French fishing town borders on the sublime

The charming French fishing town of Collioure is just miles from Spain, and its culture and dining are influenced by both countries, writes Carolyn Moore.

I’m about to let you in on a little secret. I’ve discovered one of the world’s most beautiful holiday destinations, and it’s on the south-coast of France. I know what you’re thinking: ‘You don’t say!’ But it isn’t Cannes, or Nice or Marseille, or any of the usual suspects. It’s Collioure, a quiet little French-Catalan fishing town, on the border with Spain, and it is France’s best-kept secret.

You might think that depends on the kind of holiday you like, but having spent a few days here — eating, wine-tasting, gallery-hopping, soaking up the sun, and even taking to the sparkling Mediterranean waters on a kayak (you’d have to know me to appreciate just how improbable that last one is) — whatever floats your boat, you’ll find it here.

Located just 26km from the Spanish border, Collioure is firmly French, but it shares a common history and culture with its Catalan cousins, and the yellow-and-red Catalan flag is flown with evident pride. Small, colourful, impossibly picturesque, with a bustling hub and a charmingly laid-back vibe, the town has forged together a mish mash of cultural influences over the centuries. It is a proudly French-Catalan town sur-la-mer. It’s slower and less glitzy than its Riviera counterparts, so party animals need not apply, but it has the kind of relaxed pace that allows you to mould your time into the ideal break for you.

Maybe that’s a romantic getaway, wandering the cobbled streets hand-in-hand and enjoying copious ice cream and coffee pit-stops under creeping clematis vines at little rustic cafés? Or, maybe you prefer to anchor your days around an activity, like hiking into the surrounding hills and vineyards, snorkeling from the pebbled beach just steps away from the town square, or exploring the Côte Vermeille in a kayak?

Foodies will love it here. The fusion of Catalan and French cultures is most evident to the average visitor in the food and in the local wine; and if a little bit of culture is on the menu, you can visit the modern art museum, trace the path of Fauvism along the scenic harbour front, or visit one of the numerous, historical fortifications that loom over this medieval trading hub.

Once a busy port town, Collioure’s status as a trading hub began to decline in the 1500s, whereupon it retired into the comfortable, sleepy fishing village status it continues to enjoy today. Under French control since the 1600s, before the Catalans, it was variously in the hands of the Visigoths, the Counts of Roussillon, and the Kings of Majorca. With that much coming-and-going, it’s little wonder the town became so heavily fortified, as each subsequent occupier left their mark architecturally, whether it be the castles, towers, or the striking hill-top Fort St Elme.

Home to dozens of art galleries and a modern art museum, the town has captivated artists for hundreds of years, and it’s easy to see why. It even has its own signature colour scheme, ‘boiled lobster’, a peachy-pinky hue, set against pistachio green woodwork or pastel-painted shutters, so that the winding streets are like a cocktail of sorbets.

Having become a hub of artistic activity in the early 20th century, Collioure came to be known as the city of painters, and it continues to be a place of pilgrimage for paintbrush-toting artists. The ridiculously phallic church tower on the harbour is one of the most painted buildings in France.

Henri Matisse said: “In the whole of France, there is no sky as blue as the one above Collioure,” and he should know, as it was here that his artistic exploration gave birth to Fauvism. Sadly, there are no original Fauvist works on show in the town, but dozens of reproductions of the works of Matisse and André Derain punctuate the ‘Path of Fauvism’, an outdoor tour of the town’s most painted vistas and buildings.

Mounted exactly where the fathers of Fauvism painted the originals, the reproductions make for a fascinating compare-and-contrast between Collioure then and now; and they really serve to highlight just how little has changed since Matisse turned his eye to these vistas over 100 years ago.

The best time to do the tour is early evening, when the unique quality of the light makes clear why it continues to captivate artists. While the brightly coloured fishing boats in the harbour might now be more for show than anything, the hills enclosing the little port are virtually unchanged, with the imposing tower and castle still looming over the harbour, watched over by Fort St. Elme on high.

Taking a wander up those hills is well worth the effort. Energetic types can hike it in an hour, but, for a more leisurely experience, take the gravity-defying tourist train from the town square. Called The Little Tourist Train, it might be more aptly named The Little Engine that Could, as it’s a miracle of modern physics that it can drag four carriages of anchovy-filled tourists up those steep slopes. As the cobbled streets give way to dirt tracks through lemon groves and vineyards, the full expanse of the glittering Med opens out in front you and it genuinely is breathtaking.

At the top, a history-focused tour of Fort St. Elme passes an interesting hour, and the view from the castellated tower is sensational.

Afterwards, enjoy a lunch at one of the town’s many tapas bars, the best of which is the small, but wonderfully authentic Casa Gala, where Iberian hams and melt-in-your-mouth anchovies are served up alongside squid and garlic-infused escargot.

They’ll recommend wine by the glass to savour with each delicacy, or serve up a refreshing pitcher of white wine sangria to get you through a leisurely lunch. Whatever your feelings about anchovies (I thought I hated them), park them at the door (I ended up eating nothing but for the duration of my stay!). They’ve been the local speciality for hundreds of years, and are still fished and preserved close to the harbour.

At their most delicious simply preserved in vinegar and eaten fresh, they just melt in the mouth. In his book, Salt, Mark Kurlansky described them as the best in the world, and I’m not about to argue.

They’re celebrated with an annual anchovy festival each June, when every restaurant in town makes a point to serve them up in new and unusual ways.

The nearly city of Perpignan is the gateway to this largely undiscovered part of France, and with Aer Lingus now doing summer flights from Dublin to Perpignan, it’s opened up the region for Irish tourists, and Collioure, in particular — just 30 minutes from Perpignan — is a gem of a destination just waiting to be discovered.

- Aer Lingus offers four flights per week from Dublin to Perpignan during the summer, with prices for 2018 starting at €69.99 one-way.

- Alternatively, Carcassonne airport is 90 minutes away, while Girona airport is just over an hour away.

GETTING THERE

Where to stay:

Nestled into a hillside just a short stroll from the town centre, the Hotel Madeloc (from €75 per night) offers peace and quiet, with spacious rooms that each has balconies or terraces overlooking the surrounding mountains. The pool is a treat, and the views from the outdoor hot tub are pretty spectacular. See madeloc.com.

Where to eat:

It should come as no surprise that an historic fishing town on the Mediterranean has no shortage of great seafood, but the strong Catalan influences means along with Collioure’s famous anchovies, Spanish style cured meats and Iberian hams also abound.

As with most towns with a strong culture of meat eating, vegetarian dining is tricky, but not impossible.

For lunch or an informal dinner, try La Casa Gala Tapas Bar, 18 Rue de la Fraternité. Tucked down an impossibly pretty laneway, this tiny but charming spot serves classic Catalan tapas with a distinctly French twist, but seating is limited so booking is advisable.

For dinner, splash out on some great seafood in Le Neptune, 9 Route de Port-Vendres. The five course set menu is good value at €59, but it’s the views that set this place apart, and dining while watching the sun set over one of the most painted landscapes in the world is simply priceless.

What to do:

Take advantage of the town’s genuine seaside location with wonderful snorkeling just yards from the town square, or for something more leisurely take a cruise or a pedal boat. The best way to experience the sparkling waters of the Med is bobbing gently along on a kayak tour of the caves and coves of this beautiful coastline.

All levels are welcome on Kayak de Mer’s tours, starting in nearby Banyuls-sur-mer.

Lessons, sunrise and sunset experiences are available, or spend a half day on the sea, with snorkeling, for €30. See kayakmer.net.

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