It’s exactly a hundred years since Matisse first arrived in the Spring of 1905 to discover the landscape and light of Catalonia. Ever since, a host of painters has descended on this region of Europe, once an independent country, that sprawls across the French-Spanish border where the Pyrenees tumble into the Mediterranean. The small towns of Collioure and Céret in France, and Cadaquès in Spain, are especially proud of their artistic past and present. These places inspired not only Matisse but also Picasso, Dali, Chagall, Braque, Derain, Dufy and many other painters. So they ought to make attractive and interesting destinations in their own right for the more mundane sort of tourist like me. Visitors don’t just come for the galleries.
Each town is situated in a Pyrenean landscape of olive- and vine-clad hillsides set against the more distant snow-covered peaks. The winding roads reveal a number of fortified towns and castles among rugged mountains and green valleys. Perpignan, Girona and Barcelona provide lively city life. If your mood is relaxed, it can be difficult to leave the sandy beaches lapped by the gentle Mediterranean sea. Days without sun are rare on the coast, and the heat is tempered by sea breezes.
But it's now November and, despite the sunshine, the dry, cold Tramontane wind is blowing hard off the mountains where the first snow has appeared. Susan is regretting that she has not packed her thermal underwear. It seems unlikely she will be sunbathing on the beach during her short visit, so we decide to explore the local artistic connections in more depth. At least it will be warm in the galleries.
Collioure is probably the best known of the three towns outside the region, and it is certainly the most painted. Tourist office publicity quotes Matisse as saying that "Nowhere is the sea as blue as in Collioure." (Or he might have said, "Nowhere is the sky as blue as in Collioure," depending which brochure you read. I suppose it depends if they're selling the sea or the weather.)
The town is in Roussillon, or French Catalonia, a short train ride from Perpignan and about twenty kilometres north of the Spanish border. French is the main language in use, but we hear Catalan spoken on a regular basis. The small harbour is dominated by a Knights Templar castle, dating originally from the fourteenth century, and a famous and much-painted bell tower. A few boats still fish for anchovies and some brightly-painted traditional sailing barques are moored by the harbour wall among the more familiar holiday yachts.
Painters at their easels crowd round the harbour and Collioure’s other bay, the palm-edged Boramar beach.The artists vie for position with the tables and chairs of the many cafés and restaurants. There is something special about the light: colours are sharp and luminous and the bell tower seems to float between sea and sky. At sunset the horizon always glows pink. Hence the name Côte Vermeille or Vermillion Coast, given to this stretch of coastline. But nothing is certain here: some claim the name originates from the pink rock found along the coast.
With Matisse’s visits, Collioure became a Mecca for the Fauvist school of art. Reproductions of pictures punctuate an 'artists’ walk' around the town, indicating where they were originally painted. In the town centre, the Hôtel des Templiers is not only a popular local bar but also the most interesting art gallery. The walls are covered with paintings, many of which have been donated over the years by artists working in Collioure. If you stay in one of the hotel rooms, you will find the pictures continue up the stairs and along the corridors.
The town gallery occupies an elegant eighteenth century building surrounded by olive trees. It exhibits either a small 'permanent' collection of modern art or a temporary exhibition by the town’s most recent artist-in-residence, Patrick Jude. His accessible work is not only good to look at but makes me laugh with its wry visual jokes on the state of the world. For me, this collection goes some way towards retrieving Collioure’s artistic reputation from the many mediocre commercial galleries.
The Hôtel des Templiers also boasts one of many excellent restaurants which provide meals at a languid pace and with the serious attention to the food that you expect in the South of France. A favourite dish is locally-caught fresh anchovies served with roasted red peppers. At the weekends, French and Spanish families descend on the restaurants with a harbour view, and even in November they sit outside, well wrapped up, devouring huge plates of seafood accompanied by small glasses of the punchy local Banyuls wine. An evening in a bar with a Dutch artist reminds us that even the painters don’t just come here for the light.
Céret nestles in the French Pyrenees thirty minutes drive from Perpignan. As a small mountain town with medieval walls and a 'devil’s bridge', complete with legendary curse, it has a quite different atmosphere from Collioure. Huge, ancient plane trees in the streets and the squares fill the town with a musical rustling on a windy day. Its mountain setting and beautifully proportioned houses in warm, pale yellow stone attracted Picasso and Chagall, whose work, among those of a wide variety of less well-known but impressive artists, can be seen at Céret’s purpose-built Museum of Modern Art. This large and varied collection, displayed in cool, spacious rooms, was founded by artist Pierre Brune in 1950, and has been carefully nurtured and expanded ever since.
Céret has fewer tourist shops than Collioure and therefore a more authentic feel, as well as being a centre of local activity in this mountainous region. It is renowned for its cherries as well as its artists. For centuries the town has been a haven for those fleeing authority, most recently after the student revolts of 1968. Some indications of this history remain, with a number of New Age-style shops and elderly hippies in evidence.
The drive from Roses to Cadaquès, on the coast of Spanish Catalonia, is just over an hour from Perpignan if you take the motorway south and turn left at Figueres. Even if, like me, you don’t rate Salvador Dali as a painter, it’s worth stopping at Figueres to look around the extraordinary museum he designed to house the collection of his own work. Maybe he should have concentrated less on surrealist art and self-publicity and more on architecture.
The wind is still blowing fiercely as we leave the motorway. The spectacular drive takes us first across plain and wetlands, with the snow-clad mountains in the distance, and then twists through a jumble of hills and random rock formations before dipping to the coast.
Cadaquès in November is more closed down and shabbier than its French neighbours, but is no less atmospheric with steep cobbled streets and dazzling white buildings leading down to a symmetric sheltered bay and natural harbour. There are few boats, but in summer the harbour is full of yachts, bringing the hotels and restaurants to life, and we pass some grand modern houses on the coastal road climbing out of town. Catalan is the main language in use, although Susan’s Castilian Spanish is understood everywhere and greeted with delight.
As in Collioure, the spectacular position between mountains and sea makes every view a picture worth painting or photographing. The small Art Museum displays a variety of works by, and about, Salvador Dali, who lived nearly in Port Lligat. That time was Cadaquès’ heyday as a destination for artists. On this clear but chilly Monday, at the lowest point of the low season, we find only one tiny restaurant on the harbour that is open at lunchtime. It is packed but they squeeze us in and we are served the best paella I've ever tasted.
I should also mention Port Vendres, a busy, working, deep-water port and active fishing harbour only four kilometres from Collioure. Port Vendres has its own artistic links to Scottish designer, architect and painter Charles Rennie MacIntosh, who came here from my home town, Glasgow, in the 1920s. I feel that he, unlike Dali, should have concentrated less on architecture and more on painting; some of his most appealing works are views of Port Vendres. A travelling MacIntosh exhibition sometimes visits the town, but there appears to be no permanent record of his presence. The port could perhaps take a lesson from its neighbours in this beautiful region of Catalonia for it seems that unearthing, exhibiting and exploiting the artistic past is big business in the tourist industry. But perhaps it prefers to retain it own character and remain a more discrete working town.
This is a region to which I truly pay homage, for whether you seek beauty in the scenery or in the art, here is a region that can truly deliver both - often in the same helping.