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.