Walking along the ‘Quai de la République’, or ‘Quai des Douanes’ as it used to be called in Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s time, you don't notice it. Instead, your eyes are drawn to the water's edge and the two large bluefin tuna boats that are moored there almost all the year round.
In fact, it can only be found if in the sweltering summer heat, when unable to bear the smell of the heated asphalt and the biting rays of the sun, one seeks the shade of the customs buildings. There you see two large fig trees almost blocking a staircase similar to the many ‘rampes’ or flights of stairs that cross the streets of Port-Vendres at right angles. But this one is narrow, with only a few steps, and it seems to lead to a private property.
"Let's go, something is beckoning to me", I thought to myself as Alice would have done as she went down the rabbit hole at the base of the hedge. And sure enough, on that day too, she was indisposed by a stifling heat.
So now, once you've climbed a few steps you find yourself in a street or is it a dead end? It is narrow, slightly sloping, lined with old houses two storeys high and cramped like the local fishermen's houses. They are sand-coloured, fairly uniformly plastered and at first glance only distinguishable by their closed shutters whose colours cover the whole range of blues. The single-leaf doors are dark, made of oak, sometimes with mouldings. There is no sign of human activity. No cars or two-wheelers and yet an impression of inhabited emptiness. What is going on behind the closed doors in the sunlight? Is an old lady asleep in her armchair facing the window? Is an amateur painter looking for inspiration in the specks of dust that dance between the two shutters? Is there nearby a teenager, slumped on a couch, hypnotised by the blue glow of his mobile phone, chatting with the many friends he has never seen?
Where does this unassuming street lead, winding its way along the curve of the hillside which, two millennia ago, was probably covered with vines or pastures? Will it get lost at the end of a courtyard? Will we suddenly find ourselves in front of a wall at the end of a blind alley? There are few names on the letterboxes, no street names. It is difficult to walk on the uneven cobblestones that slope towards the centre into a sort of gutter. There are no trees in sight and no vegetation for the eye to rest on. It makes you want to turn back.
Still, a few details alert us. A skinny black cat, like the lost cats in the harbour, cautiously walks along the buildings, it seems to know where it is going. Upstairs, on the top floor of a house with a superb door knocker in the shape of a gloved hand, you can see a cage hanging from a window frame with a large multi-coloured bird perched inside: could it be a parrot? Hearing the footsteps of the walker, it exclaims: "It's overrr there! ". Over there, where? Should one rap with this fancy knocker and enter a dark staircase that leads to the cage? Or does the bird indicate a direction?
Ah, here is an open door! It leads onto a long dark corridor at the end of which cascades of geraniums, nasturtiums, lantanas and bougainvillea decorate a sun-drenched patio in a profusion of colours. This is tempting. Why is this door so wide open even though we can't see anyone? Ah, I wish I were Alice... But anyway, what is important now is to continue on our way without wandering too much to see if this street has an end and a name.
A few more steps and suddenly, after walking in the semi-darkness of the alley, you are dazzled by the bright light of the sun that assails you like a spotlight entering the stage. It takes a moment for your eyes to adjust. But the surprise is total. You find yourself at the entrance to a small square lined with a few houses. At the other end, a kind of vaulted semi-circular arch built in local schist is included in what looks like a piece of fortification to which the "Clock Tower" is attached.
You know, the very same tower that was part of the ‘Presqu'île Redoubt’ and moved a little further inland when the Maritime Passenger Terminal was built. Another era... This tower, thanks to the four clocks on its four sides, gives the time to the whole city. A landmark for all inhabitants and walkers. You can only see it from a distance. It would seem totally inaccessible, draped in its ancestral dignity, at least until now... What a pleasure to stand at its foot! Suddenly the clues are there when you look up: the square is called "Place de l'Horloge" and of course, the alleyway leading to it is the "Rue de l'Horloge".
And as if one delightful discovery called for another, an oasis of coolness is now revealed near the door of the emblematic Tower. Under the shade of two enormous mulberry plane trees, a scattering of wrought iron tables and chairs with multi-coloured seat cushions. And, further on, in a recess of the ancient wall, there is the stall to which they belong and which serves, guess what? Cold or hot drinks, ice creams or cakes for tea, depending on the season. In short, at the end of this short epic, an invitation to a delicious break, in this setting full of the cachet of old stones. Out of time...
So it is time for you to know why this place has to exist somewhere, if only in my imagination. This clock tower is now inaccessible either by car or on foot. It stands right in the middle of barracks which are military ground. It was rebuilt there after the picturesque ‘Redoute de la Presqu’île’ in the harbour was demolished in 1929 to make room for the new (and ugly) passenger terminal. Charles Rennie Mackintosh who used to walk the quays of Port-Vendres in the last years of his life would not, thank God, have known this disgrace. And he would have been able to go round it, admire it, on his way to his favourite haunts along the coastal path, carrying his painting material under his arm.
Lastly, tell you what, the clock mysteriously stopped striking the hours and its hands froze during the whole lockdown period. Out of time we were!