Cerbere: Border Town with a Colourful Past and 21st Century Hopes for the Future
DESCENDED from two generations of hoteliers, Yves Maurice is the owner of La Dorade, the busiest hotel and restaurant in Cerbere. A tiny village teetering on the French Spanish border with a view of the Mediterranean to die for, Cerbere's hiking trails wind past megaliths and dolmans that date back into prehistory. Its railway station was built by Eiffel & Cie, the same company that built the Eiffel Tower and the Garabit Viaduct. In this edition of Intrepid Catalonia, Maurice talks up tales of boom times, romance, war and a sunny 21st century future for this very French but also very Catalonian village.
Q&A WITH YVES MAURICE, PROPRIETOR, LA DORADE HOTEL AND RESTAURANT, CERBERE, FRANCE
Q. La Dorade is not just a place of business for you, is it?
A. No. I was born right here in 1961 in a room on the third floor of the hotel. Many of my guests who have been coming here for years still ask to be booked into what they call the "Nativity Suite." In fact, I was one of the last babies in Cerbere to be birthed by a midwife.
Q. So you clearly made your mark on the world from the very beginning?
A. Well, (laughs) they do tell me when I was born, the village midwife pronounced me her chef d’oeuvre-- “her best work”—and she retired very soon after.
Q. You didn’t live in the hotel your entire childhood?
A. Not at all. In 1963 my parents moved us into a house in the village where they still live and my family lives right next door to them, so like my grandparents and my father and mother before me, I have also brought up my children in Cerbere.
Q. You are the third generation of hoteliers but you didn't immediately follow your parents and grandparents into the family business, did you?
A. That's right. I studied at the engineering polytechnic in Montpellier, and after that, I taught hydraulic engineering in Nigeria for a while. When I came back to France, I picked up a Masters in Business Administration and then began working in Paris while my wife Anne studied for a law degree.
Q. The American writer Tom Wolfe famously published the novel You Can't Go Home Again, but you clearly did. How did that happen?
A. You might say a bit of serendipity was at play. After a year of the hustle and bustle of Paris, Anne and I wanted out. So one evening I called my father to tell him I wanted to come back to Cerbere and run the hotel. At the same time, I learned that he had been planning to sell the business and retire.
Q. Needless to say, you came to an amicable arrangement?
A. Indeed. In 1990, Anne and I moved back to Cerbere and completely renovated my father's hotel and restaurant into what you see today. La Dorade has been doing great ever since.
Q. Today Cerbere is a small village involved in tourism, viniculture and some work with the railway but it has a colourful past and your grandparents were a part of it. How did they end up here?
A. My grandmother was orphaned when she 12 and eventually she went into domestic service. She became a cook, and as it happens a very talented one, working for a lawyer in Beziers.
Q. So it was in Beziers that your grandparents met?
A. Yes, and it was a real love story but back then, romance and marriage weren't always easy. The class structure was quite rigid and my grandparents were from different worlds. He was from so-called “high society”— in fact he was the first guy in Beziers to buy a car. So my grandparents fell madly in love but because of their class differences, they couldn't remain in Beziers.
Q. Why did they choose to live in Cerbere?
A. Again, a bit of providence at play. Around that time, my grandmother’s sister--my great aunt--had married a man in the import export business and they were living in Cerbere. My great aunt's letters were filled with tales of business growing like wildfire on the French-Spanish border and Cerbere was at the heart of it all. So my grandparents travelled to Cerbere and were married here.
Q. Before the tunnel, Cerbere was a small village that basically survived on a bit of fishing and viniculture, wasn't it?
A. Pretty much, yes. If you look at the church here in the village, which was consecrated in 1880, the stained glass features a rose window designed with vine leaves, a tribute to the main occupation of the region at the time. When the international railway station was opened January 2, 1878, it immediately led to a growth in population and eventually to the formal creation of the commune of Cerbere in 1889. It was then that the village really began to grow.
Q. The railway expansion was what was causing the boom, right?
A. Certainly it enabled it. In the late 19th century, the railway tunnel was built by private companies on both sides of the border that linked France to Spain. And once that happened, business began to really thrive.
Q. Linking France to Spain by railway was a phenomenon in and of itself, wasn't it?
A. Absolutely. The Spanish and French railway systems were not compatible so you had massive coupling operations on both sides of the border to enable rail travel and freight operations. As such, customs between the two territories were handled in Cerbere on the French side and Portbou, the nearest village, on the Spanish side.
Q. The imports and exports business was what created a lot of work?
A. Yes, the business of customs on both sides of the border created a lot of jobs but also winemaking, fishing, and agriculture all benefitted from the trade spurred by the tunnel.
Q. Winemaking is not new to this region. The Romans, Greeks, to be sure but even the Phoenicians were involved in tending vines.
A. Yes. And the Phoenicians were in Port Vendres, just down the road from us, as early as 600 BC so we're talking about an ancient heritage.
Q. So your grandparents came to Cerbere during boom times but how did they get into the restaurant business?
A. By the time my grandparents came here in 1928, there was a lot of ordinary business traffic and workers in the village but there was nowhere for them to go for a decent meal.
Q. The Hotel Belvedere du Rayon Vert at that time was just being built by the architect Leon Baille?
A. Yes, so the wealthy would eventually be able stay at the Belvedere and of course, eat there at the swank restaurant overlooking the sea. That restaurant is still used today for special events. The Hotel had tennis courts on the roof, a massive parking garage below and even an art deco cinema but it wasn't finished until 1932. In the meantime, people needed to eat and that's where my grandmother came in.
