Perpignan is the most Spanish of French cities. With its ginger-pink facades, lines of palm trees and packed fiesta calendar, it’s an attractive, passionate city, ideal for a beach holiday or to visit the caves and castles of ancient Roussillon. Spend a day exploring the Palace of the Kings of Majorca, visit the Hotel Pams and the Gothic La Loge de Mer.
Heading south towards Alénya, the Domaine Mas Bazan is a great place to stay, set among vineyards, orchards and a pool (doubles from €48 B&B), where there are also gites and chalets to rent.
Continue down the D81 coast road for 20 minutes before it snakes down to Collioure on the Côte Vermeille, busy in the summer but worth it for the royal chateau, arty setting and harbour. Collioure was the centre of André Derain and Henri Matisse’s Fauvism movement. Today, it’s the old fishing boats and sparkly blue tins of anchovies that attract the tourists. Have lunch under the hundreds of pictures on display at Des Templiers (three courses €17) before taking the D618 inland towards Céret, cherry capital of the south and a favourite of Picasso and Matisse. Picasso’s ceramics fill the local art gallery, alongside works by Chagall, Gris, Dufy, Miró and Braque.
Three nights at Le Mas Cabanids in Maureillas-las-Illas (tipi from €79 a night B&B) is enough time to explore the border country, including the Gorges de la Fou and an afternoon climbing on the five-million-year-old giant fairy stacks at Les Orgues d’Ille-sur-Têt. Take a few cross-country drives through the oak-covered Catalan Pyrenées regional park to the ravine-edge Saint-Martin du Canigou abbey in Casteil, and the Serrabona priory, and catch the little yellow train (locals call it the Canary) from Villefranche-de-Conflent, as it chugs across vertiginous viaducts towards the Spanish frontier. Prades, just up the road, is celebrating its 65th Pablo Casals annual chamber music festival from 24 July to 13 August.
On day five, with the summit of Le Canigou a constant feature to the left, head into the Cerdagne, where the mountain hamlets are proudly Catalan, the red-and-yellow senyera flag dangles from any horizontal, and where syllables seem to have fallen away from their names. Llo, Ur and Err have pale stone churches, thermal sulphur baths, lakes to swim in and amazing views of the massif.
Visit the Heliodyssée, near Font-Romeu-Odeillo-Via, a fantastical concave wall of mirrors, which was the world’s first solar furnace. It can generate temperatures of over 3,500C but is closed on cloudy days. A little further on is Llívia, a bizarre Spanish enclave inside France, with the oldest pharmacy in Europe. Spend the night at the Gîte San Feliu in Llo (€96 for two half board; €62 B&B), with its wild herb garden that owner Anne Constantin uses in her escalivada (aubergine and pepper stew).
Capital of hot-spring country is Ax-les-Thermes, which is an hour’s drive on the N20 from Llo, skirting the outskirts of Andorra. Spend several hours soaking in the pools of the Bains du Couloubret and stay for a couple of nights at Les Cascatelles (doubles from €70 B&B). The area is a paradise for thrilling outdoor activities, with lakes, zip-lining, the largest accessible underground cave in Europe at Lombrives, prehistoric caves at Niaux and an underground river near Foix, where it’s possible to navigate through the grottos in a coffin-shaped boat.
On day seven, head back towards the coast on the D117 to Quillan, great for exploring Cathar country and Da Vinci Code conspiracies. Stop for two nights at the Chateau View guesthouse (spacious doubles from €70 B&B) on the banks of the Aude river, or splash out and stay at the 16th-century fortified Chateau des Ducs de Joyeuse in nearby Couiza, (doubles from €100). Three of the most dramatic Cathar castles, Quéribus, Puilaurens and Peyrepertuse, are all within an hour’s drive of Quillan.
The return drive to Perpignan is through a sparse Cathar landscape of rhino-grey stone ruins, oaks, pines and wild orchids along the roadside. Alternatively, head diagonally north-east towards the coast on the D70 and D212 to the former Roman capital of Gaul, Narbonne, for lunch at the Brasserie du Moulin (two-course menu €19). The city has a colossal Gothic cathedral, an equally large archbishops’ palace, and was home to Charles Trenet, composer of La Mer.
• Total distance covered: 350 miles. Ryanair flies to Perpignan from Birmingham and Stansted