The wild brushstrokes capture the juxtaposition of gold on turquoise so brilliantly that I can hardly tell where the painting ends and the real world begins.
That the work was painted here, on this very spot, isn’t hard to believe. The tumbledown fishing village protected by two mighty fortresses, and its terracotta- and rose-tinged houses squashed into a cove beneath vineyard-scattered hills, are fodder for an artist’s imagination.
I am following the ‘Chemin du Fauvisme’ in Collioure, a Moorish fishing village on the Côte Vermeille in French Catalonia, where the Pyrenees soar from the sea between France and Spain.
The trail leads to 19 replicas of works by French artist Henri Matisse and his friend and colleague André Derain that were painted in Collioure and feature places in the village. Why? It was here that the two artists created the ‘Fauvism’ movement*.
“They summered in Collioure in 1905, and were enchanted by the bright colours and clear light,” explains Manée Pous from Les Templiers, where the ‘fauvistes’ spent a lot of time. Entering the café-bar is like entering another world: colourful canvases by the artists scramble for space on the walls and around the dark wood bar, where locals are propped up chatting to each other. I sip my tea in awe: this is a setting better than any gallery I have been to.
Manée continues: “These walls are a record of the time the fauvistes spent in Collioure, and of the love they had for this magical place.”
Leaving onto the waterfront, I pull my jacket tighter; it’s early one morning in late September, and a cool salty breeze is drifting in over the crinkling waves. Some courageous folk are squawking as they plunge into the sea – Collioure has two inviting strips of sand.
I continue past Le Château Royal, a grand golden structure that was the court of the Kings of Mallorca in the 13th century, before leaving the seafront behind. I pass numerous small galleries, their cheerful doorways peeking out from behind effusions of bougainvillea.
Then come more paintings. There’s Matisse’s famous ‘Open Window, Collioure’ here, and his ‘Closed Window at Collioure’ there. Next is ‘La Phare de Collioure’, Derain’s oil painting of the village lighthouse, which depicts boats that look like the brightly painted Catalan ‘barques’ bobbing in the harbour.
Soon after, I happen upon an artisanal ‘biscuiterie’ that is too great a temptation to resist; I come away with a sack of lemon-scented ‘croquants’ (crispy biscuits great for dipping). Salted anchovies are on my list for later, another local speciality.
The trail complete, I head uphill towards the outskirts of the village. Le Musée d’Art Moderne, which has originals by Cocteau, Camoin and Pignon, is concealed in leafy parkland here. Beyond, I ascend terraced olive groves until I reach Le Moulin – a gnarled wooden windmill dating from the 14th century that is now used to make olive oil.
It’s the view I’ve come for. Through tangled pine trees I can see along the coastline towards Cap Béar, a lighthouse on a knobbly peninsula. A few days ago I swam at Paulilles, a series of concealed rocky coves close to the lighthouse, left undeveloped thanks to a now disused dynamite factory.
Twinkling as if scattered with crystals, today the sea couldn’t be more beautiful. And there can hardly be a more artful description of it than Matisse’s: "the blue of sapphires, of the peacock's wing, of an Alpine glacier, and the kingfisher melted together".