In the whole of France, there is no sky as blue as the one above Collioure. I just have to open the shutters of my room and I have all the colours of the Mediterranean before me." - Henri Matisse
Right down near the Spanish border on France’s Mediterranean coast, and just half an hour’s drive from Perpignan airport, is a gorgeous little French town by the name of Collioure.
This is the place where Matisse and Derain were inspired to launch an entire art movement, where Picasso spent many happy weeks, a place so beloved by artists for its beauty and colour and light that its nickname to this day is the ‘City of Painters’.
So the first thing you need to know is that it’s picture perfect - as endorsed by some of the most famous artists of all time, but also - much more importantly - by me. I spent three days wandering its colourful alleyways, hiking its hills and gazing out along its sparkling shores, and while I don’t have the skills to paint it for you, I can tell you that it is genuinely enchanting.
It's an "I want to move here and write a book" kind of enchanting. I suppose this is a similar kind of enchantment that Matisse and his talented contemporaries had, when they went there back in the early 1900s. It still has that same mojo today.
There are a lot of things to do in Collioure that make it an incredible holiday destination, whether you want a long weekend break or a full-on family summer holiday. Here are just a few options…
Collioure’s shores are blessed with a few beautiful beaches and small coves that do get busy in the summer months, but that are always a pleasure to lie out on. The sea here is clear and clean; cool enough to bring refreshment on a hot summer’s day… but warm enough so that you can actually enjoy getting in and having a splash around.
Collioure’s main beach, Boramar, is a nice little beach (though not a sand one) and is particulary suitable for kids - the sheltered bay means very calm waters, and in summer time there is a lifeguard stationed on the beach. It does get rather crowded in the summer months though, so if you want a quieter spot you’ll have to venture a little further afield, but don't worry, not too far. In fact you'll find one within just a few minutes' walk of Collioure – towards Port Vendres I found a lovely little sandy cove called Plage de l'Oli that stayed blissfully quiet for most of the day.
Like very many places in France, Collioure is a great place to eat - and a great place to eat seafood in particular. You can hardly move without bumping into a great restaurant, and in amongst all the lovely gift and craft shops and boutiques you’ll find artisanal bakers, charcuteries, gelato shops, gourmet food stores, and of course - anchovy stores. One of the biggest businesses here in medieval times was the salt-curing of anchovies, and although only two anchovy salting families remain, the little fish are still a major flavour of the town. In addition to being able to buy tins of the things in the gourmet stores, you’ll find them on menus in most of the restaurants in Collioure. They come prepared in different ways, some salted and some plain, and packed in either olive oil and brine, so taste them all and figure out what you like.
The best ones I had – in fact, the best food I had in Collioure – was in Casa Gala, a wonderful little tapas restaurant tucked away in one of the town’s quieter side streets. The guys running this place love what they do and have serious passion for the food and wine they serve, you can tell by everything from the superb quality of the food and great wine menu, right down to the décor and service, and it’s a lovely little reminder that while you are in France… you’re in Catalonia too. If you're in Collioure, book a table here.
Collioure is a very beautiful town, and it’s really worth your while going high up into the hills that surround it to really appreciate that beauty. The Petit Train is a perfect way to do this (especially if it's too hot to hike). The train runs from the Chateau Royale car park in Collioure, right up onto the hills overlooking the town, through the vineyards and mountains (stopping at St Elme’s fort for a great photo opportunity), and back down to the sea in the neighbouring town Port Vendres.
It’s a very charming way to see the Collioure from a superb vantage point, and if you’re trying to get to Port Vendres it’s a lovely way to get there. There is English commentary available on board, with headphones available for commentary in other languages. and a return ticket costs just €8. If you want to stay at the fort or in Port Vendres to explore for a while, and then catch another train back, you’re free to do so but be aware that a spot on another train isn’t guaranteed!
This sort of goes without saying because this kind of is Collioure, and not just one of the things to do in Collioure. Still, I want to emphasise just how gorgeous these little streets are, and how lovely the shops are that line them. You simply don’t get this kind of shopping in big cities – this is the sole preserve of adorable little seaside towns like Collioure. Colourful little buildings tumble over each other and you can really lose yourself (and your savings) buying gorgeous artwork, crafts, handmade home décor, artisanal produce and unique clothing that you just won’t find anywhere else. The place would turn anyone into an artist.
Collioure wine is from the same AOC (protected designated wine area) as the better known Banyuls wines. Wines labelled ‘Banyuls’ are the sweet dessert ones, while Collioure is table wine, must usually red, and known for being robust, intensely ripe and a little spicy… a red wine for red wine lovers. You can visit wineries in the area to get a closer look at production and do a little tasting, but if you’re in Collioure on a Thursday afternoon, head to the Cellier Dominicain for a cellar tour and tasting. It’s an interesting tour and a good place to stock up on a few bottles to take home with you.
Whatever else you do, make sure to find a nice bar or restaurant terrace and while away at least one evening sipping the local produce while the mediterranean hynotises you. It'll be one of those memorable ones, I promise.
- Dee Murray