Q. She opened the restaurant in the year 1929, the same year your father was born, but also the same year the great depression started. Bit of an auspicious date, wasn't it?
A. Yes, but the depression didn't touch us. To the contrary, it was boom times here.
Q. So by 1928, when your grandparents first arrived, Cerbere must have been like something out of the The Great Gatsby?
A. Absolutely. By then, there were about 50 families of importers and exporters living here, and there was so much money. I remember my grandparents telling tales of people burning bank notes to light their cigars. It was an amazing time for Cerbere.
Q. The Belvedere started building in 1925 and opened in 1932 but its good times were a bit short lived, weren't they?
A. Sadly, yes. The beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 spelled the end of the boom times and when Franco closed the borders in 1939, things became very difficult for Cerbere. Refugees from Franco’s regime—those who had fought on the side of the Republicans--began streaming into Cerbere and food became scarce.
Q. I’ve read that at least half of the refugees—some 250,000—came over to Cerbere within a matter of a few days.
A. There were a lot, yes. They were put in camps in different parts of the Pyrenees Orientales. Photos of the time and stories by those who lived in Cerbere tell us that the camps were pretty horrendous. That event is called La Retirada and an exhibition of photographs taken at the time by Manuel Moros has been erected by both Cerbere and Portbou, the nearest village in Spain, as a visual recording of those refugees as they came over the border. Many were starving.
Q. What about World War II?
A. Cerbere did not suffer here until the last year or so of the war when the Germans crossed into the South. And the Germans had learned something from their experience in the North as when they did arrive, they allowed business to continue as usual and the customs people to claim their taxes. At that time, also, Germany had run out of food. So they were more concerned with Spain since it was the pipeline to get food and supplies back to Germany.
Q. During the war, Cerbere, with its railway station, must have been a target for allied bombers?
A. Certainly that was the fear. When the Germans came in, all the children were moved to the mountains and stayed there until the end of the war.
Q. Your grandfather was Spanish so you have some connection to Spain yourself. What are your feelings about the movement for Catalonian independence?
A. For Spanish Catalonia, it makes a good deal of sense as it is a completely independent region within a federation. And, more to the point, Spanish Catalonia is possibly the most productive region in Spain and as such, one of the biggest contributors to the Spanish government’s tax coffers. So, I think for Spain, there is a big possibility that independence could happen simply because it makes sense.
Q. But not for French Catalonia?
A. No. In my opinion, that’s a pipe dream. French Catalonia, this region I live in, has been part of France for 300 years and Catalonian identity isn't something I really think about a lot. I’m French but I also feel Catalan as well.
Q. The political paradigm is also a bit different, isn’t it?
A. Absolutely. In France, all things flow from Paris, and that means all money, all decision-making, everything. It’s how France is run and that is not going to change. Here, we might like to think of ourselves as Catalonian but we are French first.
Q. The ambience at La Dorade is very attractive. Whenever I come by, there is opera playing. I take it you are a fan?
A. Yes. I do love opera and apparently our clients love it as well. We get great feedback on that and people thank us for not playing the Musak or pop music that you hear everywhere else. For me, it’s about providing a restive environment for the guests and opera seems to go over. I’ve never had a complaint about it.
Q. So why do you do it? What does being a hotelier give you?
A. We have clients that come from all over the world and, quite frankly, I like the feeling that I can provide them with a pleasurable environment. They don’t come here just to sleep and drink. We offer them a full service so to speak because we are small and we can. From the time they arrive to the moment they leave, we do everything we can to make their time spent here enjoyable. And it is a real pleasure for us to see them coming back over and over again.
Q. How many actually do come back?
A. About one third of our customers coming here for the first time will return. That’s our experience. And we make some very great friendships with our clients. Anne and I have invitations to visit people all over the world from clients who have been charmed by their stay here.
Q. What’s the interest in cycling? I notice there are often cycling clubs here on the weekends.
A. Cerbere is actually the end point for people who want to do the run across the Pyrenees mountain range. There are organized runs that start in Hendaye, the most south-westerly commune in France, and end in Cerbere, the most south-easterly commune in France. It brings a lot of English speaking people here as most of these bike tours are organized by several English tour groups—Marmot, Bike Alive or Bike Pyrenees among them--and they finish in front of my hotel, often with champagne in hand.
Q. It's an ambitious 100 hour run, isn't it?
A. Yes, that’s the goal. They start on Monday and cycle across the Pyrenees and finish on Friday. So during the trip they lead a pretty monastic life and by the time they get here, they are in the mood to celebrate.
Q. The railway has been a livelihood for many in Cerbere but with the bullet train now skirting Cerbere and going through Le Boulou, will times get tough here?
A. Stopping the international traffic going through Cerbere hasn’t made it easy on the local economy but I certainly don’t fear for the future. Cerbere, like every other place in the world, has its ups and downs but there will always be tourism and there are there more and more people coming here to live. We are not lighting cigars with paper money but Cerbere has a sunny future and one I predict will be as colourful as its past.
***La Dorade Hotel and Restaurant (top right)
**New Year's Day- 2014 - Jazz, swimming and hot mulled wine, Port Cerbere
Belvedere du Rayon Verte (middle right)
**La Retirada - Photo Exhibition on the border of France and Spain of the 1939 flight of refugees from Spain into France before Franco closed the borders.
**Anne Maurice (bottom right)
**Cerbere Train Station (bottom left)
Ruins-Querroig Castle Cerbere (bottom right)
** Folk Dancing, Place de la Republique
[**copyright by Marlene Edmunds]
[***copyright by Yves Maurice]