IT'S ONLY a few minutes from the Spanish border, but it doesn't strike you as a frontier village. In fact, it reinforces its Frenchness, gives itself a last shot of pure Gallicism before the language, colour, scenery and ambiance changes a couple
IT'S ONLY a few minutes from the Spanish border, but it doesn't strike you as a frontier village. In fact, it reinforces its Frenchness, gives itself a last shot of pure Gallicism before the language, colour, scenery and ambiance changes a couple of headlands further south. This is Collioure, and I expect the guide books refer to it as The Pearl of the Vermilion Coast, although they ought perhaps to describe it as the ruby or the sapphire, as the colours are mostly vivid reds and blues.
It's a gem in anyone's book, certainly in ours. We come back often, although mainly out-of-season to avoid the crowds drawn in summer to the seriously picturesque twin-harboured little fishing port cradled in a steep-to bay where the final eastern flourish of the Pyrenees, a range of pointed, castle-crowned peaks called Les Albères, plunges into the Mediterranean and creates a coastline of scalloped headlands and bays that become, further south, the Spanish Costa Brava, the Wild Coast. It looks as if Collioure has been washed ashore, and that what you're seeing from the corniche road above is Mediterranean flotsam and jetsam that has taken root and has grown into the delectable little port you wish you were the first to discover. And keep it a secret.
The secret's out now, though, and you can't really grumble about the pedigree of the people who let the cat out of the bag: Matisse, Derain, Braque and others, who came again and again to Collioure to explore the gorgeous interplay of sunlight with sea, ochre roofs, colour-washed and balconied walls, fishing boats with triangular lateen sails, nets of glistening anchovies and the famous stone lighthouse at the old port entrance, now the church bell-tower, with its resident seagull perched on the rose-pink dome. There's a painting trail you can follow, with reproductions at the points where the artists set up their easels.
Picasso, too, is supposed to have come to Collioure, although I can't find chapter and verse for it. (Can any reader help with this?) He was too people-oriented for the seriously picturesque to mean very much to him, although he would have been quick to see, with those mesmeric dark eyes of his, the strange anomaly posed by the three Collioure military establishments: Fort Miramar guarding the village to the north, Fort St Elme to the south, and on the promontory between the two harbours the Château Royal, brooding but impressive – and operational: as we walked along the seashore beneath its massive ramparts, a squad of naval commandos roared off in an inflatable and disappeared round the headland. Si pacem vis, bellum para, as the Roman strategist Vegetius wrote. If you want peace, prepare for war.
Here, enough of this long-haired stuff, as an American friend says when I start cracking on like this. Let's move on, fast. From bellum to belly, in fact. Much more interesting.
WE ATE at Le San Vicens, comfortably warm in winter sunshine, under the still leafless plane trees a few metres back from the water's edge: I don't think there's much point in going somewhere special if you don't crystallise the experience with a meal, preferably a long, lingering lunch. San Vicens is Saint Vincent – a rocky islet just beyond the harbour, round which the commandos roared - in Catalan, and the Catalan influence is strong, in language as in cuisine. Also crystallising the experience that day was Michael Winner, film producer and food writer, perhaps the only man ever to wear a blazer at Collioure.
Was he eating the famous Collioure anchovies too? We were hidden from each other's view by one of the famous plane trees that shade the myriad summer tourists, so I can't tell you. Maybe like Josephine and me he moved on to the Catalan-inspired and calamars a la plancha, seared slices of young squid. Mmm, délicieux.
At home the next day we were surprised to find a French television crew had been in Collioure to record an item about sunny spots in winter for the 1 o'clock news. It was all there, the sparkling sea, the bell tower, the brightly-painted boats drawn up on the beach, the terrasse of Le San Vicen, the waiter who served us, even two little girls who'd dared the water, which was more than we did. No blazered Michael Winner, though. He might have been behind the scenes directing the film crew, of course.
IN THE course of a happy weekend savouring Catalan seafood, we came across garouinas. Oursins in French, they're sea urchins, the spiky fellows that lurk on submerged rocks and send you running for the nearest beach gear shop for your jellies or flip-flops. Alan Davidson, the Grand Master of seafood writers, tells the unappealing story of a Frenchman who trod on one and was still removing fragments of spike as they emerged from his foot twelve years later.
Garouinas, fresh from the sea and uncooked, appear halved in a big dish with a tiny spoon, like a mustard spoon: on the underside of each urchin, which you handle as carefully as you would a chestnut husk, there are five small coral-pink ridges which you scrape off with your spoon and dab on a piece of bread, maybe with a dash of lemon. There isn't much to them: you need at least a dozen to give you a sense of having eaten anything at all. But the taste is the very essence of seaside: sun, breeze, spray, salt, ozone, the tang of seaweed and brine-washed shingle. Only oysters have the edge.
But just think: somewhere, sometime in the recesses of time some beachcomber must have wrenched one of these things off its rock, smashed it open, scraped off the little pink ridges – the ovaries, in fact - with a salty fingernail and capered off home to his cave with the good news. I'm sure I'm not the first to remark that no matter how unusual or grotesque the life-form, someone, somewhere will have devised a means of eating it.