MY FRIEND IRVINA WAS SO RIGHT. Irvina Lew, a career travel writer who’s been a lot of places, told me the Mediterranean seaport town of Collioure, France, where Derain, Matisse and others famously went to paint – and where, in fact, the vivid colors they were inspired to use gave rise to the movement known as Fauvism – was a ‘must’ for my European itinerary, “even if you only get there for a couple of hours.”
I was a little surprised by her insistence. I’d never even heard of Collioure (though I love Fauvism, which comes from the word fauve, or wild). But it was a convenient place to stop for the night between Zaragoza and Arles – about four hours by train from each. So I made a one-night reservation at the Hotel les Templiers, which looked suitably artistic, and prepared to be wowed.
Wowed I was. Collioure is vibrant and charming in the extreme, rather quiet in the off-season with just a few French vacationers. The weather for my one-day stay was perfection, the blue sky offsetting Fauvishly the oranges and yellows of the old stucco houses and the surreally pruned sycamore (?) trees casting sharp shadows in the bright sunlight.
Collioure is only a few miles from the Spanish border, part of Catalan France, which has its own dialect and cuisine, though neither were apparent to me in my too-brief visit. It’s nice to be back in France, where the salads are fantastic and people give you too much information, and too rapidly, when asked for directions by someone who is obviously not a native French speaker.
My time in Collioure was filled with the kind of travel misadventures Rick Steves says you have to roll with, and I did – a small price to pay for having my eyes filled with such glorious scenery. These began Wednesday night, when my train pulled in to the tiny Collioure station after a four-hour trip from Zaragoza, requiring a change of trains (my first, not rocket science) at Perpignan. Emerging from the empty, silent station into near-darkness, I approached the lone taxi driver, whose cab had a ‘libre’ sign and asked him to take me to the Hotel les Templiers. He could, he said, but it was just ‘la bas’ (over there), with a laugh and a wave of his hand. Half an hour and a couple of wrong turns and requests for directions later (at least I was practicing my French), I and my 25-pound backpack and rolling suitcase arrived at the hotel on foot.
Never was I so glad to find a hotel, especially one with a bar and a friendly restaurant that served up a superb meal, below, and converted me from someone who always thought dourade was a boring fish into a fan. (Anchovies are an important local product, and the salad was loaded with them — too many, IMO.)
There was an important soccer match on TV down one end of the room (Chelsea-Paris, the bartender said), and everyone was down that end, but I sat happily devouring my beautiful fish with the special fish knife and fork, glad I knew how to properly wield them and managing not to choke on the bones, and drinking my local (and, need I add, most excellent) rosé.
Scene in the bar Les Templiers the following morning, above, showing some of the 2,000 paintings that make the hotel/restaurant a museum in itself
I woke at sunrise, looked out my balcony to the impossibly picturesque old port and the stone castle across the way, and started taking pictures madly. View from my balcony, below.
My room, above, at night
The only glitch in my pleasure: I seemed to have lost the one accessory I brought to convert an American plug to a European one, and my devices were rapidly running out of charge. I had noticed this the night before and the person in the hotel office had kindly rummaged through a box of such things, but came up empty on the American kind. This would never do. I had to find one.
So at 8AM, I set out to walk around to the other side of the old port where there was a newsstand and souvenir shop. I explained to the shopkeeper, with many hand gestures, what I wanted, listening carefully as he replied with words like “accessoire” and “electronique.” There was a store in Port Vendres, he said, the next town over. It’s only 2 kilometers, he told me, adding, A beautiful walk! Perhaps I should have known from my experience the night before, but I set off in the direction of Port Vendres. It was way more than 2 km, uphill, and took about an hour, but it was indeed a beautiful walk, with sea views the whole way.
Arriving in Port Vendres, below (not bad either), I accosted three people in a supermarket parking lot, who directed me to a store called Expert, near the church. Expert turned out to be an appliance store – washing machines, microwaves, and the like. Useless. But they sent me on to MBE, a cell-phone store, around the new port – “pas loins” (not far), only a 10-minute walk. About half an hour later, I got to MBE to find a “Ferme” (closed) sign on the door, and not just for an hour, but for the next week.
At that point, I gave up. I went into a marine-supply shop, because I was by then past the cute part of the port and into the industrial part, and asked about taxis. The man there was kind enough to call one for me, and I taxi’d back to Collioure (9 euro well spent), resigned to waiting until Arles to find what I needed. But as we entered the town, I noticed a shop with a blue awning that said ‘Phillips’ – and there I found exactly, precisely, absolument what I needed. And bought two of them.
Below, for good measure: a couple more street scenes
Go to Collioure. If you don’t mind things a bit spartan (tiny bathroom, rickety furnishings), stay at the Hotel les Templiers. The original owners, René and Pauline Pous, established the hotel in 1925 and acquired some 2,000 paintings by visitors and friends that now decorate the bar, restaurant, guest rooms and hallways – paintings so fine you hope they’re not by the masters (the place isn’t that secure), though they all look like they could be. But go to Collioure. There’s something about it that makes you want to paint.