Cerbere: Border Town

IT’S the last stop on the Cote Vermeille before France spills into Spain. It has some of the best diving in Europe and hidden coves that were once the delight of pirates and smugglers. Its Mediterranean seabeds are visible from the cliffs overlooking Route D’Espagne, otherwise known as The Road to Spain, the main drag for bicyclists, motorcyclists as well as motorists meandering or screaming down (depending on personality and vehicle of choice ) from the Spanish border.

The tiny village of Cerbere, situated just four kilometres (closer if you take the ancient trails over the Pyrenees mountain chain), from Spain, has views of the Mediterranean, both the French and Spanish side, that are to die for, and a history that dates back well before the Romans and the Celts. Yet, in the last century, it played significant roles in sheltering refugees from the Spanish Civil War and World War II, ferrying even more escapees from Nazi occupation through its underground network to freedom through tunnels and caves that have been used for centuries.

Cerbere can be reached by auto, if you enjoy driving on steep winding mountain roads through the Banyuls of the Cote Vermeille. By bus, if you hop on the 400 out of Perpignan, pay just one Euro, and take it to the last stop. It’s five hours by fast train from Paris, three from Avignon, 30 to 45  minutes from Perpignan, the nearest town of any size in 66, the department known as the Pyrenees Orientale. And if you are in the tiny village of Port-Bou on the Spanish side, it’s just a five minute train ride away or you can walk it , however fast you can pace six kilometres through a very steep mountain road.
In a modern day France, many of the villages along the coast, indeed many of the smaller villages in the south where tourism is popular but little other industry exists, empty out and become pretty much ghost towns during the off season from October to April. Though tiny, Cerbere is still a working village and although many businesses do close for the season, it still retains its character throughout the year. Aside from some contribution to the winemaking industry of France through its Banyuls grape, Cerbere’s livelihood is and has been inextricably linked to the railroad. On any given day at the village owned Central Hotel, one can see checking out of the hotel railway transport workers on stopovers from Toulouse, Avignon, Narbonne,  Montpelier or other parts of France. 

The Eiffel Connection:

Opened since 1878, the gorgeous iron and glass Cerbere railway station was designed by Gustave Eiffel and built by his company Eiffel & Cie. The tunnel that connected France and Spain by train made Cerbere an important centre for the passage of dozens of trains per day from France to Spain and vice versa. Cerbere became a major port of passage in the early part of the century, not only for freight but also passengers from Northern Europe travelling to Spain and North Africa. In 2010, the Eiffel company carried out a major renovation of the Cerbere train station, 132 years after it was initially opened.

The Belvedere du Rayon Vert:

The different rail systems between the two countries required delays at both borders and on the French side, in the earlier part of the century, passengers would interrupt their journeys for several hours at a time to stop for customs and change trains in Cerbere. At that time, the different gauge systems meant no country could offer a through-journey but the Cerbere stopover encouraged the bulding of such hotels as the Belvedere du Rayon Vert.

In its short lived history, it was a magnificent art deco hotel shaped like an ocean liner, with its own cinema and tennis courts. Built by Perpignan architect Leon Baille and opened in 1932, it catered to a time when confidence in the future was high and rich motorists had time to kill in lazy vacations along the coast. The hotel offered a a view of the train tracks on one side and from its period dining room, a view of the Bay of Cerbere.

But the optimism of the times soon turned to some of the darkest hours in European history and the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, just four years after the hotel had opened, spelled the end of a dream for many, including Baille.  The closing of the borders was followed by a wave of refugees pouring into France and fleeing fascist Spain, only to be trapped in the Nazi occupation of France several years later. A few renovated apartments at the Belvedere du Rayon Vert offer holiday rentals but for the most part, this beautiful grand dame of yesteryear is in sad need of a facelift.