The Côte Vermeille (Vermilion Coast) is the southernmost corner of France, its last stretch of Mediterranean coastline before the Spanish border. It’s where the rugged, vineyard-covered foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains tumble into the sea. And where Collioure, the sundrenched fishing village clustered around its massive medieval fortress rising from aquamarine waters, wears its history on its sleeve.
It seems that since antiquity, every new wave of civilization to come upon its shores has wanted to settle there. This rich and often bellicose past has endowed Collioure with a spectacular architectural heritage and a unique culture that reflects the traditions of its successive invaders.
First came the Celts, in the sixth century B.C., who settled the area now known at the Roussillon, then the great ancient sea traders, the Phoenicians. They sailed into this quiet inlet and declared it ideal for a trading port. In return, they introduced wine-growing to its rocky hillsides, the ancestors of the strong sweet Vins de Collioure we enjoy today.
The Romans came in 120 B.C., followed by the Visigoths some six centuries later, then the Moors, once they conquered the Iberian Peninsula. It was finally Charlemagne who decisively tossed the latter back behind the Pyrenees in 811. He asserted his authority over the Roussillon region, which he set up as a buffer territory against future Moorish ambitions. He also established the feudal system of government that would three centuries later deliver the area to Spain. And sow the seeds of the Catalan culture that flourishes to this day.
Fast forward through three centuries of frequent border conflicts between Spain and France. By the twelfth century, Collioure has acquired a fortified enclave in the center of the harbor, to protect its small seaside castle and dungeon. When in 1172, the last Count of Roussillon bequeaths his domain to his ally Alfonso II, King of Aragon and Count of Barcelona, Collioure becomes a royal residence. The new ruler invites Knight Templars back from crusading in the Holly Land to build their own castle within the protective walls. This is the beginning of the mighty Château Royal.
The tug-of-war for control the region continues with each successive dynasty. Collioure gains in strategic importance. The Kings of Majorca expend the castle. Then the Spanish Hapsburgs, Charles V and his son Philip II, turn it into a modern fortress capable to withstand sixteenth century advances in artillery. This doesn’t prevent the French to capture it one century later and hang on to it for good this time. Whereupon Vauban, the foremost French military architect of all times, reinforces the castle once more, into the colossal citadel rising from the sea that we now know.
Notre Dame des Anges
Another iconic landmark of the waterfront influenced by Vauban is the village church, Our Lady of the Angels. It is built in 1684 at the far end of the beach after the original one is torn down to accommodate the expansion of the fortress. It is located on a strip of land already occupied by a tall beacon tower that guides ships into the harbor with smoke by day and fire by night.
The interior of the church is in the Southern French Gothic design with a single nave surrounded by multiple altars of lavishly gold-leafed wood. The tower is now connected to the church and serves double duty as its steeple. By the nineteenth century, its services as a beacon non longer needed, the steeple is capped with a Tuscan-style dome (that has the unintended effect of giving it a rather phallic appearance).
The Birth of Fauvism
The summer of 1905 marks a turning point in the artistic life of Collioure. It is customary then, once the Paris spring exhibition season is over, for artists to work on the Côte d’Azure for the summer. That year, however, thirty-five-year-old father of three Henri Matisse, still an emerging artist full of creative uncertainties and short on cash, transports his family to the modest fishing village where his sister-in-law lives. Dazzled by the luminosity of the vivid Mediterranean scenery, Matisse summons his friend André Derain to join him. In one manic summer, they unleash the new, simplistic vision of a style based on the bold use of primary colors that earns them the moniker of Les Fauves (the Wild Beasts).
Others will follow, among them Braque, Chagall and Dufy, drawn by the now famous interplay of scorching sunlight on terra cotta roofs and aquamarine sea. But it’s the two pioneers that the city adopts as its own with the Chemin du Fauvisme (Fauvist Trail). The mapped walk through the old town is punctuated by 19 reproductions of their famous works, right on the spot where they were painted.
