Saturday, August 24, 2013

Hercules' Lover, Pirates, and an Independent Spirit

Legend has it that Argeles-sur-mer's name is taken from a beautiful lover of the Greek mythological hero Hercules, who abandoned her on these shores by the Med. In fact, the area was originally inhabited by prehistoric man, based on dolmen tombs in the nearby Alberes mountains which are a few thousand years old.

The written history of the commune began in 897 - 12 centuries ago - and the current Southern Gothic church with its 33-metre bell tower, which dominates the high point of the village, was built in the 14th century, most likely atop the remains of an earlier church.

I especially like the Argeles motto, rendered in Catalan as qui s'hi acosta te reposta, translated 'Meddle and smart for it.' Reminds me of 'Don't mess with Texas' and the American revolutionary theme 'Don't tread on me.' Indeed, Argeles rebelled against French occupation (the area was originally part of Spain) and in WWII had a rigorous resistance movement against the Nazis. I like that type of independent spirit.

Argeles was once fortified to defend against marauding pirates and sometimes neighboring cities, and some of the original stone walls remain today.

There was a brief dark interlude that is only beginning to be talked about openly - 100,000 refugees (the retirada) fled the fascist Franco during the Spanish civil war in 1939, but were confined by the French to wretched conditions on the beach in concentration camp style. Not unlike the Japanese concentration camp in western America nor the squalid refugee camps today in the Middle East, Africa ...

One hundred twenty years ago, the Argeles population was 3300. But there's been a 'boom' since - and now there are about 10,000 permanent locals. That's an influx of about 50 people a year. Perhaps 10-15 of today's residents are American expats, the majority married to Europeans.

There are larger places nearby, such as Perpignan, and more 'lively' tourist villages, such as Collioure. But I've not found any with the everyone-knows-everyone ambience of Argeles. The varied pace during the year of quiet winters contrasted with the waves of summer vacationers.

Love the history. The old stone buildings. The narrow streets. The ringing of the church bells on the quarter-hours. The twice-weekly marches with vendors peddling food, clothing, trinkets, even a kind of live 'infomercial' demonstrating a new floor mop. The outdoor cafes where you can watch everyone walk by, or where friends impromptu pull up a chair to chat and have a cup of tea. The fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables. The little train station which enables access to just about anywhere in Europe. The red-and-yellow Catalan flags that outnumber the French red-white-blue. The Monday evening dances in the square.

Argeles-sur-mer is not for everyone. But those who choose to live here, full or part-time, adore the place.

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