Thursday, 24 May 2012

Le Belvédère du Rayon Vert

Travel 273 miles up the coast from Valencia and the moment you cross the border into France you will find a different architectural conundrum.  Looking more wistful than winsome, is the Belvédère du Rayon Vert.

Towering above the sleepy bay of Cerbère the Belvédère du Rayon Vert is an art deco hotel designed in 1928 by local architect Léon Baille. It is a gaunt and extruded structure, proud yet lifeless, disproportionately large to be a comfortable part of the pretty little seaside town lying far below.   There should be light glinting from its windows but they are dead, empty, like the eye sockets in a skull of pallid, rotting concrete.  The building has been shamed into dereliction because it no longer serves a purpose. 
It was completed in 1932 to offer luxury accommodation to travellers passing through the adjacent railway station on the French-Spanish border.  Passengers would be required to interrupt their journey for customs formalities and subsequently to change trains, because the railways of neither country could offer a through journey due to a difference in gauges.  The entrepreneurs of Cerbère saw a chance to offer a service to these inconvenienced voyagers.  They built a hotel. 

These were confident times and, capitalising on the theme of glamorous international travel, M. Baille took inspiration for his design from the transatlantic liners of the day.  His hotel had its own cinema and ballroom and offered its guests the opportunity to play tennis on a roof-top court.  Created to provide a sumptuous overnight sojourn during travellers’ long hauls around the Pyrénées, the hotel’s focus extended beyond the inconvenienced rail passenger.  In an effort to attract the few but well-heeled gentry now opting to motor their way along the Nationale and across the border to the south, the hotel maintained a fully-equipped service station and garage on its ground floor. 
The five-storey building teeters on a narrow, rocky triangle of land between the railway and a precipitous cliff which tumbles down to the cobalt blue Mediterranean.  Whether any of the residents of yesteryear gazing from its verandas out to sea in the moment before sunrise ever glimpsed the elusive ‘rayon vert’ is not recorded, although the romantic notion of doing so would be intrinsic to the luxurious atmosphere pervading the seductive elevations of the Belvédère.

But the Belvédère du Rayon Vert has been disused since 1983.  It stands today crumbling and neglected, without purpose and, despite being listed as a protected monument in 1987, anyone who wants to look after it.  Squatters occupy a handful of top floor rooms. The mirrors in the ballroom are broken and the lobbies stand derelict.  Chunks of concrete are missing from the exterior staircase and the flourishes of its flamboyant design lie in a parlous state.
There are few reasons to pass through Cerbère these days. The international E15 motorway replacing the coast road passes through the mountains far inland.  A dozen or so local trains arrive at the local station from both countries during the day, but connections are poor.  Land travel is not the means by which Europe now elects to visit Spain and today the sky above the town is criss-crossed by vapour trails as aircraft speed travellers to their destinations.  Journeys are now completed in a couple of hours. No overnight stay is required en route because arduous customs procedures no longer exist.  The hotel is totally redundant.
Yet even though the Belvédère du Rayon Vert no longer takes guests, it remains a formidable piece of architecture, well worth a visit. 

Even if you can’t stay.


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