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PUBLISHED: 11:26 16 June 2010 | UPDATED: 20:50 06 February 2012

The charming fishing village of Collioure was transformed into an artists’ haven in the 19th century and still draws creative people to its shores today. Mark Sampson went to discover what makes the place so special

The charming fishing village of Collioure was transformed into an artists’ haven in the 19th century and still draws creative people to its shores today. Mark Sampson went to discover what makes the place so special

Here’s a good question for a quiz at your local pub (Francophile night): What is the connection between Henri Matisse, the Majorcan royal court and an anchovy? Answer…? (I’ll have to hurry you.) Collioure. Let’s take the last item first. Collioure is – or was – primarily a fishing village, its speciality being a salty staple of local Catalonian cuisine, the silvery-blue anchois. The fishing community grew up around a rocky inlet of the Côte Vermeille, the last brief stretch of French Mediterranean coastline before the adjacent Spanish frontier. It’s a naturally sheltered harbour and although this part of the Mediterranean is hardly noted for the ferocity of the elements, it explains why the three beaches are dotted with holidaymakers from April right through to early November.

They come here for various reasons. The climate offers an average 300 days or more of sunshine every year. The Franco-Spanish influences make for a special local culture; Catalan serves as a lingua franca, tapas are served in the bars and bistros and they do all kinds of Spanish-flavoured things each summer at festival time. And the setting, of course, where the majestic Pyrénées sweep down to the sea, is simply breathtaking.

Little wonder that if you mention the word Collioure’ to a French native, he or she is likely to come over all misty-eyed. Despite the throngs of summer tourists, this must be a great place for a holiday home – bringing us to the second item of our conundrum. If the harbour is characterised by the domed belfry of Notre Dame des Anges, the extraordinary, Venetian-looking, 17th-century church, whose foundations are built into the sea, it is dominated by the massive, seemingly impregnable Château Royal. This official historical monument now houses antiques fairs and the like, but there was a time when the labyrinth of rooms, walkways, stairs and underground passages served as the Majorcan court’s summer residence.

Fit for a king

Built on Roman foundations, mainly during the
13th and 14th century pomp of the counts of Roussillon and the kings of Aragon, the château’s chequered history of ownership testifies to Collioure’s former strategic importance. The visitor can’t help but notice how disproportionately well the little town is fortified.

The foothills of the mountains above Collioure are studded with forts and lookout posts. Take a trip in the petit train touristique (on wheels rather than rails) up to Fort Saint Elme, the 16th-century, privately owned château that surveys the town below. On a clear day, you can look over the town and beyond, across the flat plain of Roussillon, past Perpignan to distant Narbonne and the uplands of Corbière. Turn towards the sea and somewhere, far over the hazy horizon, lies North Africa. It would indeed tempt a potential invader. As it was, Collioure was wrested back from Spanish hands in 1642 and Vauban, Louis XIV’s great military architect, ensured that it would remain in French hands forever after. So, by the turn of the 20th century, a once coveted port was  just a small fishing community seemingly suffocated by a network of now fairly redundant fortifications. Enter the final piece of our equation – one Henri Matisse.

In fact, Matisse wasn’t the first great artist to visit Collioure. Paul Signac came here briefly in 1887.
In search of sun and inspiration on the Midi, Matisse (and family) spent the summer of 1904 with Signac at his villa in Saint-Tropez. Still looking for an artistic voice’, Matisse dabbled with the neo-Impressionist master’s divisionist methodology.

The combination of formal composition and precise, almost mathematical, brushwork – deriving from
the theories of light and colour propounded and perfected by Georges Seurat in grandiose pointilliste’ masterpieces such as A Sunday Afternoon on the Île de la Grande Jatte – just didn’t suit the restless, questing spirit of Matisse.
The following summer, he followed Signac’s lead and installed his family in Collioure. They stayed at a small, inexpensive auberge near the railway station. The Hôtel de la Gare no longer exists, but the canvases he painted from his base there record a visit that would not only change the face of Collioure, but also, arguably, the entire course
of modern art. The luminous reds, pinks and greens of Open Window at Collioure, for example, have become an icon of Modernism.

Matisse was joined by his younger colleague, André Derain, and the two friends set up their easels all around Collioure and produced an abundance of sketches, watercolours and oil canvases. They testify to what Derain would describe as a trial by fire’: a kind of white light, white heat’ of creative intensity.

Working side by side in the manner of (and certainly influenced by) Van Gogh and Gauguin, the two artists set out to liberate their canvases from every trace of imitation and convention. So what was it that sparked such a fire? Certainly the place itself, mutual inspiration probably, but above all it seemed to be the special quality of light. “In France,” Matisse enthused, “there is no sky as blue as Collioure’s”. Derain was fascinated by the “white, golden light that eliminates shadow”. Purity of light translated itself into a radical new approach to colour. “When I use a green,” Matisse explained, “it’s not to indicate grass; when I use a blue, it’s not to denote the sky”. The light helped free him to use colour purely for its “luminous intensity”. Derain talked of using it as a stick of dynamite, to discharge light and emotion. Together they found a new kind of weapon against the “tyranny of good taste”.

