It isn't often that you can remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when you decided your holiday destination, but I can remember the exact circumstances under which I realised I wanted to go to Collioure. I was sitting in a shoe shop in Toronto at the time. It was cold, and snowy, and wet, and miserable. We had come to Toronto to spend Christmas with the in-laws, and that was fine, but we hadn't realised how snowy and slushy and miserable it was going to be outside. That was why we were in a shoe shop. We were buying boots for our son, not having brought the right footwear for Siberia.
We sat silently in the shoe shop, waiting our turn, and my eye fell on a print on the wall. It showed a view through a sunny window of a blue bay with fishing boats. There were shadows and the feel of music. Lemon blossom tinkled. It was a painting by Matisse or someone romantic like that. It was called - I leant forward to check - " View from a Window, in Collioure ".
‘I don't know where Collioure is,’ I told my wife, ‘but that's where we're going one day.’
Then I forgot all about it, until one day I saw Billy Connolly doing his series on TV about Scottish artists. He was standing in a bar, somewhere in France, very jolly.
‘Have you ever wondered where Charles Rennie Macintosh ended up after he got out of Glasgow?’ said Connolly. ‘Well, wonder no more. It was here. Here in Collioure. A place in the south-west of France, which was full of artists and sunshine. It still is. Full of great bars, too.’
‘That's Collioure,’ I told the wife. ‘That's where we're going for our holidays.’
‘Well, do something about it,’ she said.
I did. For a start, I found out where it was. It's on the Mediterranean, in France, just north of Spain, within eyeshot of the Pyrenees. For hundreds of years it was a border town, fought over by the French and Spanish, each of whom who left castles and forts behind. Then it was fought over by artists. Now it is a holiday place. One day I spotted a picture of an ancient hotel in a brochure. It was called Hotel Casa Pairal. It had an old courtyard garden, and a palm-fringed swimming pool inside the garden.
‘That's where we're going.’ I told my wife.
‘Well, book it, then, for heaven's sake,’ she said.
I did. We flew out last May. Early season. Very early season. Time of year when old people go on holiday, saying, ‘Well, at least there won't be any bloody children around’, and on the plane they all looked askance at Adam as if by himself one small child could ruin their holidays, which given half a chance he probably could. And we landed at Perpignan having made friends only with a pair of elderly cyclists from Manchester, wiry old pedallers who said that as soon as they landed they were going to get their bikes out of the hold and have a bash at the Pyrenees for fun.
As soon as we landed we picked up our hire car, drove out of the airport, overtook the cyclists (wave, wave ) and headed through Perpignan. Great mistake. Perpignan is impossible to drive through if you don't know the place like a native. Eventually, by sheer good luck, we emerged on the road to Collioure and sped across the flatlands towards the distant Pyrenees. After ten miles, my wife said: ‘Good God, we're just about to overtake those two cyclists again’. They must have sliced through Perpignan like knives through tomatoes. We didn't wave this time, just hid our faces.
The Hotel Casa Pairal turned out to be just as good as in the photos, and I can't remember a hotel doing that before. A large Catalan mansion right in the middle of town but tucked away out of sight, its swimming pool was so flowery and leafy that swallows actually flew down and drank from the water as they passed, even with several swimmers in the water. The hotel had a small car park, rather difficult to reach; much easier to leave the car in the street outside which also served as a riverbed during the rainy season; it is the only street I have seen with notices saying: ‘Drivers are advised not to park here when river is flowing’. Right opposite the hotel was a small dusty square which served as a boules pitch for most of the week and the market place on market days...
It was, in fact, the kind of small French town you dream of visiting, with the additional advantage of being on the sea. As the hotel had no dining room, we had to eat out every night, which is not a horrible thing to do in France, even with a small child. Many of the cafes and restaurants are bang on the sea front, which means that a seven-year-old can play on the beach while waiting to be served, instead of fidgeting at table. If the food took too long to come, Adam also devised a method of integrating with the French. He learnt the French phrase for ‘I am English’, and would then go up to French families on the beach and say: ‘Je suis Anglais’, and expect them to do something about it. Mostly the families look alarmed but protective, as if Adam were surely a foundling left behind by a fleeing English family, and they would adopt him until we came to claim him...
On our second night of eating outside (this was only May, remember - how often do we British eat outside in May? ) my wife struck a sinister note.
‘Have you noticed,’ she said to me in English, ‘how many of our fellow diners are young butch men eating in pairs?’
