Collioure and the Cote Vermeille
Picturesque coastal strip
Where the Albères hills tumble down from the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean, the 30-km strip of reddish rocky shoreline that leads to the Spanish border is known as the ‘Vermillion Coast’. There is more than a pinch of artistic licence in the description, but like inland Céret (see this section), this picturesque stretch of fishing villages and pebble beaches was an early 20thC artistic haunt, beloved of the Fauvists in this case.
At the northern end of the strip, Argelès-Plage has more in common with the Golfe du Lion resorts – a great sandy beach, new marina, swarms of international campers and the sweet, greasy smell of dozens of waffle and crêpe stands. There are several pleasant family hotels between the beach resort and inland town centre which has a market and museum of Catalan folklore and crafts.
Derain and Matisse spent the summer of 1905 painting in the crystal clear light of pretty Collioure. Besieged by visitors in summer, the little port sits on a sheltered bay with a pebble beach, the odd brightly painted fishing boat, bundles of nets, and a row of café terraces. At one end of the front, the Château Royal, once the summer palace of the Kings of Aragon and Majorca, guards the boat basin and houses arts and crafts exhibitions. At the other, the local church, with its somewhat military fa√ç¬µcade, conceals a clutch of ornately gilded Catalan retables (altar screens).
Squeezed between the sea and the encroaching hills, the colourful houses and grubby fishing smacks of Port-Vendres are accompanied by a business-like whiff of fish and diesel. Fish auctions are held on the docks. Then a pretty stretch of the N114 wiggles down to Banyuls, a modest leafy town ringed by vineyards. The sculptor Aristid Maillol lived and died in Banyuls and there are several of his bronzes dotted about town. He is buried in the garden of his farmhouse studio, Mas Maillol, in the Baillaury valley 4 km to the south-west. Banyuls has been making full-bodied red wines since the days of the Templars, and the Celliers des Templiers, route du Mas Reig (D86) offers tastings and tours of the original 13thC cellars. You can circle back to Collioure on the narrow D86, climbing up behind the coast through terraces of vines and cork oaks. A goat track of a road leads off for a terrifying ascent to the 13thC Tour Madeloc, which affords superb views, but drivers will need nerves of steel.