By Ronnie Smith
I was lucky enough to grow up in the town of Largs on the Ayrshire coast in the west of Scotland. Largs had, still has, everything an active and curious youngster could ever want; an uninterrupted sea front, folding hillsides to climb and mysterious glens to explore, dozens of kids with whom to play 24/7 football and the freshest of air breathed in the most beautiful environment imaginable. Largs was known in the good old days, in its own tourist publicity, as the ‘Jewel of the Clyde’ and I have never expected to find any other place like it.
However, I can say that since moving to Pezenas in June 2016 and exploring the coastline that straddles the Spanish border between Argeles sur Mer in France and Roses in Spain, I have come as close to that ideal as anywhere. In particular, the town of Collioure, which we visited a couple of weeks ago, ticked almost all the boxes. It fell just short of perfection because I couldn’t see a football pitch anywhere (but then my knees, you know?).
Collioure occupies a rocky cove, surrounded by steep mountains roughly 25 kms from the Spanish border. Anyone familiar with the Dr Syn novels can easily imagine the area around Collioure, in days gone by, being a hive of smuggling and other illicit activity, punctuated by the flash of a blade or the zip of a musket ball.
Notwithstanding the apparent lack of adequate footballing facilities, Collioure has rocks against which hypnotic waves crash incessantly. Forts and towers seem to perch atop every misty high point on the surrounding heights, guarding the border coastline against Spanish or French incursion (depending on who had the upper hand at any given moment). A lighthouse sits at the end of the old breakwater that protects the port from the boiling sea beyond and the town’s extraordinary church, Notre Dame Des Anges, stands proudly on the water’s edge.
Dominating this already dramatic scene, the Chateau Royal de Collioure towers over the harbour and the town, telling you everything you need to know about the nature of it’s history. Clearly this was an extremely important strategic military asset in a hotly contested border territory. In fact Collioure did not finally become permanently French until 1793, after being occupied for a year by Spanish forces.
To put it another way, Collioure is certainly a very special place and is as romantic an experience as man and nature can create together.
Along the quayside that runs down to the sea, separating the town from the chateau, a line of restaurants and cafes wait to take the edge from the hunger created by the wonderful sea air. This time, for we will return, my wife and I decided to eat at Restaurant les Templiers, although there are many others, and we were very pleased with our choice. Not only is the food and the service excellent, the entire interior is an art gallery showing the works of many of the artists who have been, and are still, inspired by the magic of Collioure. It is said that some of the paintings on the walls were given in exchange for food and drink at Les Templiers. More romance…
After lunch it’s not a bad idea to take a walk along the promenade, the Boulevard du Boramar, and maybe even throw some stones in the water, as I instinctively do whenever I find myself on a beach where the exhausted waves “sssshhhhh” their retreat across the pebbles. Then why not a jug of sangria, no matter the season, on a cafe terrace in front of the town’s sea-facing ramparts to round off the visit?
The best route in and out of Collioure is the D114, the Route de Collioure also known as the ‘Corniche’. It is the scenic route par excellence, a road that winds its way between the sea and the rocky outcrops that define the coast, and the terraced vineyards that produce the wine awaiting you down in the town. It is the spectacular entrance to and exit from a wonderful visit to Collioure at any time of the year.
FRANCE 24 takes a look at some of the special cultural and sporting highlights happening…