It was true. All serious, tough and slightly mean-looking.
‘Do you think Collioure is now the gay capital of south-west France? ‘ She said. ‘I mean, no reason why not, but you'd think they'd mention it in the guide books ... ‘
She was almost but not quite right. Collioure is in fact the south-west centre for French army commando training, and these mean-looking guys were out from the commando barracks up the hill. We were to see a lot of them in the week. They suddenly appeared, sprinting through the town wearing full kit. If you went for a cliff walk, they would suddenly slide down breeches buoys overhead, and splash into the sea. One day they all invaded the beach and inflated inflatable dinghies before launching to sea and learning how to capsize and drown under the eagle eye of a sadistic sergeant.
‘ I wish I had my camera,’ said my wife, watching this. ‘Look at that tableau.’
She pointed to the water's edge where six tough commandoes were manhandling a huge dinghy, inches away from two topless and very pretty female sunbathers. Neither side took the slightest notice of the other. Still, it explained why what we had taken to be gay couples looked so tough and gaunt. They must have been absolutely knackered. Adam thought they were quite intriguing, but not half so intriguing as the family who owned a large schooner, which was moored most days at the quay and advertised sailing trips by the hour. They let him go aboard one day, to have a look round. He fell in love with the ship and them. Every day he moaned to be allowed to go for a sail. Finally and reluctantly we agreed. We were the only paying customers that day, and had a schooner trip for several hours, during which my wife stared at the sea, Adam went below to watch TV with the boys of the family and I practised my French on the young couple who owned the boat.
‘We were farmers before this,’ the man said, surprisingly. ‘But we always had a dream of having our own boat. So we saved up and - voila! We bought it. Now we make our living by chartering it during the summer months, either to casual holidaymakers like you, or to more serious people who want to go far out to fish, or slip across to Africa... Then, during the winter, we sail south to somewhere warm and cheap and live there on the boat. Last winter we spent in Tunisia. This next we hope to go to Senegal or The Gambia ... The birds like the swallows are right! Migrating is the best way to live...’
The food in Collioure was excellent. I had warned Adam, just to be safe, that he might be faced with French oddities like frog's legs, and he was bitterly disappointed that we never saw any. My wife ate fish throughout the trip and said she did not miss meat at all. The local rose wine, cool and fresh, covered all our needs. We had hired the car for all those expeditions into the mountains, to the famous painting galleries nearby, to catch the famous Petit Train Jaune, etc, and never did any of those things except for one trip up the hills, which was quite enough for someone like me who has the gift of vertigo. It was good enough just being in and around Collioure, which, being on an outcrop of the coast, suffers from no main route thundering through. Everything was on our doorstep and within Adam's reach; the castle (huge and impressive), the quays, the beach, the boules, the shops, the restaurants.... It was just what you always hope a small French town to be, down to the fact that the buskers tended to be, not musicians, but mime artists.
( Except that the locals would disagree violently. Small, yes. Town, yes. French, no. Catalan, yes! We always forget that the heart and soul of Catalonia extends both sides of the border, and that it isn't just Barcelona down the Spanish coast which throbs to Catalan loyalty. Here in Collioure, too, you see the Catalan flag and colours everywhere, signs in the Catalan language, plaques to dead Catapan heroes...)
It is not just the Catalan spirit that survives. Collioure was once a fighting place - and the commandoes are still there. It once lived on anchovy fishing, and the sea and some of the boats are still there. It was once a colony of great artists, and the painters are still there, out with their easels and egos, sketching away. Not great ones any more, alas. Not very good ones, either, I'm afraid. Charles Rennie Macintosh wouldn't retire here these days. But the price you pay for being a picturesque town is having painters inflicted on you, and there are worse prices to pay.
Adam tasted triumph on his last day. He went up to a family on the beach with two small boys and said, as per usual, ‘Je suis Anglais’. The family was English. The boys spoke only English. They assumed that Adam must be a French boy. Adam launched into a kind of imitation French to fool them. ‘They never guessed I was English,’ he said proudly.
On the plane home we met the two cyclists. Hello! How were the Pyrenees ?
‘Bloody marvellous,’ said the men from Manchester. ‘Full of snow. Some passes we came to there were cars stuck in the drifts. With a bike, of course, you just put it on your shoulder and wade through. The motorists didn't half look green with envy. Bloody marvellous. We'd love to come back again.’
So would we, if for somewhat different reasons