Monday 21 October 2019

France: Charming Collioure casts its spell


The church of Our Lady of the Angels located at Collioure harbour inspired both Matisse and Derain. Photo:
The church of Our Lady of the Angels located at Collioure harbour inspired both Matisse and Derain. Photo:
The courtyard at hotel La Casa Pairal

Anna Coogan

The best recommendation for a holiday destination is the reaction you get when you say you're heading there. Whenever I said I was off to Collioure, the faces of those who'd already been went soft and dreamy.

They looked under a spell, as if this small fishing village in the south of France, on the shore of the Mediterranean, and which famously inspired Fauvist painters like Henri Matisse and Andre Derain in the early 20th century, had worked some powerful magic on them.

I did wonder if, maybe, they were overdoing it a bit, because sometimes people can be a bit fanciful when talking about France. There are some dull spots over there; I've managed to find a couple. But, mostly, I was thinking; go on Collioure, bewitch me.

I'm up for being charmed when I arrive in Collioure on a Wednesday morning, and find pretty buildings painted in soft pastel colours, plus the mid-week food market in full swing in the town's square, and all softly lit by sunshine.

Collioure's charm offensive continues when I drop my bag off at Hotel Casa Pairal, a very inviting place altogether; my room looks down onto a courtyard with a fountain and a magnolia tree, the common areas are delightful and filled with knick-knacks and books, and the staff are warm and friendly.

I'd be very happy to stay in and play hotel, but instead a lunch date has been organised in one of the town's popular eateries. La Fregate restaurant is a short walk from the hotel, and is in the centre of Collioure, and its tables on the terrace, with parasols if desired, are filled with people enjoying a leisurely lunch in the late May sunshine.

The courtyard at hotel La Casa Pairal
The courtyard at hotel La Casa Pairal

We dine on a delicious lunch of shrimp, sea bass, and a medley of sweet desserts, and watch people saunter by, as they do in Collioure, because many of the town's medieval streets are car-free, and this has the effect of slowing down the pace of life.

Of course the awful thing about getting settled in a lovely French restaurant is that you have to get back up again. Not least because we'd like some photos of this trip besides those of the food on our plates. And Collioure is located in the south-eastern corner of France, 26km from the Spanish border, and is known for having a beautiful bay. Apparently if we take a ride on a dinky train up a hill to Fort Saint-Elme, we will get a chance to enjoy a stunning view of the coast below.

It's a steep enough ride through vineyards to reach the medieval Fort Saint-Elme, which is an impressive military fort once used to protect Majorca's kings, whose summer residence was the castle of Collioure during the 13th Century. It's now a museum for medieval weapons, and inside we find a collection of swords, spears, maces, suits of armour and battle axes, all of which are eerily magnificent - though you can't help but feel sorry for anyone who found themselves on the receiving end of any of them.

This trip is well worth it, because Fort Saint-Elme offers a stunning panoramic view of the Bay of Collioure, and way down below us the shimmering blue sea laps onto what are pebbled beaches. Beyond the sea are the terracotta-tiled roofs of the town, including the landmark buildings; the Chateau Royal, once home to the Kings of Majorca, the old light tower, and the Eglise Notre-Dame des Anges, a beautiful church with a round bell tower which was used in the Middle Ages as a warning tower when enemies tried to invade.

We don't get the train back down to Collioure town, but instead we take a hike down a vertiginous dirt track through the vineyards, a wonderfully scenic trek, which leaves us feeling suspended between the sea and the sky. This feeling of being lost in nature is enhanced by the myriad of butterflies which flutter past us all the while, keeping us company.

France being famous for its wines, and seeing as we have just traversed bountiful vineyards, we decide to head to La Cave Fefe on rue de la Democratie, to enjoy some wines made from local grapes. Later on that evening we taste even more local wines at dinner in La Balette restaurant, a Michelin-star fine dining spot at the water's edge at Collioure's harbour. We enjoy octopus carpaccio, seared tuna steaks and red mullet.

We also have a Balette Cocktail to start, which is made from both almond and apricot liqueurs, and white wine, and is delicious. I'm tempted to make one for myself, but something tells me it won't taste quite the same in Dublin.

On day three of this short trip (I spent the first day in Perpignan), we go on a guided art tour of Collioure, through streets filled with the scent of jasmine and genet flowers. It was here, in 1905, that Matisse started the Fauvism movement, a time in his career when he relaxed his painting style, and began using dabs of bold colour to evoke stronger emotional responses to his work. Art critics of the time apparently thought he had lost his mind, but perhaps he was just under the spell of Collioure? We see reproductions of famous Fauvist works of art which have been hung on public walls in Collioure, often very close to the actual beauty spots which inspired them.

And, if Collioure inspired Matisse to revolutionise his painting, the painter also inspired the village to change its image. The one-time fishermen and soldiers' houses, which were all painted the same shade of lobster pink when Matisse arrived, are today painted in bold colours; yellows, oranges, blues, lavenders and hues of raspberry.

We lunch in Tapas La Treille, a tapas restaurant located in one of the tranquil and pretty back streets of Collioure, where we sit outdoors on high stools and have our food served on upstanding wine caskets. We enjoy a spread of charcuterie and cured meat, Spanish omelette, anchovies, tomato bread and chickpeas.

I travelled to Collioure by flying into Perpignan. It gave me a great opportunity to do a two-town visit in a matter of three days. I spent my first night in Perpignan, staying in the Campanile Hotel, which is very conveniently located within walking distance of the city centre. That night I ate in La Maison Rouge restaurant on rue Francois Rabelais, which I recommend for its chocolate souffle, which had a surprisingly intense pear syrup at its centre.

Perpignan's medieval city centre is a must for history buffs, and among its architectural highlights is Le Castillet, a 14th Century defensive structure built to repel invaders and which served as a city gate. There's also Perpignan's cathedral, also built in the 14th century, a relic of the Majorcan kings' occupancy.

Am I bewitched following this trip to France? Totally. Am I utterly charmed by Collioure? Beyond a doubt. Am I wondering when I can go back? Yes. Am I overdoing it a bit? Possibly, but I'm just back from the south of France, so cut me some slack.

Plus Collioure is the kind of place you feel happy talking about.

Getting there

Flights from Dublin to Perpignan with Aer Lingus: four flights a week in September; Tuesday/Thursday/ Saturday/ Sunday, and five flights a week in August; Tuesday/ Wednesday/ Thursday/ Saturday/ Sunday. Return fares start from €78.99.

3-star hotel La Casa Pairal hotel, a boutique hotel that was formerly the home of a 19th Century Catalan family, is situated in the heart of Collioure. La Balette is located at Hotel Relais des 3 Mas & Restaurant La Balette, Route de Port-Vendres, and the one-Michelin star restaurant offers a tasting menu for dinner, over six courses.

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