Studio of the masters

Collioure in south-western France is famous for two things - sardines and Fauvist art. Ray Kershaw visits the tiny Mediterranean fishing village that has inspired works by Matisse, Chagall and Picasso and still considers itself more Catalan than French

From the Côte Vermeille's steep vineyards, our first glimpse of Collioure evokes a Victorian
chemin de fer travel poster. Hemmed in by golden bays and with its toy-town harbour and tangle of lanes snuggling around a picture-book castle, could this really be the 21st-century French Mediterranean? The scene remains much the same as when a down-at-heel artist arrived in 1905 seeking the sun, and found a fame that made his name and the tiny town inseparable.

From the Côte Vermeille's steep vineyards, our first glimpse of Collioure evokes a Victorian chemin de fer travel poster. Hemmed in by golden bays and with its toy-town harbour and tangle of lanes snuggling around a picture-book castle, could this really be the 21st-century French Mediterranean? The scene remains much the same as when a down-at-heel artist arrived in 1905 seeking the sun, and found a fame that made his name and the tiny town inseparable.

Collioure, a lovely Catalan port, can be found where the Pyrenees plunge to the sea. It was founded by the Phoenicians, and for 500 years was an important Roman stopover between Narbonne and Tarragona until the Visigoth king Wamba made it his own. Wrested by and from the Moors, for centuries everybody wanted it, but its long golden age started in 981 when it became the jewel in the crown of the Kingdom of Mallorca. The Château Royal, today still sheltering the harbour, remained the sovereign's summer palace until 1344. Dominicans and Knights Templar embarked from here on crusades. Conquered and reconquered, it was the Kingdom of Aragon's principal port, falling finally to France in 1659.

Sidestepped by history in what was now France's southernmost corner, Collioure's inhabitants, remaining resolutely Catalan, imperturbably got on with what they had been perfecting for millennia: making gourmet salted anchovies and mellifluous red wine. Most families owned fishing boats that filled the bays with vibrant colour. Between tending their vines they fished for tuna and sardines, but during the summer nights (with the grapes lazily ripening on the dizzying slopes) they harvested the minute silver fish whose incomparable piquancy had from the Middle Ages made Collioure famous throughout Europe. Craved by royal palates, the expensive salted anchovies were so prestigious that the town was exempted from France's 18th-century abominated salt tax. These anchovies, regarded by gourmets as the fish ne plus ultra, remain the favourite nibble in Collioure's quayside cafés.

In fact it was the brightly painted boats' shimmering sails in Collioure's harbour that lit up the lunettes of 36-year-old Henri Matisse and sent him scurrying to his palette, igniting a summer-long creative frenzy that would soon have the art world standing on its head. It was 1905 and he was despondent. No one wanted his paintings, his wife was sick, he had three children to support and his father had stopped his allowance. Worst of all he felt burnt out, his inspiration gone. But Collioure's azure luminosity proved the tonic he had yearned for since visiting Corsica seven years before. "No sky," he enthused, "is bluer than Collioure's" - repaying the town with a now much-used slogan that on most days few people could dispute.

Charged with sun and excitement, he invited fellow northerner André Derain to join him. Collioure brimmed with pictures like a portfolio-in-waiting - the harbour, the beaches, olive groves and fishing boats - and after splashing out on chrome yellow the two began working with an incandescent fervour. Too impatient for perfection, they vied to see who could cover the most canvases in the shortest time, eschewing hard-learned techniques to hurl on primary colours in a simplistic style as if the paint itself was light. Derain wrote, "...every shadow is a world of luminous clarity". It was a kind of summer madness - no one had ever seen paintings like them. Art after Collioure would never be the same.

Denounced as childish daubs, the pictures shocked the Paris salons but earned for their creators the derogatory name by which they later would be lionised. They were the Wild Beasts - Les Fauves - a gibe that unintentionally gave the struggling artists a glamorous notoriety and got the buyers queuing. Their fame and fortunes assured, Henri and André were the new avant-garde. Fauvism was in and its anchovy-port cradle was soon a chic destination on the artistic map.

Other up-and-comers followed - Dufy, Chagall, Picasso - drawn to dip their brushes in the town's now famous light. Matisse's Collioure pictures made the young Picasso his first and lifelong fan. But with some big brands there to advertise, Collioure loyally elects to celebrate its Fauves.

In the ancient Mauré quarter - a maze of cobbled lanes where picturesque is not a cliché - we traced the Chemin du Fauvisme. Twenty reproductions of the Wild Beasts' Collioure canvases are sited precisely where they were painted. Delayed by vinous refreshments - wine is, after all, Collioure's oldest art - we compared the oeuvres against the actuality, frequently marvelling at how so little has changed.

Here, aspirant artists emulate the masters. Though today there are many bars and cafés, easels lurk round every corner. Below the Château Royal, the handful of fishermen selling their catches on the sunny quay appear accustomed to numbering fewer than their depicters. But not everyone can be Matisse - forlorn studios for rent in the mimosa-scented alleys suggest expired dreams.

