Monday 19 August 2019

Languedoc-Roussillon: Where the wild beasts grew...

Madeline Keane takes a trip to a very special corner of southwest France...

Collioure harbour
Collioure harbour
'View of Collioure' (1905) by Matisse, hangs in the Hermitage, St Peterburg
Madeleine outside Mas des Citronniers in Collioure

Madeleine Keane

That being in Collioure feels like being in a painting seems utterly apt. After all, this exquisite seaside spot is the birthplace of Fauvism, the art movement credited to the great Matisse.

We're visiting the small fishing port in early June and, unbelievably, in this idyllic place where the sun shines 300 days a year, it is pouring with rain. But no matter. With its gently curving bay, old fishing boats, painted houses, medieval castle and pink-domed bell tower, it is incomparably beautiful. Little wonder that some of the finest artists of the 20th Century found inspiration here.

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We're in Languedoc-Roussillon, a special corner of southeast France, home to magical places such as Carcassonne, Nimes and the Cevennes. I've heard it called the thinking man's French Riviera. My late mother once had a house near Pezenas, where the playwright Moliere lived and wrote, so I was lucky enough to spend many a summer here.

Hot off a dawn flight, we arrive in the elegant city of Perpignan and where else do you bring a bunch of Irish journalists for their mid-morning coffee break? We're off to Domaine Lafage. This impressive winery, tucked 'twixt the snow-capped Pyrenees and the cerulean dazzle of the Mediterranean, is the work of seven generations.

Current owners Jean-Marc and Eliane trained as winemakers and have travelled as far afield as Chile, New Zealand and South Africa seeking innovations in viticulture. And the technology is astounding: I've seen a few cellars in my time but none as impressive as this. Giant cylindrical vats house the precious nectar while massive tanks transport the grapes so they don't get shaken. There's poetry here too. The notes accompanying one of the (several) delectable Grenaches we sample read, "these ancient vines grow on terraces of round pebbles where the rivers that descend from the Pyrenees used to wash into the sea".

Back in town, after a typically Gallic steak frites lunch at Cafe Vienne, we are given a guided tour around the winding streets of the old town, visit Musee Rigaud - recently renovated, an exhibition of Rodin's sculptures is just about to open here - and the Palace of the Kings of Majorca. This vast monolith, perched on a high citadel surrounded by Vauban's ramparts, is simultaneously moving and majestic. Dinner at Restaurant Le Figuier (superb rillette de porc and filet mignon) is, as they say in these parts, vaut le detour.

'View of Collioure' (1905) by Matisse, hangs in the Hermitage, St Peterburg
'View of Collioure' (1905) by Matisse, hangs in the Hermitage, St Peterburg

Next morning, we're off to Collioure. An easy half-hour drive away, we go by car but the bus will take you there for the outrageous sum of €1. Mas des Citronniers, our delightfully old-fashioned hotel, is a two-minute walk from the harbour. The cinematic quality of the town is evident at every hand's turn: a bunch of commandos (they have a base here high above the port), Bond-like in their black wetsuits, strut to the harbour for deep-sea diving sessions.

A promenade of the winding streets take us past pastel-hued homes framed with flowers, art galleries and workshops, bars and cafes. Make sure to drop into the most famous of these: Les Templiers, where the walls of the bar are plastered with paintings. Chagall, Dali and others left art works as tokens of their friendship here, but when seven Picassos were stolen in the 1980s, the originals had to be put under lock and key.

A tour of Notre Dame des Anges is a must if only to gaze in awe at its ornate altar. Unfortunately time doesn't allow for a visit to the 800-year-old Chateau Royal, We lunch on the beach at Derriere le Clocher, a new bistro where we tuck into excellent fideua - basically paella with noodles. Traditional to Catalonia, with its outsize langoustines, it translates just as well up the road here in France. It's interesting to savour the strong Catalan influence. Collioure is located on the Cote Vermeille which stretches from Argeles-sur-Mer to the border village of Cerbere, so we're only 25km from Spain, not far from Cadaques where Dali composed his surreal canvases.

A circuit in the town's little train, takes us past the stepped vineyards up to Fort St Elme, the military fortress dominating the skyline and back via the lively village of Port-Vendres, ending up at Maison Roque, a traditional anchovy-salting site. You need to like anchovies to appreciate the pungent piscatory aroma, while observing the women who expertly clean and fillet thousands of the tiny salty fish every day.

Another town, another tasting. In contrast, today's is distinctly old-world. Cellier Dominicain, as its name suggests, was once a church of the Dominican monastery. After the French Revolution, the building became the property of the state, and was used as an artillery depot. In 1926, the cooperative growers of Collioure bought it and started producing wine within these historic walls. So nuns, guns and vin rouge - how very French.

However, it is art that is at the heart of Collioure. Henri Matisse and his friend Andre Derain, worked together here, bringing vibrant flushes of colour and vivid brushstrokes into their paintings in the summer of 1905. When their pictures were exhibited later that year at the Salon d'Automne in Paris, the art critic Louis Vauxcelles called them fauves ("wild beasts") and thus the movement known as Fauvism was born. Writers were drawn too. Patrick O'Brian (who wrote the sea novels starting with Master and Commander) lived and is buried here, as is the poet Antonio Machado who fled to Collioure after the Spanish Civil War broke out.

Before we leave, the next morning I wander down to the beach. It is only 7.30am so the town is somnolent still, though there's some activity as market holders unpack their vans.

The sun is blazing, bathing the cobalt bay in a rosy pink light. Happily for this francophile, it's a French summer - I'm Paris-bound for the month of August. I feel certain, one of those weekends, I'll take a TGV to transport me back to these sunlit hills and dappled waters where the wild beasts grew.

Getting there

Madeleine outside Mas des Citronniers in Collioure

* Perpignan (€45 per person sharing per night with breakfast)

Three nights' B&B in hotel Campanile Perpignan Centre costs from €135 per person sharing.

* Collioure (€59.50 per person sharing per night with breakfast)

Three nights' B&B in hotel Mas des Citronniers costs from €178.50 per person sharing.

* Aer Lingus operates up to five flights weekly from Dublin to Perpignan. Fares cost from €59.99 one-way, including taxes and charges.

* Bus from Perpignan to Collioure: 45 minutes, €1

NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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