The Catalan Soul
The magic of Collioure goes far beyond its dramatic backdrop of medieval architecture and artistic landmarks. I find it in the maze of bougainvillea-filled alleyways lined with pastel-washed houses of the old town. It’s on the three small beaches right in the center of town, scalloped around the church and the castle. And in the brightly painted barques Catalanes moored at the quay. They may be museum pieces these days, their single triangular lateen sail raised only on holidays to give visitors a tour around the bay, but they are a reminder that for all its warring history the village is above all a Catalan fishing port.
This rich Catalan tradition permeates everyday life. It’s in the yellow and red flags that flap in the sea breeze. I taste it in the food, the sardines and squid grilled à la planxa and the generous assortments of tapas where the famed Collioure anchovies (still locally fished and hand-processed as they have been for centuries) always find a place of honor. I hear it under gnarled plane trees of the Place du General Leclerc, on market days in the lilting accent of the local farmers and artisans who sell their products there. And I feel it most of all when on summer Saturdays and holidays the music of the cobla (traditional Catalonian wind and brass music ensemble) fills the square and espadrille-footed dancers gather in circles for the Sardana.
Good to Know
- Getting there – The closest TGV (Express train) station is in Perpignan, located 25 kilometers (16 miles) north of Collioure. There are several trains a day from Paris (5 hours’ ride) and Barcelona (90 minutes). From there a local train follows the coastline to the deliciously retro train station in the center of the village (30 minutes). There is also small airport in Perpignan that accommodates daily local flights from Paris, London, Brussels and Madrid.
- Getting around – Within the historic village, walking is definitely the way to go. But for a tour of the vineyards, a close-up view of the mountain-top Fort St-Elme and a glorious bird-eye perspective of the bay, the Petit Train Touristique is the local version of an open-top tourist bus.
- Where to Stay – With tourism now the main industry of Collioure, Bed and Breakfast have become a primary local activity, offering accommodations to suit all tastes and budgets. For a great view of the old town, there are also two hotels wedged into the hills on the south side of the bay, the four-star Hôtel Relais des Trois Mas. relaisdestroismas.com. Tel +33 (0) 4 68 82 05 07, is notable for its direct access to the farthest of the Collioure beaches and its own plunge pool with a view. A bit higher on the hill, the two-star Hôtel Les Caranques. www.les-caranques.com. Tel: +33 (0) 4 68 82 06 68, offers simpler accommodations, but equally spectacular views.
- What to do – Head for the Collioure Tourist Office, 18 Place du 18 Juin. http://www.collioure.com/en/. Tel: +33 (4) 68 82 15 47. It’s a few steps away from the castle. They dole out all necessary maps and directions to all the points of interest, including the map of the Fauvist Trail, and the schedule for the Sardane dances.
- Visiting – The Château Royal is open every day from 9:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. during July and August and 9:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. in June and September and 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. the remainder of the year. It is a fine exemple of medieval architecture and the dungeon and ramparts offer a spectacular view of the village and the coastline. It also hosts temporary art exhibits and occasional scheduled concerts in its courtyards . There are no provisions for mobility-impaired visitors. Notre Dame des Anges is open daily from 9:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. Drop one Euro in the box on the side of the altar to turn on the lights and appreciate its gilded altars in all their glory .
- Touring – Petit train touristique – petit-train-touristique.com. Tel: +33 (0) 4 68 98 02 06. The 45 minute round trip itinerary runs several times daily from April to November. Tickets may be purchased at the staring point, in front of the castle.
- Wine Tasting – Cellier des Dominicains, Place Orphila, dominicain.com. Tel: +33 (0) 4 68 82 05 63. Located in the church of a former fourteenth century Dominican monastery, the cellar is open for a visit, an introduction to local wine-making in Collioure and Banyuls, followed by a tasting, every Thursday at 4:00 P.M. from June to September. There is a nominal entry fee.