Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A long overdue return to charming Collioures

Our goal today was to reach the French coastal town of Collioure in time for lunch. It is one of the lovely coastal towns on the Cote Vermeille, a short 5 kilometres north of Port Vendres. For some reason that remains a mystery, we don't ever get that far up the coast.

Once we arrived in town we walked along the beautiful, picturesque seafront and in the little lanes right behind, looking for lunch. We settled on a very popular bistro and managed to get a table outside. We opted for the menu of the day. The first course was a small bowl of very sweet mussels done in broth accompanied on the side by some local ham. My main course was huge shrimp and squid  with zucchini and carrots. Seamus had a fisherman's stew filled with shrimp, mussels, clams and sea bream, all on a bed of potatoes. It was huge. For dessert I had joujon, which is nougat ice cream with a chocolate dipped nougat biscuit topped with whipped cream. Not being a fan of cream, I scraped it away. Seamus had a scoop of citron and a scoop of coffee ice cream. The half pichet of local red wine was excellent. In fact it was so good that I now wish that I knew what it was.

Now satiated we strolled along the seafront admiring the huge Royal Castle that dominates the skyline. There were a number of kayaks accompanied by an inflatable boat with army types in it setting out from the beach. Earlier we had watched men and women in camouflage gear running through the town with what looked like very heavy kit on their backs. This must be them on some kind of training exercise. They were all double kayaks except for one. Most of the doubles were moving along and finding their rhythm but there were a couple of boats that just couldn't get moving. In fact they were traveling in circles. Finally, the laggards caught up to the group at which time they turned around heading for the shore coming in to the mole where we were watching.

With instructions from the brass in the inflatable the first kayak pushed away from the jetty. Both of the paddlers had to rock the boat until it tipped. Then the fun started. They couldn't get the boat righted at all. After a length of time with the man on one side and the woman on the other they turned the boat over. The man clambered in with quite a bit of difficulty. The lady just couldn't get in. I don't think trying to put her feet in the boat and then levering herself up was totally efficient. After many tries and help from her partner, she finally made it into the boat. Exhausted she lay on top of her stretched out partner and couldn't get up. It was a funny sight and caused much laughter from all of us on dry land.

The rest of the exercise went fairly smoothly with boats righting themselves and the paddlers jumping back in the boats in a blink of an eye. The last pair, another male and female could not get the boat turned. In fact they looked pretty exhausted and had given up trying. Finally, the leaders of the exercise in the inflatable helped flip the boat with ease and helped the female get back in the boat. They had the most difficulty paddling and would hit the sides of the pier on the way in. their blackened faces looked pretty exhausted. I should mention that these people were in full kit including boots. I wonder if they are destined for Mali?

Once back on shore they were debriefed by the leaders. We were now right by the castle where we read a sign telling us that this was a commando training base as well as a site for officer training in commando tactics. That explains everything.

We set off to explore the massive castle, the Chateau Royal, which was built in four parts. The first mention of the castle refers to a fortified site in Collioure under siege in 673, by Wamba, king of the Visigoths. Later in the 12th century, the land came under the control of the King of Aragon. The Knights Templar built a castle around 1207 and integrated it with the royal castle in 1345. A second one was later built by the Kings of Majorca, over a period in the 13th and 14th centuries. In the 13th century, the Castle was annexed to the Kingdom of Majorca. The Kings of Majorca were itinerant. They travelled with their court moving frequently from Maguelonne, near Montpellier, to Perpignan, to Palma de Majorca or to Collioure.

In the 16th century, after a brief occupation by Louis XI, the Spanish Habsburgs, again occupied Collioure turning it into a modern 16th century fortress with strengthened defenses.

In the 17th century Collioure was at stake in the wars between the Spanish Habsburgs and the French Bourbons. In 1642, Louis XIII's troops lay siege to Collioure and the Ch√Ęteau Royal. Ten thousand men including Turenne, d'Artagnan and the King's musketeers occupied the hills overlooking the town, while the French fleet blockaded the port. Deprived of water due to the destruction of their wells, the Spanish were forced to surrender. In 1659, France annexed the Roussillon and Collioure and the castle passed definitively into French hands. Vauban built the bastions, reinforced the structure and upgraded it.

In recent times the castle was designated an historic monument in 1922. The Castle was turned into a men's prison in March 1939 and became the first disciplinary camp for the Spanish refugees of the Retirada, the exile from the Spanish Civil War. After 1941 French prisoners of the Vichy regime were detained there. The prison received men sentenced for indiscipline, attempted escape and incitement to rebellion from nearby camps. The detainees transited there before being sent to North Africa. Now it is the property of the Pyrenees- Orientales.

Our trip around the castle started by walking through an endless tunnel with a dirt floor. We ended up in a giant square surrounded by buildings. We crossed the treacherous cobbles to enter one building where there was a giant forge. Another building had a painting exhibit taking up several rooms. All of this led to a walk around the ramparts with lovely unobstructed views of the port and surrounding countryside. One attic room with huge beams complete with a mat on the floor looked like a perfect setting for a yoga studio.

We returned to the town admiring the copies of Matisse's paintings stationed at view points,  where he did his paintings. Back at the car we were already planning our next trip here with a visit to Patrick O'Brian's grave, which is at the top of our list.

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