Causing a stir

Later in 1905, when the two artists exhibited the results of their visit at the Salon d’Automne in Paris, their uninhibited canvases created a scandal. Critics derided the wildness’ of the colours. Alluding to the classical sculptures of Albert Marque in the same Salle VII where the group of daring young bohemians exposed their work to public opprobrium, the critic Louis Vauxcelles suggested “Donatello chez les fauves”. The name stuck. Matisse, Derain, Marquet, Braque, Dufy, Vlaminck et al became known as Fauves, or wild beasts. Although fauvism, as a movement, lasted only from 1905 to 1908, its impact on the art world in general, and Collioure in particular, was timeless. Matisse himself returned to the scene of his liberation in 1906, 1907, 1911 and finally in 1914. Recognising, perhaps, that he couldn’t recapture such a unique experience, Derain never came back. But other greats of the era, captivated by what they saw at the Salon, came to seek similar inspiration from the little luminous port. Marquet, Dufy and the enigmatic Russian immigré, Marc Chagall, all painted here. Braque and Picasso worked together in their revolutionary Cubist style during 1911.

In fact, there is rumoured to be a Picasso hanging in the waterfront bar of the Hôtel des Templiers. Many moons ago, maybe, before his every scribble would fetch millions. Nevertheless, the sheer number of paintings hanging on the walls, presumably donated by impoverished artists to pay off their bills, suggests the transformation of Collioure, following the Fauves, into a cité des artistes.

Take a walk around Le Moré, the maze of narrow cobbled streets and steep steps that constitutes the old village, and you’re struck by how many of the old fishermen’s cottages have been converted into artists’ studios. There are around 30 independent galleries otted around the town these days and, since 1930, there has been a museum of modern art, which exhibits contemporary artists and offers studio space to the winners of the biennial Prix Collioure.
Down on the harbour, visitors can line up the bell tower of Notre Dame des Anges in strategically placed viewing frames, or gaze over the shoulders of artists who now pay for the privilege of pitching their paraphernalia at the most favoured locations. Since 1994, you can also take a guided tour along the Chemin du Fauvisme, where 20 reproductions of works by Matisse and Derain have been secured to the exact spots where the originals were painted.

But the art scene has changed since those heady days of collective experimentation. I talked to Barry Blend, a British artist from Chingford. Around 30 years ago, he was dropped off here by chance while hitching through France with a guitar slung across his back. “I looked down at the town from the roundabout on the main road and I thought, this place looks interesting... There is a very clear light. There’s a kind of reverberation between the air and the sea,” he explained. He met his future wife, settled here and took up painting to support a young family. He confirms that the contemporary art scene is an independent affair.

“Galleries are just businesses and people tend to work very much on their own.” The business is going well in spite of the prevalent economic climate. “In the off-peak season, you get people who come here for the art and the culture. The internet helps. Sometimes they see my work in the gallery and then find my website when they get home, which reminds them – so they might order something.”
“Collioure is unique,” Barry says. “There aren’t two places like it.”

That’s for sure. The Majorcan court might have packed its summer valises and left centuries ago, but Collioure will forever be synonymous with the humble anchovy and one of the greatest artists of the 20th century – who arrived here at a pivotal moment in his creative development and triggered the metamorphosis of an entire community.


How to get there

By ferry and road From Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne, Dieppe and Le Havre make for Orléans (via either Paris or Rouen), where you can join the A10 and thence the A71, the A20, the A61 and the A9, which together will take you to Perpignan and on to Collioure. From Caen and St-Malo, head for the A20 south of Orléans, somewhere near Chateauroux.

By train Take the Eurostar to Paris Nord, cross Paris on the Métro to Paris Austerlitz and the two daily direct trains to the end of the line at Cerbère stop at Collioure.
By air You can fly to Perpignan which is about 30 minutes from Collioure.

Where to stay

Hôtel Le Relais des Trois Mas Route de Port-Vendres
66190 Collioure
Tel: (Fr) 4 68 82 05 07
Offering a classic view across the bay. The bedrooms are all named after artists associated with Collioure. Prices start at €100 in the off-season.

Hôtel des Templiers
12 Quai de l’Amirauté
66190 Collioure
Tel: (Fr) 4 68 98 31 10
A visit to the bar where paintings hang the walls is a must. Double rooms from €58.

Where to eat

18 Rue Vauban
66190 Collioure
Tel: (Fr) 4 68 82 02 63
Boasting a bustling atmosphere and fresh, unpretentious fare. From €8 for tapas and €10 for plat du jour.

La Marinade
18 Place du 18 Juin
66190 Collioure
Tel: (Fr) 4 68 82 09 76
Specialising in Catalan cuisine with a tout compris menu for €15.90.

Tourist Boards

Office de Tourisme de Collioure
Place du 18 Juin
BP2, 66190 Collioure
Tel: (Fr) 4 68 82 15 47

CDT des Pyrénées Orientales
Tel: (Fr) 4 68 51 52 53


Article by France Magazine France Magazine

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