Little did we know when we received Françoise and Jean-Hubert's request for an exchange, our life would be forever changed, catapulted onto a remarkable road towards a thrilling new adventure. This was our very first exchange and it was a gift from the gods. To begin with our exchange home, just over the border of Spain in Southern France, was in St. Marie La Plage, also known as Sainte-Marie-La-Mer. Steps from the Mediterranean Sea, our 2 1/2 week home-away-from-home was nestled in the Pyrenees-Orientales region in Roussillon, set in a soulful, freewheeling, full-of-life seaside village with its nearby, what-appeared-to-be ancient town of the same name.
The two-level home, itself, was extremely charming and colorful with many traditional elements and much character. We were very comfortable there, with plenty of room, both back yard and bricked front yard seating, big comfortable beds, great bathrooms, cool authentic tile floors, dramatic curving wrought iron stair rail that led to a landing from which we could look down on the house, a handy washer and lovely kitchen. We enjoyed the whimsical bits: colorful sheets and kitchen supplies, unique tile and fetching wall paper. When we got tired out from all our outings we would enjoy a night watching French TV in the parlor.
Location, location, location. Basically, theirs was beyond exceptional, on so many levels! Just outside our door was a different (and free) oceanfront entertainment event (called animations) nearly nightly, such as a full Beatle’s cover band show; celebrity Zumba (apparently huge in France as is camping); a live jazz and singer trio; and a huge movie right on the beach. All this plus all the carnival, street fair and seafood restaurants one could ask for was found each evening on the Village’s charming boardwalk-like strip. There you’d see entire families from the oldest to the youngest enjoying the festivities til late into the night.
From the house, the beach is about a two minute walk and the village an easy five to ten minute stroll. Every morning we’d hit the boulangerie for our pain chocolate and fresh made bread. Across the street we’d head for our favorite fresh veg, fruit and olive tapanade market. It was a warm, friendly, easily-walkable and manageable town with almost all French holiday-makers and a few scattered Europeans. Mostly we were the only Americans and one of a very few handful of English speakers.
Françoise and Jean-Hubert sent a list of day trips in advance. Take every one. We did. This Catalonian region, just over the Spanish border and intersected by the behemoth Pyrenees, is full of the most extraordinary beauty, history, culture, forts, castles, medieval towns, villages, food, architecture, colors and amazing people with such a sincere receptive spirit, great humor and intellect.
Finally we met the swashbuckling Jean-Hubert, a helicopter pilot and world traveler, on the last day and were so happy to meet him and so grateful to be able to drive his Corolla Verso all over for the duration of our stay to the dazzling harbor town of Collioure; the adorable Ceret, famed for its cherries; the bohemian Spanish city Figueres and home to Dali’s Versailles of a museum and the exquisite part Moorish/ part Parisian city with a river right through it, a huge gypsy population, and some of the most remarkable street performances and architecture we’ve ever seen - Perpignan. This city with uncontrollably manic drivers was once well-known as the capital of the Kingdom of Majorca and for its impact on the Catalonian culture. There we experienced some of the best pasta (run, do not walk!), bar none, that happened to be made in a briefly flambé, cheese wheel we’ve ever tasted at the five star, unassumingly piquant street (alley, really) cafe La Sous-Prefete.
We also followed the maze-like coastal road to the all white Spanish city of Cadaques(reached after four attempts) and the upwards mountainous castle of Castlenou; the Fort Salses which we found on a searingly hot day; the breath-taking preserved hill village and fortress that dates from 1098 of Villefranche Conflent; if you’re a shopper - Andorra between France and Spain for duty-free everything; and the village and luxurious seaside town of Canet where we took the Petit Train. One word about the Petit Train: Take them! Every chance you get. A fun and super cheap was to see the lay-of-the-land!
We flew into Barcelona (which we loved - for the most perfect day imaginable in Barcelona, just ask!) on Turkish Airlines (which we also loved) and while in St. Marie took day trips, as mentioned above, to the region’s exceptionally beautiful seaside towns where some of France’s and the world’s greatest painters fell in love. The Southern France heightened vibrant blue sky and cobalt water, and paternaturally spectrum of greens and every color imaginable in unfettered nature is South of France’s bequeathal to the world!
Françoise and Jean-Hubert were also simultaneous reciprocal guests at our home in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, and were absolutely wonderful and a delight to deal with from the get-go. We were so appreciative that their lovely daughter Adélaïde both picked us up and delivered us to the station and the family who introduced us to this part of France, lesser known (to the American traveler) that homeexchange.com together with Françoise and Jean-Hubert would make possible for us.
The folks at the local Tourism Center with umbrellas suspended from the ceiling were extremely helpful and we were truly enchanted to discover the amazing terroir, primordial landscape, medieval sites, and even roundabouts (which we came to enjoy after our initial trauma), of this mesmerizing fairy tale like region!
Do drive across the looming and daunting Pyrenees, often without guardrails, with speeding passing motorcycles, trucks, and busses, with no shoulder to speak of, if you dare.
Do hit the malls and see all the unique amusements there for the kids (one had a pool with simulated waves, mini surf boards and fake sharks), the brightly colored storefronts and unique graphics of their retail design, and by all means hit Picard - perhaps the best frozen food on the planet. You think you’re going to cook, but you just don’t!
Thanks to my thon sandwiches (tuna!) and Picard, as well as our boulangerie and fresh fruit and veg market. Can you tell - we adored EVERY minute of this completely magical first exchange!!! And yes, there is a huge learning curve for a first time Home Exchange, especially in a region of the country where English is not spoken, much! Lean into it. Let yourself be exhausted, exasperated, beside yourself. Then get a good night’s sleep, get up, ready to learn the ropes and ready to have the trip of a lifetime! In the end there are really no words to describe how happy and delighted we were and are that our paths crossed with those of the kind-hearted, true blue and passionate fellow exchangers Françoise and Jean-Hubert.
Cathy H. Burroughs is an international travel writer/ blogger and passionate home exchanger. Her colorful lakefront artist house is listed on www.homeexchange.com under Atlanta, GA (Listing#402208).