WHEN your Scottish home is in beautiful Plockton, it takes something very special to make you choose to spend much of your year somewhere else. For me that special place is Collioure, 12 miles from the Spanish border, in French Catalonia.
I studied in Provence, but French Catalonia, and Collioure, is somewhere I discovered later in my life, and which inspired my first novel. To me it has more colour and vibrancy than Provence, and less snobbery and false glamour than the Riviera. The culture here is playful and irreverent, and there is a simple, modest approach to life.
Collioure fishing village
During the 1950s Picasso was a frequent guest. It was said he wanted to buy a house here, but couldn’t find anything grand enough for his megastar status. I bought a holiday home here in 2007, and at first was only an irregular visitor, but quite soon I sold my first house and built a home on a plot of land in the heart of the community, and since my writing career became full time I’ve been spending many months of each year here.
And who wouldn’t? As well as beautiful beaches on my doorstep, I can step out of my home and within five minutes I am walking through the vineyards, which are now the area’s main industry. Along this stretch of coast the Pyrenees tail off dramatically into the sea, and the rugged hillsides bake in the sun, and produce some amazing wines, which are gaining a high reputation. We rarely see them in Britain, sadly. The hilly terrain means that the grapes have to be harvested manually, and not on an industrial scale, and most of the vineyards are small pockets of land owned by families who work them together. The wine is sold locally, and not exported, so to taste Collioure wines, or the sweet Banyuls wine – a bit like port – you have to come here.
Inland from Collioure is fruit growing country, and the lovely town of Ceret is home to the famous cherry festival every May. Ceret is another gem, a place I often visit for its great Saturday market, and it is the home I gave to the young hero of my first novel, Daughter of Catalonia. You’re at the foot of the Pyrenees here, and the views are spectacular both up and down the valley, and of course from everywhere you can see Canigou, the Catalans’ own special mountain, full of myth and magic.
When I first lived in Collioure my main interest was in learning about its culture, and the history of this region of France. But you can’t get involved in the culture here without delving into Spain, and in particular Spanish Catalonia, which is so close. The restaurants along this coast serve serrano ham and Manchego cheese, and Cava from Penedes in Catalonia, and dishes like fideua – a seafood dish similar to paella but with noodles instead of rice – and paella alongside classic French seafood dishes and the famous cured anchovies.
The region around Collioure took in more than 200,000 Spanish refugees at the end of the Spanish Civil War, when Franco took power, and 20% of the region’s population have Spanish ancestry. So it’s not surprising that Barcelona football club has strong support here. The mix of cultures continually fascinates me, and it has pushed me to take Spanish and Catalan classes to better understand the culture.
Of course it has taken me over the border into Spain. The Costa Brava raises images for many people of tawdry tourist resorts, but the Catalan coast also has some wonderful villages like Cadaques, home to Salvador Dali, and Begur, and the magical Calares. I’ve spent many weekends with friends exploring these resorts, and then inland to Girona, and up into the Pyrenees. One of my favourite places to eat is a medieval hilltop village called Besalu, the beauty of which it is hard to describe.
I remember taking a group of French friends to visit the Highlands, and my village of Plockton. I ended up christening them the ‘Ooh La Las’, because they were so stunned by our scenery at every turn of the road. Catalonia has the same effect on you. It is majestic, and there are just not enough superlatives to describe the views, the walks, the flowers, the smell of the pine forests, and the fields of sunflowers growing by the side of the road
For people coming to visit I always suggest a trip over the border into Spain, often to the Dali museum in Figueres and then on to Besalu for lunch. It’s part of the experience of coming here, this fusion of cultures. The most picturesque way to go is along the coast road, the Corniche that winds alongside the Mediterranean, twisting and turning around coves with some lovely beaches. You reach Banyuls, and then Cerbere, the last village in France, both lovely destinations in their own right for lunch, coffee, or a glass of rosé.
But the jewel on this coast is Collioure, and I know I have made the right choice in making my second home here. You can spend hours people watching in the cafes on the seafront or browsing among the many little shops and galleries. Men in Speedos are always a fascination here – the French do love their swimming trunks – and the women, often topless and usually slim. It’s true that French women don’t get fat, or at least those in the south, as they have to expose their bodies so often.
The people are really friendly. There’s the odd grumpy barman, but generally everyone is greeted properly, children are genuinely welcome, and there’s a relaxed holiday feel. Don’t expect quick service, though, especially in the high season. There’s one Michelin starred restaurant, La Balette, which does a good deal at lunchtime on weekdays, but otherwise the restaurants are run by modest people trying to make a living, often with not quite enough staff. But when the food comes it will be worth waiting for.
The fragility of the economy here and the dependence on tourism remind me so much of the Highlands, as do the close communities, and the tough, weather-beaten Catalan men with their vines and their fishing boats could be Scottish crofters if it weren’t for the sun they’re working under. I love both places. But for now I have another book to write, and I need to write it here, in the sun.
Autumn in Catalonia by Jane MacKenzie is published on October 22 by Allison and Busby. You can find out more about Jane and her books at janemackenzie.co.uk.