It was once a tiny fishing village with 130 boats pulled up along its long sandy beach.
Nestled between the mountains and the sea Collioure, near Perpignan and a few kilometres from the Pyrenees, was a pretty but little-known backwater, without even a harbour to its name.
Then into the town came French artist Henri Matisse in 1905 and everything was to change forever.
He fell in love with the light, the Mediterranean bay and the town’s dramatic setting at the foot of ancient vineyards.
Soon, his friend and fellow painter André Derain joined him and the two men pioneered a new form of post-Impressionist art called Fauvism which scandalised the art world hierarchy. (Critics called one of their exhibitions, “Cage aux Fauves” or cage of wild beasts, and the name Fauvism was born.)
The men used vibrant colours to express their emotions and ignored the tradition of lines and realism.
Over the years more and more artists arrived in the town and slowly the fishing boats began to disappear.
Picasso and Dali were among those who set up temporary homes here with the former unsuccessfully trying to buy a local castle in the 1950s. Edith Piaf sang in the square while Maurice Chevalier, Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier were all visitors. Brigitte Bardot tried to acquire the local Saint-Elme Fort but she too was unsuccessful.
A thriving artistic community grew in the 1960s and 1970s and a beautiful harbour was finally built in 1962 but the fishing boats had all but disappeared.
Today, there are 30 separate artistic workshops in Collioure which has a population of less than 3,000. It manages to handle 20,000 visitors a day, half of whom stay at least a night.
Our own John Hume fell for the town’s charm and used to holiday here. The former MEP was friends with the late Piet Dankert, President of the EU in the 1980s, who lived in the town.
Today Dankert’s daughter Cléo is a tour guide and she remembers meeting the great man as a child. She showed us round Collioure with a boundless pride for her home town.
Unfortunately for us it rained all day but that did not detract from our visit to one of the most beautiful towns in France, lined with cobbled streets, pastel-coloured houses and adorned with artwork and an amazing range of colourful plants.
We called into the Café Le Templiers where the walls are covered with the works of local artists and where the bar is shaped like a boat.
Picasso was a friend of the owner, Monsieur René Pous, and was a regular visitor in the 1950s. Today it is run by René’s granddaughter, Mané.
The heart of the town is the harbour area, bustling with life and lined with quaint cafés and shops selling local wines and cheeses.
On the day we visited a dozen burly French commandoes were in the water doing scuba diving exercises from an inflatable boat and from the harbour walls, apparently a not unfamiliar sight.
The harbour is dominated by the magnificent Chateau Royal, which dates back to 1207 but which was rebuilt in 1345. Major reinforcements were added in the 16th Century.
Another former military base, Saint-Elme Fort, now a private museum, overlooks the town from the top of a hill.
The ancient lighthouse was turned into the Church of Our Lady of the Angels, filled with baroque altars partly funded by local fishermen in times gone by.
And from the Chapel of St Vincent, named after the town’s patrol saint, there are glorious views of the town and the terraced vineyards on the surrounding mountains which were first established by the Greeks more than 2,000 years ago.
We got up close to the vines with a fun ride on a small train which runs up to Saint-Elme’s Fort on tiny, twisty roads. With great views from the top, the 45-minute adventure was a snip at just €7.
Our base was the quaint three star hotel, Le Mas des Citronniers, just a few yards from the town’s square and market.
We had lunch in a lovely spot on the beach, Derriere le Clocher, although we had to take cover from the rain – and even snuggled up under blankets. We shared a giant local dish called Fideua which resembles paella but with short spaghetti noodles rather than rice.
And in the evening we had a gastronomic treat in the elegant Restaurant Le Neptune which overlooks the chateau and bay.
I started with terrine of duck foie-gras with green apple on a shortbread with almonds and mackerel marinated in smoke oil and Banyuls vinegar and herring caviar.
My main was seared fillet of beef, blini with Catalan tome sauce with shallot and Collioure red wine and crusty-melting potato. Others tried grilled sea bass with mixed artichoke hearts, potato muslin with fennel, mushroom coulis and chorizo breadcrumbs.
Dessert was The Coconut, biscuit and mascarpone mousse with coconut heart with confit passion fruit.
Visitors to Collioure should also not miss Le Cellier Dominicain wine cellars, where we tried their distinctive banyuls, sweet white and rosé wines. We also popped into an anchovy-tasting room to sample the local speciality.
Collioure is just a half hour drive from Perpignan where we flew into direct from Dublin on Aer Lingus and which is also worth a visit.
The city has a magnificent castle, the Palace of the Kings of Majorca, the biggest cloisters in France and the medieval Cathedral of St John the Baptist.
We visited a lovely vineyard outside town, Domaine Lafarge, now in its seventh generation, where we tasted ten of their different wines and did a tour of a newly built, state-of-the-art cellar which helps in the production of four million bottles a year. The vineyard sells to 45 countries with the U.S. its biggest market.
Lunch was in the popular Café Vienne in the centre of Perpignan where I tried a delicious steak frites.
The evening found us in Le Figuier restaurant which sells only local produce and where they served up local dishes, rilletts de Porc and morue (cod) with garlic cream.
Our base was the very central Campanile Perpignan Centre, a very clean and modern three star hotel.
Aer Lingus operates up to 5 flights weekly from Dublin to Perpignan. Fares start from €59.99 one-way including taxes and charges. Visit aerlingus.com
A bus from Perpignan to Collioure takes 45 min and costs just €1.
Rooms in the Mas des Citronniers hotel, Collioure, cost from €59.50 per person sharing per night with breakfast. Three nights B&B costs from €178.50pps. See: https://www.hotel-mas-des-citronniers.com
Rooms in the Campanile Perpignan Centre cost from €45 per person sharing per night with breakfast. Three nights B&B costs from €135 per person sharing. See: https://www.campanile.com/en/hotels/campanile-perpignan-centre
Lafage vineyard: https://www.domaine-lafage.com/en/
Le Cellier Dominicain: https://cellierdominicain.com
WRITTEN BY JIM GALLAGHER