Charming Collioure: A Splash of Catalan Culture in France

Coillioure's quaint coastline invites you to explore this French-Spanish town.
By Rick Steves and Steve Smith

Surrounded by less appealing resorts, lovely Collioure is blessed with a privileged climate and a romantic setting. By Mediterranean standards, this seaside village in southwest France should be overrun — it has everything. Like an ice-cream shop, Collioure offers 31 flavors of pastel houses and six petite, scooped-out, and pebbled beaches sprinkled lightly with beachgoers. This sweet scene, capped by a winking lighthouse, sits under a once-mighty castle in the shade of the Pyrenees mountains. Evenings are best here — as the sky darkens, yellow lamps reflect warm pastels and deep blues.

Just 15 miles from the Spanish border, Collioure shares a common history, culture, and independent attitude with Barcelona and its other Catalan cousins on the other side of the border. Collioure is happily French, yet proudly sports yellow-and-red Catalan flags, street names in French and Catalan, and business names with el and las rather than le and les. Sixty years ago, most villagers spoke Catalan, and today the language is enjoying a resurgence as Collioure rediscovers its roots.

Come here to unwind and regroup. Even with its crowds of French vacationers in peak season (July and August are jammed), Collioure is what many are looking for when they head to the Riviera — a sunny, relaxing splash in the Mediterranean. Check your ambition at the station. Enjoy a slow coffee on le Med, lose yourself in the old town's streets, comparison-shop the gelati shops on rue Vauban, rent a kayak or paddleboat, or snuggle into a pebble-sand beach (flip-flops or aqua-shoes are helpful here).

Most of Collioure's shopping, sights, and hotels are in the old town, across the drainage channel from Château Royal, an 800-year-old château with great rampart walks, views, and mildly interesting exhibits on local history and contemporary art. Among the village's more interesting sites is Notre-Dame des Anges, a waterfront church with a one-of-a-kind lighthouse-bell tower and overly ornate altar. Explore past the church to collect city- and seaviews from the jetty wall at St. Vincent beach (best at sunset and after dinner). Also along the waterfront is the Chemin de Fauvism (Path of Fauvism), where you'll find copies of Andre Derain's and Henri Matisse's works inspired by their stays in Collioure in 1905. But as with Arles and van Gogh, there are no original paintings of theirs left here for us to enjoy.

Sample some of Collioure's well-respected wines at one of the many shops that offer relaxed tastings of the sweet Banyuls and Collioure reds and rosés. Consider a short Mediterranean cruise, or a daytrip to Spain via train or car — just watch those curves. If you're feeling energetic, tackle the one-hour, vertical hike up to Fort St. Elme, a castle high above Collioure. The privately-owned castle is not open to the public, but the view from the bluff is sensational. In the evening, settle in and savor some of Collioure's Catalan cuisine, featuring fresh anchovies, seafood, and local wines. Paradise reclaimed.

Steve Smith is the co-author of the Rick Steves France guidebook.