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Destinations: the magic of Collioure, France

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Bright and beautiful

Once fought over by France and Spain, Collioure is a place whose light and colours provided inspiration for artists such as Matisse and Picasso. Today its charms have a distinctly Catalan flavour

P atrick O’Brian was a man who liked to keep himself to himself. A former Second World War secret agent he would go on to achieve fame and fortune as the author of the Aubrey- Maturin novels, set amid the heroics and horrors of the Napoleonic navy.

In 1949 O’Brian and his wife, Mary, abandoned the grey, chilly climate of rural Wales, where they had gone to live following the end of the war, and headed to the southern French town of Collioure. At the time they were pioneers; this part of the Mediterranean coast was far removed from the casinos and luxury hotels of Cannes, Antibes and St Tropez.

Collioure was little more than a fishing village then, whose brightly coloured boats would head out to sea in search of anchovies, very much a local staple. Today, while the town is much more on the tourist trail than it once was, it still retains elements of that down-to-earth charm that once appealed not only to O’Brian, but also to A-list painters such as André Derain, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, who came here for the exceptional light and colours as well as the chance to escape the hustle and bustle of Paris.

Known as the Fauves, or wild beasts, Matisse and his cohorts experimented with form and composition in a way that shocked many among the artistic establishment, but which both put the town on the map and also helped preserve it in all its relaxed and understated glory. Even today, you won’t find any high-rise developments or gated communities in this small corner of France.

Even so, it’s barely possible to turn a corner in Collioure without being reminded of one of its many artistic former residents. Along the sea front, prints are cunningly displayed to show the background one or other of the painters was looking to portray, while many a bar and restaurant shows off a favourite work or two.

There is an overwhelmingly Catalan vibe to the centre of town; the red and yellow colours of the regional flag making their appearance in everything from bumper stickers to ceremonial banners. France only took ownership of Collioure in 1659 (at the expense of Spain on that occasion) and the casual observer might be forgiven for thinking that at least some of the locals wouldn’t mind striking out on their own.

Shadow-filled corners are interspersed with gleaming, shrines and the air is redolent with incense and devotion

Certainly, those 17th-century French occupiers didn’t win many hearts and minds.They were well aware of the proximity of the Spanish frontier and the questionable loyalty of some of the population and they got straight on with fortifying the town. In came the star military architect of the day, Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, who oversaw the creation of walls, ramparts and ditches and the transformation of Collioure into a heavily defended military garrison.

Even today, one gets the impression that this treatment still rankles, as Anna Boyelle, a local artist, explains.‘The place was completely changed under Vauban,’ she says. ‘We became French, which in itself wasn’t easy, but they also destroyed our houses. And our church.’

Not only that, but the powers-that-were apparently left the inhabitants minus one formal place of worship for the best part of 20 years. At least when they finally got around to installing a replacement they let their creativity have free rein.

With its quaint round tower and position overlooking the beach and its year-round swimmers, Notre-Dame-Des-Anges is today a symbol of the town, its form captured by Matisse in one of the best-known paintings he produced during his stay here.

Inside, shadow-filled corners are interspersed with gleaming, Baroque-era shrines, awash with gilded statues, and the air is redolent of incense and the devotion of generations. Although camera-happy tourists looking for the right angles for their Instagram pages today largely outnumber worshippers, this is still a tranquil place and somewhere to pause for thought and contemplate the spiritual.

Stroll away from the harbour and the beach, passing charming houses whose colours strive to outdo each other for rustic appeal

At the other end of the beach (and helping make this a particularly memorable venue for a swim) is the hulking, brooding presence of the Château Royal.

Originally built by the Knights Templar in the 13th century, it has been successively home to the Kings of Majorca, assaulted by the real-life d’Artagnan, whose name was immortalised by Alexandre Dumas in The Three Musketeers, and pressed into service as an internment camp for refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

If that’s all getting a bit historical, simply stroll away from the harbour and the beach, passing charming houses whose coloured doors and shutters strive to outdo each other for rustic appeal. More than 50 artists are said to live in Collioure today and it is easy to see where they get some of their inspiration.

A 30-minute stroll brings the visitor back to the centre of town and a visit to Roque, a firm that is keeping alive a local tradition in the shape of curing, salting and selling anchovies.

Once upon a time these sharp-tasting little fish were so important to the local economy that French kings waived the gabelle, their highly lucrative and also highly divisive salt tax, in these parts so these tasty morsels might be adequately preserved and shipped off to the tables of the rich and powerful without anyone going out of business.

Today, Roque’s premises comprises a small shop whose shelves positively groan under the weight of beautifully packed and presented goodies and an upstairs factory where highly skilled workers turn the humble task of preparing and packing an anchovy into a work of art in its own right.

This heritage also created the Salade Collioure, said by locals to be infinitely superior to the Niçoise alternative, it replaces tuna with anchovies (bien sûr) and features seemingly on every menu in town.

Whether O’Brian was a fan I couldn't tell you, but I like to think of him ordering one with a glass of something cold and crisp, looking out to sea planning the next adventure of Aubrey, Maturin and their shipmates.

Words: DH

Other attractions

For a change of pace from Collioure, the city of Perpignan is 30km away and offers a charming old town, the Palace of the Kings of Majorca and the eclectic regional artworks of the Musée Rigaud. For a memorable lunch or dinner, try Restaurant Le 17, adjacent to the Catalan Gothic Cathedral, where you can dine on Catalan specialities in the shadow of flying buttresses and medieval statues.

Where to stay

Le Mas des Citronniers is a charming small hotel within yards of Collioure’s beach and historic attractions. It offers views of the Royal Castle and features a shady courtyard ideal for relaxing with a glass of the local wine.

This article was originally published in Halcyon magazine in 2019

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