"Do you want the mountains, or the sea?" our French friend asked. We had a couple of days spare for some Pyrenean wanderings. We hesitated. "I know", she said, pointing at the map " - you can have both! But beware, you'll fall in love!" And so we did.
As soon as we stepped off the train at the little platform above the bay, we knew this was special. Walking down the quiet tree-lined avenue from the station and onto the flag-stoned quay, the vista opened before us. The town shone, like brightly coloured dominoes, stacked above the church beach (the Boramar plage) and its little port (le Port D'Amont) set under a horizon of soft blue fading to white sea mists. "This is it!" we said, almost simultaneously. We had fallen in love, and hard.
Collioure is a tiny seaside Mediterranean village, dating from Phoenician times, tucked into the foothills of the Pyrenees at the far southern end of France, wrapped around a circular bay, with all its historic charm, colour and character firmly intact. Only 20 km from Spain, it is in the heart of 'French Catalonia' – a region which France claimed in 1659 – and has two cultures and three languages. Firmly French with a historic vein of Catalan language and culture, locally celebrated in festivals, food and dance, Collioure is a gem in a time-warp wrapped in a landscape of light and warmth. Saved from the ravages of the developers of the 70's and 80's, and avidly protected by its enthusiastic Mayor, it has kept its true coastal village 'historique'.
Collioure is dramatic – one's eyes are arrested by the 12th century lighthouse, now red copper-domed bell tower for the church, lapped by the sea, the castle; whose block-like layers jut into the water in the centre of the bay, the windmill among the olive trees behind the Dominican convent (now wine cellar) and the high hills topped by watchtowers founded by the Majorcan Kings.
Collioure is also poetic - set into a sea of majestic blue, framed by jutting headlands and a landscape of leaning vineyards and split-rock retaining walls, cork trees, thyme and rosemary scrubland, and the snow capped Mount Canigou in the distance. All this light and colour brought Matisse and Derain here in 1905. They established the Fauvist movement by painting on the balconies, streets and quay fronts. Signac, Picasso, Dufy, Chagall, and Mackintosh are others among the evolving constellation of artists who are still capturing the town's spirit of colour and form. Patrick O'Brian, the author of 'Master and Commander' and over 20 historical sea-novels, lived here for more than 50 hears and is buried here.
Strolling in the narrow flag-stoned streets between high-coloured walls hung with geraniums and festooned with blazing Bougainvillea, you walk through an ancient stone archway out onto the waterfront. Sip a chilled white wine or sup gelati under a big yellow umbrella by the limpid plane trees. French families revel in the clear clean azure water, while two venerable Catalan ladies slice sausage onto crusty bread on the beach. The church bell rings, peal by peal, and a wedding procession walks by, past two painters capturing the midday light, one in pastel, one in oils.
The sky is busy with swooping swifts and martins, diving and swerving above the tiled roofs, playing freely in the sun and feeding voraciously for their young. Songbirds crouch and flit in the scented woods and shrubland between the vineyards, which sweep, like sails drying in the sun, from behind the lower village to the ridgeline topped by the strict geometry of the fortifications.
And the water! Lapping the foot of the church tower quietly, we floated under the azure sky, watching the strollers on the quay, the coloured sardine boats bobbing, and the Sunday procession. The bell rings in single peals, the sound and light reflecting off the glinting sea.
This is a 'living' village by the sea. Yes there are tourists, especially in the months of July and August, though mostly French. But all year, the town has its own rhythm. Twice weekly markets bursting with fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese stalls, crusty breads and the heavenly scent of racks of roasting chickens, ribs and sausages. The cycle of the wine year – vendanges, wine making, pruning, festivities – and selling local wines at the many 'caves' in the village and the surrounding area. Fishing – now mainly in nearby Port Vendres (a 20 minute walk or 5 minute drive or bus) with its fantastically diverse fish market open all week at 'La Criee' tucked at the end of a true working port. Also the few village fishermen who sell their night's catch early in the morning by the little dock. Anchovy products are a town mainstay, with boutique vendors selling fillets and 'anchoiades' among the local honeys and olive oil.
The town is sufficiently small but rich to the senses that a car isn't needed, and only people roam in the old town and along the spectacular waterfront promenade. A village for lazing on the beach and eating. A Catalan cuisine of grilled sardines (a la planxcha), squid, tomatoes and peppers, easily washed down with a local 'Collioure' red. Or for being athletic - we regularly swim across the bay from one beach to another or walk the herb scented hills on paths leading right from the village streets, and scuba and boating are readily accessible. Or for being artistic – sketching or painting is a common pastime, and there are even display frames that reproduce the views painted by Matisse and Derain.
Or use it as a base to discover the region. French and Spanish Cataluña: Dali's house at Cadaques and Museum at Figueres are only an hour's drive, Barcelona two; the Pyrenees and Andorra are easily reached by car or scenic train; the Cathar region with its high castles and wines; the Tech and the Tet river valleys and hill villages.
But it's the light that brings people here, the colour and the water. At 42 deg N and with an average 320 days' sunshine a year, there's always plenty of light!
It certainly called us back again and again. We now own a small stone fishermen's house in the Faubourg quarter, less than a minute's walk from the sea.