Collioure and
the Côte Vermeille
La Côte Vermeille
The "vermilion coast" is a region on the Mediterranean coast near the border with Spain. It stretches from the town of Argèles-sur-Mer to the border village of Cerbère. The towns of Collioure, Port-Vendres and Banyuls-sur-Mer are nestled along a 20 km stretch of beaches, small bays, creeks and coves, with some fabulous walks and trails. Although busy with tourists in the summer it is also where the French spend their holidays.
In some places here, the Pyrenées virtually tumble down into the sea. The steep slopes rising up from the ocean are terraced into hillside after hillside of vineyards - le Côte de Banyuls. Some vineyards appear to be newly planted, others are very old with rows of ancient vines still being harvested, while some terraces have been completely abandoned. They have been growing grapes here for centuries, using techniques developed by the Templiers.
Collioure is the colourful port town immortalised in the paintings by the fauve school of painters, Matisse and his followers, who from around 1905 made this their home. Later Picasso was to join them. You can do a walk around all the sites which appear in their paintings.
The port is, in effect, two ports in a semi circular bay with a huge fortified chateau separating them. The chateau is called the Château Royal and it dates from the 13th century when it was built by the Knights Templar to ward off Saracen pirates. It is everything a crusader castle should be - parapets, towers, staircases climbing round the walls and heavy stone ramparts with slits and holes for shooting arrows through.
It's not hard to see why Collioure became so favoured by the painters whose trademark was the use of strong bright colour - the brilliant skies, the bright clear water, the fishing boats and the deck chairs around the many cafes all scream out "paint me". This is why there are still so many artists studios here and why painters successfully peddle their work in the narrow streets of the old town.
Fauvism was a short-lived, but highly influential, avant garde art movement founded in 1905 by Henri Matisse in Collioure.

The artists were dubbed fauves or wild beasts because of the wild bright colours they used and the distorted shapes in their vibrant, cheerful and vigorous works which fully embraced the colourful and vivacious atmosphere of the Mediterranean coast.
Matisse led the group which also included Derain, Dufy, Vlaminck, van Dongen, Manguin and Braque. Matisse would continue to use vibrant colour, but the other painters moved towards cubism and German expressionism which would both take totally different directions.
We have visited Collioure twice. The first time was in1995 when, after leaving Evol up in the shadow of Canigou, we dropped down from the chain of the Pyrenées to the Coast.
We stayed several nights in a hotel alongside the fishing end of the port and could not resist splurging on a room with a view across to the castle. There were plenty of restaurants selling delicious fresh seafood.
Anchovies and sardines are a local speciality - they feature on all the restaurant menus and are piled up on the stalls in the colourful local market which is one of the best you'll encounter in the south. Not recommended is a dish of bulots one of us ate one night. These were tiny little shellfish not much bigger than periwinkles piled up in a dish with a sauce of wine and garlic which was the only saving grace
The magic of Collioure had stayed with us over the years, so in 2009 we rented an apartment for a week to do some more walking and to indulge in the local wine and seafood. The apartment was tiny but it had a wonderful terrace where we sat in the evenings looking over the town and the twinkling lights of the port.
Just south of Collioure on the Mediterranean coast is Banyuls-sur-Mer where the GR 10 finishes its long journey across the Pyrenées. You can join the GR 10 on the heights above the sea and follow it down through the vines to Banyuls. You can pretend this is your final stage on the GR 10, but the real achievers will probably look rather more travel weary.
There are many other walks up in the hinterland and linking Collioure to Banyuls and Port Vendres. An energetic option climbs up from Collioure to the 15th century Tour Madeloc at 656m , then descends to the Col des Gascons and joins the GR10.
There is also a great walk south to Banyuls sur Mer along a coastal pathway once used by smugglers and the customs men who pursued them, passing by Port Vendres and the Cap Bear, sometimes skirting around small creeks but always with wonderful sea views. This walk continues across the border into Spanish Catalonia, and on to Port Ligat and Cadaqués.
A very efficient shuttle bus runs up and down the coast between the towns, so you easily find your way home after a walk. It is also great for exploring the coast and visiting the other towns, jumping on and off along the route and avoiding the horrendous traffic jams that clog the coast in summer.
Romanesque Churches
During our exploration of the area we also discovered a treasure trove of small Romanesque churches. Having long been enthusiasts of this 11th and 12th century style of architecture, this was an added bonus.
In the flat coastal plains north of Collioure we found two splendid examples. First was Saint Genis des Fontaines which has a carved marble lintel over its west door, dated 1019-20. This makes it one of the earliest Romanesque sculptures in France and it is superbly carved in a charming naive style . It was probably a feature of the buildings of a monastery that had existed on the site from the 9th century and placed in its present position when the church was rebuilt around 1153. A cloister, built in the 13th century has strange and intriguing animals carved on the capitals of the columns that surround the cloister.
There is a similar lintel in the nearby St-André-de-Sorède but, while this one may have been technically better, it seemed to be less well integrated into the old stones of the church. Again, there was an abbey here in the 9th century. We were unable to look inside the buildings as we were there on a Saturday and it was a popular place for weddings which seemed to follow each other with unseemly haste.
Not far away, in a forest clearing, was the abandoned small Chapelle Sainte Colomba de Cabanes. Although largely a ruin and closed to the public, it is reasonably well maintained and showed signs of some ongoing restoration work. Built in the 11th century by the monks of St André, it was declared to be the property of the state during the revolution and is now maintained by the mairie of St Genis.
The real gem in this collection of churches was Saint Martin de Fenollar, a pre-Romanesque chapel dating from 844, which survives today in an island between the busy roads that lead up to the Spanish border. During the early 12th century it was painted with the frescos that are now considered to be the most important assembly of Romanesque wall paintings in Roussillon.
They are very damaged but that they have survived at all is remarkable, with road construction all around and a period when the building was ingloriously used for agricultural purposes. We were able to view the paintings as part of a group but only for a very limited time, nevertheless time enough to fully appreciate the pastel, earthy colours of these beautifully expressive naive style paintings.
Return to Top
Les Hostalets
View pictures from
The town of Collioure
Café on the Port
Derain's impression of Collioure
le Château Royal dominating the port
The Pyrenées come down to the Mediterranean
Lintel at Saint Genis des Fontaines
Chapelle Sainte Colomba des Cabanes
le Christ en Majesté
l'un des Rois mages
Vineyards in the hinterland
Explore more FRANCE
Explore on MAPS

Contact us
Return to HOME PAGE