Matisse once joked, "Of my 1,250 paintings, 2,500 are now in America". Not surprising then that Collioure's modern art museum cannot even boast a fake. But for a brush with the immortals there is the venerable and wonderful - certainly unique - Hôtel Les Templiers, an art-aficionados shrine.

The hotel's busy terrace restaurant on the Quai de l'Amirauté gives no clue that it is a mini shrine to 20th-century art. At its boat-shaped bar, many painters' fists have downed brimming glasses. Here, just having a beer feels like a hands-on art experience. Smoke-darkened and cosy - at least some of the nicotine must have soaked from their cigars - the romantically inclined will surely sense a lingering presence. The roof-to-floor paintings are augmented with snapshots of satisfied customers, like Picasso and Dali, hobnobbing with the locals.

The hotel has been owned by the Pous family for almost a century, and over the years every paint-stained Collioure visitor has popped in to booze or to barter sketches for bowlfuls of bouillabaisse - a fair deal for anyone, we decide after tasting some, whether luminary or pauper. The guest book reads like a Guggenheim catalogue. With pictures in the bedrooms, corridors and stairwells, if everything is truly what it eye-poppingly seems, the insurance bill must rival the Tate's. The family estimate there are 2,000 originals. For those parts inaccessible to the visual arts the hotel also excels in the culinary variety. Of the Catalan dishes that the late Pauline Pous served Dufy and Picasso, her legendary capon is still on the menu.

During the Fifties, Picasso was a frequent guest. A Catalan speaker, he fell in love with Collioure - so near the Spanish border that he would not deign to cross - and longed to own a house here. But apart from the castle (once seriously suggested), among the fishermen's cottages there was nowhere grand enough for the megastar artist.

Collioure's other slogan is "Sardines to Sardanas" - the Catalan dances that inspired Matisse's and Picasso's best-known paintings. Having other fish to fry, the town's century of art has not spoiled it with pretensions. Postcard shops outnumber galleries. Pablo came to swim rather than to paint, and its jolly seaside atmosphere still attracts more sunbathers than arty cognoscenti.

During their patron saint's fiesta - a boisterous week in August - the Colliourenques celebrate their Catalan culture with the bullfights that Picasso loved and sardanas on the quaysides to the sound of cobla bands. Making wine and salting anchovies, Collioure remains at heart the seaport it was before the painters came, the red and yellow stripes of the Catalan flag always flying from the turrets of the Château Royal.

It was Collioure's briny character that attracted and kept for 50 years the reclusive British author Patrick O'Brian. Learning Catalan, he was adopted as a native by the wine-growers and fishermen. Here he wrote the biography - still unsurpassed - of his Les Templiers bar pal Pablo Picasso. Collioure's Mediterranean maritime ambiance inspired his nautical Jack Aubrey novels. Patrick is buried in sight of his vineyard where he laboured, whose wine was his proudest achievement in life.

It is the sweet Banyuls wine from those towering terraced vineyards that we sip with our anchovies at Collioure's very un-arty Brasserie Saint-Elme. The saltiness and sweetness perfectly combine. With waves lapping the beach, we watch the lights out in the bay - the anchovy boats' lamparos that mimic the full moon and trick the fish to rise. But tonight there is a real full moon that silhouettes the castle and silvers the sea. With the day-trippers departed, it seems a century has faded to that far-off Fauvist summer. Collioure's light and colours inspired Matisse for the remainder of his life, but in the velvet night air, well down our second bottle, we sagaciously conclude that reality surpasses representation, even by the best. The rosé we drink with our grilled sardines and tuna is in any case labelled Cuvée Matisse.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies direct from Stansted to Perpignan, the nearest international airport to Collioure, for around £36 return in September. FlyBE (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com) also flies to Perpignan from Birmingham and Southampton, with return fares from £100. From Perpignan airport, take a taxi for around €15 (£11), or a bus to the station and then one of the regular TER trains to Collioure, which takes around 25 minutes and costs €4.40 (£3) one way.

STAYING THERE

The Hôtel Les Templiers (00 33 4 68 98 31 10; www.hotel-templiers.com) has double rooms from €50 (£36), room only. The Hôtel Relais des Trois Mas (00 33 4 68 82 05 07; www.relaisdestroismas.com), has double rooms from €100 (£71.40), room only.

VISITING

The Chemin du Fauvisme starts and ends at the Espace Fauvisme in front of the tourist office, which can provide maps and information on the route.

The Château Royal (00 33 4 68 82 06 43) is open daily from 10am-6pm, entry is €4 (£2.90).

The Saint-Vincent Festival is celebrated every year in August (this year's dates are 14-18 August), with bullfighting, music and fireworks on the agenda.

Sophie Lam

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