The French Mediterranean resort town of Collioure has inspired artists for more than a century, which is no surprise — it’s as pretty as a picture. Located in the foothills of the Pyrenees, 30km from Perpignan and 25km from the Spanish/Catalan border, it’s well-to-do without being pretentious and, unlike the rip-off Riviera, is wallet-friendly. For a short break or a wind-down week, Collioure comes up trumps.
Henri Matisse and his fellow artist and friend Andre ‘I’m Singin’ In’ Derain put Collioure on the map. It’s a good thing they didn’t draw the map, as no one would ever find the place.
Matisse (1869-1954) and Derain (1880-1954), who spent two summer months here in 1905, were the founders of Fauvism, a style in which unmixed colours and unbridled emotion ruled — and to hell with perspective. This resulted in a lot of paintings that sort of look like what they were meant to depict.
When the impoverished pair left their shared beachfront studio to display their works at the Salon d’Automne in Paris, the art establishment was scandalised. “A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public,” wrote critic Camille Mauclair in the bi-monthly Mercure de France. Louis Vauxcelles, in the daily Gil Blas, dismissed the artists as fauves — wild beasts — and said of their paintings: “I wouldn’t give one centime for any of these.”
Fast-forward 105 years to June 2010 when, at a sale by Sotheby’s in London, an anonymous buyer paid €22 million for Derain’s Arbres a Collioure (Trees in Collioure). In June 2018, Matisse’s Oliviers a Collioure (Olive Trees in Collioure) went for €3.4 million. Both paintings were completed in an afternoon.
The bar of Collioure’s Hotel Restaurant Les Templiers, the walls of which are covered with hundreds of original oils, most by long-forgotten artists, has seen many a sing-song over the years, having been a favourite hangout of Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and Charles Aznavour when they were in town. Sacha Distel was another regular, and as I shelter inside from a rare June shower I can’t get the words of his 1970 hit single, Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head, out of mine.
Matisse and Derain spent their evenings in Les Templiers; best buddies Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali often shared a corner table; Winston Churchill added Cuban cigar smoke to the Gitanes and Gaulloise fug during his several painting holidays in Collioure and nearby Argeles-sur-Mer; and Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco were no strangers to the place, which will remind visitors from Dublin of Grogan’s Castle Lounge — the gallery that serves Guinness.
Les Templiers, which opened in 1895 as a cheap cafe for local fishermen, is run by the descendants of original owner Madame Pous. Her son, Rene, took over in the early 1920s, and he and his wife, Pauline, added the hotel and bar. They became great pals of Picasso and were kind to hard-up artists, allowing them to exchange canvases for food and drink in lieu of payment. Picasso gifted the couple many paintings, which for years took pride of place on the walls until several were stolen. The remaining originals were put away in a safe and reproductions now hang in the spaces they occupied.
Patrick O’Brian, the author of the Aubrey-Maturin series of naval novels that includes Master and Commander, which was made into the 2003 Oscar-winning film starring Russell Crowe, lived for 50 years in Collioure, from 1949. He scribbled notes for his best-selling books in Les Templiers, where he became acquainted with Picasso (his 1976 biography of the artist is regarded as the best of the many written).
O’Brian went to great lengths to protect his privacy, and interviewers granted a rare audience had to promise not to mention Collioure and write only that he lived in the south of France. The Pous family and their staff always told visiting fans they had never heard of him — even when he was sitting within earshot at his favourite table — and townspeople would say they hadn’t seen him in years.
His real name was Richard Patrick Russ, which he changed by deed poll in 1945, and he passed himself off as an Irish Catholic born in Galway, although he was an English Protestant of German descent born in Buckinghamshire. O’Brian died a sad and lonely widower, aged 85, on January 2, 2000 in Dublin, and is buried with his wife, Mary Tolstoy Miloslavsky, who died two years before, in Collioure’s Nouveau Cimetiere.
Another grave of note, in the Ancien Cimetiere, is that of Antonio Machado. The Republican poet from Seville fled Spain in December 1938 before Franco’s thugs could put a bullet in his head, as they had done to his friend and fellow Andalucian intellectual, Federico Garcia Lorca, in Granada at the outbreak of the civil war in 1936.
As the Nationalist forces closed in on Barcelona, Machado and his 85-year-old mother left the city, crossed the border into France and found refuge in Collioure. It was a short-lived exile: Machado, who was in bad health, died aged 63 on February 22, 1939, and his mother drew her last breath three days later. They’re buried together in a plot that has become a place of pilgrimage for lovers of the poet’s work.
A more recent regular visitor to Collioure, when he had his health, was the late Northern Ireland peacemaker and Nobel Laureate John Hume. He was a friend of the late Dutch president of the European Parliament, Piet Dankert, who had a home here and whose actress daughter, Cleo, is an expert on Matisse and Derain.
Cleo’s walking tours, which even those who don’t know their arts from their elbow will find fascinating, take in the Fauvism Trail and halt at the many spots where the two painters set up their easels side by side. Twenty wall-mounted reproductions of their works, which they rattled off at lightning speed (80 paintings each in eight weeks), allow tourists to compare the sights with what the artists saw all those years ago. A clever touch is the series of pole-mounted brass picture frames through which you can look at the little-changed views they committed to canvas.
