Some Travels in Europe: Barcelona and Collioure (1)

by MBKuhl

I have tried to travel sincerely and thoroughly, and I believe that I have been in a few places worthy at least of some small amount of descriptive prose.  Soon I will travel to Italy and Greece, and I have high hopes of keeping a thorough journal and taking photographs, which I will ultimately turn into entries on this site.  For now, however, I would like to go through a few places that have touched me.  Some are noteworthy for their food, some for a particular festival or season.  Some are noteworthy only for a person who was there at the time.

Good travel writing is either good on account of the expression of the experience of traveling (which is universal), or it is good because it touches on the heart of the particular place visited (which is not really traveling at all: rather it is living).  I imagine that great travel writing contains something of both.

Collioure is that it is not properly Collioure, it is Cotlliure, which is to say that it is not properly French: it is Catalan.    But, then again, neither is Perpignan (or, rather Perpinya), it’s parent city to the North, properly French.  But then again, what is properly French in the south of France?  All along the southern border and then the Mediteranean coast languages and cultures overflow into French soil.  Basque, Spanish, Catalan, Occitan and, more recently, the Maghreb all pour in through books, songs, foods and immigrants.  Further complicating this medley are the thousands of tourists who visit the region, which has the odd effect of simultaneously suppressing and augmenting these particular identities.  Thus, we may find that we know more about the Catalan from their desire to assert their identity, but less about them from their equally ardent desire to protect the integrity of that identity.  Moreover, and to complicate matters further, we may discover quite a bit more about some parts of the Catalan identity (say, for example, political) than others (aesthetic, culinary).  Typically, for most American and European travelers, this deep and pervasive tension is resolved through Sangria.

Those, however, who dig a bit deeper will find resolution in a cold glass of Cava (in Barcelona, and all along the Costa Brava) or Muscat (in and around Perpignan) or Banyuls (in and around Collioure, Argles sur Mer and Cadaques).  Cava is a very dry, very light sparkling white wine which, to quote a film, “almost takes the sting out of being occupied.”  Cava, which is best at the bar-I mean literally at the bar of the bar-across the small plaza in front of the Santa Maria del Mer Cathedral, goes well with the abstract expressionism you find in the galleries of Calle Moncata, which is on the opposite side of the Cathedral.  The Museu Picasso is further up the street, which I mention only because “Las Meninas” goes fantastically well with Cava, a whole bottle of Cava, which you can’t drink inside the museum but you can drink, figuratively speaking, though the galleries on the walk from the Cathedral there.

No one ever really drinks Muscat in Perpignan, or really anywhere else around, unless there is a very strong cheese to be eaten.  And then, one only has a very strong cheese at home.  Rivesaltes, which is the best place for Muscat, has nothing to offer by way of cultural or culinary entertainment, and so one must simply purchase a bottle there and drink it elsewhere.

Now, Collioure is a very different matter entirely.  The Banyuls is a spicy, sweet wine, nearly purple in color and generally of a higher alcohol content (16-18%).  Banyuls can be drank in a restaurant, at home or on the beach.  While most are best accompanied by fruits and chocolate, some are dry enough and light enough to be eaten with meat or fowl, but it entirely depends on the age and color and winery.  If one drinks too old of a Banyuls too early in the evening, it is entirely possible to miss the vibrant scenery and unique variety of of shades of blues engulfing the town on all sides by sky and sea.  In particular, the contrast between the bright pastels of the narrow houses and the brilliant blues and whites of the sky and clouds and waves would be utterly lost with too much Banyuls or too young of a Banyuls or by choosing to drink too nice of a bottle on the sand in the sun.  One must consider that the artists who came to Collioure, unlike those who came to Bacelona, came to represent the landscape surrounding them; the wide promenade covered completely with green and yellow covered wicker chairs; the nearly hidden church of Nostra Senyora dels Angels with it’s stout, beige tower; the steep, bright green hills shooting up to the south of the town set against the tall, round hills to the north, terraced with vines from which they make all the Banyuls.  Matisse, Derrain, Braque and Picasso all came to Collioure at one point.  Some stayed for years on end and all together there are hundreds of landscapes that have been painted in and of the town.  Thus, it would be an injustice to this tradition of vibrant, vital representation to color it all over prematurely with wine.  They were Fauvists, after all.  Even Braque surrendered his cubism to capture the bright sparkling light of Collioure.