Driving from the French region of Languedoc to Spain’s Catalonia, you cover more than just miles. Dropping down into the town of Collioure from the heights that separate it from the city of Perpignan and the rocky, inland foothills of the Pyrenees, it is apparent what made it so attractive to a painter like Henri Matisse. Splashes of colour are everywhere among the pink buildings, including the garish get-ups of tourists who were probably not in evidence in Matisse’s day. But it is the blue Mediterranean that dominates the town, and its soft edges begin to frame themselves into a painting before your very eyes.
The Côte Vermeille is the stretch of wild French coast that leads to French
Catalonia and Spain, and where the Fauvists (translation: wild beasts), led by
Matisse, sprung into vivid life for a brief time between Post-Impressionism and
the avant-garde art movements of the 20th Century. Beginning in
1905, Matisse and his family spent summers in Collioure. He took colour to a
new level, using it to create form and line with exaggerated, bold brushstrokes.
Some of Matisse’s famous paintings of the period, such as The Open Window and The
Roofs of Collioure use vivid colour to express the heat and movement he
saw. Other painters like Pablo Picasso and Andre Derain followed him to
Collioure, and the town’s Museum of
Modern Art houses a small permanent collection that includes a Picasso and
other Fauvist works. Another way to appreciate their work is on the Le Chemin
du Fauvisme, a path through and above the town where 20 replicas of Matisse and
Derain are placed in the same spots the artists painted them. Your first stop should
be on the lively harbour where the two town beaches, bracketed between the
Templar fortress and the Church of Notre-Dame-des-Anges, provide a view of the
hillside town and the boats at sea.
The road out of town winds around the rocky coastline. Hairpin turns
snake like isobars on a geologic survey through terraced vineyards that produce
the local vintages, like the sweet dessert wine, Banyuls.
The descent into Banyuls-sur-Mer is welcome, with its square harbour front
and lively beach. Banyuls is home to the Musee
Maillol, where the works of sculptor Aristide Maillol, a contemporary of Paul
Gauguin, are on display along with those of Marcel Duchamp and Picasso. If you
have had enough art for the moment, the area’s Marine Reserve means the underwater
flora and fauna here is a snorkeler’s paradise, crystal clear (as it is all the
way along the rocky coast to Cadaques). The Aquarium de Banyuls/Mer showcases
the diverse sea life in the Mediterranean.
The last town before the Spanish border, Cerbere, feels more Catalonian
and less French, with a smaller quai-side than Banyuls and a boat-clogged harbour
framed by the Pyrenees. You might be tempted to stretch your legs here, but
hold out for the next stop: Port Bou, Spain.
The road reaches its highest point as it goes past the abandoned border
crossing into Spain, and you descend again into a small Mediterranean town. This
time it is Port Bou, where the pink terracotta buildings have been replaced by
gleaming white ones. Stop for a late lunch or pick-me-up and perhaps a dip in
the sea. There are two sand beaches, one directly on the town frontage and the
other, a little cove tucked under a towering cliff, reached by a narrow path.
Polish off some tapas of croquettes and chorizo, and a reviving sangria
(for the passenger, of course) before heading back on the road. The route heads
inland to dry and hot Llanca before reaching the turn-off for Cadaques, where
the Pyrenees meet the sea. Cadaques is a good half hour or more carsick-inducing
drive over the high hills of Cap de Creus national park with lay-bys for taking
photos or calm nervous stomachs. Heights reach above 600 meters, and in fact, there
is an observatory atop the neighbouring Es Peni mountiain.
Once you descend into Cadaques, a town that drew Pablo Picasso (The Port
at Cadaques, 1910), and Surrealist artists like Jean Miro and Marcel Duchamp,
it is only a few more kilometres to Portlligat and the wondrous, white Salvador Dali
House Museum (reservations are required). The house is one of the Dali triad
that includes the Dali
Theatre-Museum in Figueres and the Gala Dali
Castle-House Museum in Pubol, but Portlligat is where the famous Surrealist
lived from 1930 to 1982 and where he created works like The Madonna of Portlligat.
When his wife Gala died in 1982, he moved to Pubol and never returned.
The stunning rooms, groovy furniture and various objet have been kept as he left it. Among the
rooms that feel the most personal are the bedroom and sitting room where you
can get a sense of what he saw when he woke up, from his snail clock on the
glass coffee table to the mirror positioned so the rising sun hit his face. In
his studio, which has great horizontal and vertical windows that take advantage
of the sea and sky, a device lifted and lowered large easels into and out of
the floor. He also had a room of inspiration, with glass cases filled with
tchotchkes and fabric-draped couches.
There is an ever-present sense of the horizon throughout the house, a
straight line that Dali must have felt he could fall off of. Outside, the
terraced garden of olive trees seems especially peaceful, while from atop the
hill behind the house, The Christ of Trash (a large sculpture that looks
exactly like it sounds) and the white plaster eggs that top the walls can be seen.
It is the phallic pool with a lips-shaped sofa that make most visitors smile.
Pool parties must have been a blast at the Dali residence.
The road and the mountains run out at the Cap de Creus lighthouse which
sends flashes of light into the dusk. Head back to Cadaques for a dinner of delicious
steamed mussels and lightly sautéed squid at Casa Nun (c/
Portitxó, 6; 34-972-258-856), right on La Plaja,
where a friendly house dog shows you to your seat. You will have a Surreal view
of the sun setting, with pink streaks in the sky, white houses clinging like
barnacles to the darkening mountains and the sea turning to steel.