from the 17th-18th century. From the Middle Ages, the city's character was twofold: administration and education, and both have persisted. Administratively, Montpellier was the capital of the old Province of Languedoc. A school of medicine was established here in the 11th century, making it the oldest Faculty of Medicine in the world. The city played a prominent part in Protestant Reformation, and was besieged by forces of Louis XIII (1622).

The Languedoc: This very old province in southern France was almost a separate country throughout the Middle Ages. The people here spoke a different version of French. The word for "yes" was oc, instead of oil or oui as in northern France. Hence the name "Languedon" = Langue (language) of Oc. Many of the medieval troubadours who traveled from castle to castle, singing songs of dead heroes, of tragic romances, and of great deeds, were from the Languedoc. A separate literature developed, written (or most often spoken) in this dialect. It was a literature of gallantry, romance, nostalgia, and Languedoc has been associated with these characteristics ever since.

(COURIER: Now start your introduction to Provence and Nimes.)

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