Beach and fishing boat scenes abound, and the 13th century Royal Castle of the Kings of Mallorca and the nearby 17th century Church of Our Lady of the Angels are frequent subjects. The 16th century hilltop Fort Saint-Elme, which Brigitte Bardot tried unsuccessfully to buy (it’s owned by a local anchovy-canning tycoon), also features in many paintings.
The fun part of visiting the fort, from where the views of the bay more than justify Collioure being known as the Jewel of the Vermillion Coast, is the ride up and down on the little road train that passes terraced vines first planted in the sixth century BC by the Greeks, who established a trading port here.
“A picture must possess a real power to generate light,” Matisse wrote. Well, visitors to Our Lady of the Angels must possess a one euro coin to do the same — insert it in the electricity meter by the altar rail and the floor-to-ceiling gilded wooden retable is immediately illuminated. The work of master sculptor Josep Sunyer, it was completed in 1702 and is considered one of the finest examples of Catalonian Baroque carving.
With the Spanish border so near, the Catalonian influence is everywhere to be seen in Collioure. Yellow and red-striped flags from the independence-minded province next door flap on poles they share with tricolours, and street nameplates, billboards, shop signs and menus are in French and Catalan.
Before the dome on the church’s 30-metre-tall bell tower was added in 1810, this round structure, which dates from the 13th century and once stood alone surrounded by the sea, doubled as a primitive lighthouse and lookout post. At night, flames from a log fire on the top warned passing mariners to keep their distance from offshore rocks. In daylight, the town was alerted to hostile ships by acrid smoke spewing from burning rags and vegetation. Would-be invaders were a formidable enough threat, but the sentinels on the tower had to contend also with angry housewives who had just hung out a washing.
Although Matisse and Derain died nearly 70 years ago, Collioure has continued to attract artists. The town, which has a population of 2,650, is home to 30 commercial galleries — one for every 88 residents. There are dozens of studios, too, where painters, printmakers and ceramicists work, most of them in the mainly car-free narrow streets of the old Moure neighbourhood with its yellow and pink pastel facades.
Here, half-an-hour after the clouds drift off, steam rises from the pavements as the sun clocks on late and quickly makes up for lost time. Potted plants on balconies and hanging baskets overflowing with geraniums add a vivid splash of red against the now clear sky. “There is no sky so blue in all France,” wrote Matisse, which is why photos posted on social media take so long to upload.
Moure is where fishermen and their families once lived, in cottages bought and renovated in recent years by wealthy Parisiennes who occupy them only in the summer months. The few working fishermen still left, now apartment-dwellers in town, set out each night in their brightly-coloured little wooden boats to harvest the anchovies on which Collioure’s wealth was built.
A visit to the Anchois Roque Collioure factory, a small family business established in 1870, is a pleasant, albeit pungent way to spend half-an-hour learning how these little fish are cleaned and filleted by hand by a small team of cheerful women who process thousands of them each day. The guided tour is free, as are the salty samples.
In Cafe Sola, where we seek to quench our anchovy-induced thirst, owner Laurent Puig-Sarbent has followed Les Templiers’ lead and covered the walls with portraits — of his football heroes. It’s evident from across the street where Laurent’s loyalties lie: on the awning over the terrace is emblazoned in Catalan the legend “Mes que un cafe” (“More than a cafe”), a take on FC Barcelona’s battle cry “Mes que un club”.
Inside, amid all the posters and branded souvenirs celebrating Barcelona greats past and present, is a faded black and white photo of Dubliner Patrick O’Connell who, as manager in 1936, rescued the Nou Camp giants from imminent bankruptcy (this was 12 months after he had steered no-hopers Real Betis to their first and only La Liga title, an achievement akin to Leicester City winning the English Premier League in 2016).
Born in Fitzroy Avenue, in the shadow of Croke Park, O’Connell (1887-1959) was the first Irish captain of Manchester United; however, it’s as the coach who defied Franco’s Civil War sanctions, set up a secret French bank account and took Barcelona on a lucrative tour of Mexico and the United States that he’s remembered and revered in the Catalan capital — and in Cafe Sola.
“Patrick O’Connell was our saviour,” Laurent says, and tells a waiter to bring a round of beers on the house “for my Irish friends”. Cleo opts for a small glass of the region’s sweet fortified wine as she has to head home to take delivery of some Ikea kitchen units. Making sense of the self-assembly instructions with a clear head would be challenging enough; with any more than a mouthful of Banyuls on board, Cleo’s new cupboards could end up resembling something Matisse or Derain cobbled together.
One beer leads to another, and cosy Cafe Sola begins to fill up with locals and tourists. There’s a great buzz about the place, and with no other plans for the evening, we decide to stay put. Eight o’clock becomes nine, and before we know it, it’s nearly 11.
There’s a Liverpool fan among us who’s itching to ask Laurent about the Champions League match the month before when Barcelona, 3-0 up from the first leg at home, were hammered 4-0 at Anfield. Nipping the mischief in the bud, we call it a night — before things start to get Messi.
GET THERE: In normal times, Aer Lingus operates up to five flights a week from Dublin to Perpignan, with fares from €59.99 one-way, including taxes and charges. Trains and buses connect Perpignan city centre with Collioure.
STAY: Three nights’ B&B in Hotel Mas des Citronniers, Collioure, costs from €178.50 per person sharing.
FURTHER INFORMATION: See visitcollioure.co.uk