In Mackintosh’s footsteps: Port Vendres
Pic – Port Vendres, Tourisme Pyrenees-Orientale.
Glasgow architect, designer and painter Charles Rennie Mackintosh spent his final working years in the south of France, travelling around the Roussillon area. He and his wife Margaret eventually settled in Port Vendres in 1923. The couple had become disillusioned by life in Britain and were able to forge a new, happier, and cheaper, chapter here. After four years in Port Vendres, Mackintosh’s illness forced the couple to return to London where the artist died in 1928.
However, during those four years, Mackintosh had concentrated on painting landscape watercolours, inspired by the Catalan region and the glowing colours and crystal clear light that makes this corner of the Mediterranean so unique.
Although well-known for its associations with many artists, until a few years ago, mentioning the name of our famous Glasgow son along this coastline might have produced some baffled expressions. However, a new-found local appreciation of Mackintosh and his watercolour work has led to the creation of an art trail and L’association Charles Rennie Mackintosh en Roussillon, the enthusiastic organisation that runs it, is also affiliated with the CRM Society in Glasgow.
One of the small seaside communities that make up the Pyrénées-Orientales, Port Vendres is a more quiet and reserved neighbour of the better-known Collioure and lies less than 10 miles from the French-Spanish border.
Both these towns were once fishing villages, although the 1905 arrival of Henri Matisse in Collioure changed all that. The founder of fauvism (a translation of beast-like), Matisse fed upon the vibrancy of colour and quality of light and soon he was followed by fellow artists such as Andre Derain, Raoul Dufy, Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso to ensure Collioure’s status as a magnet for artists and art-lovers who throng its streets and waterside restaurants.
They still haul anchovies, and a few more fish besides, into Port Vendres though. It’s a deep water port, so is an important centre for the local fishing industry, guaranteeing the freshest produce for the restaurants that line it. It’s nowhere near as busy as Collioure, though some impressive looking yachts pull in past the fishing boats to park right at the quayside, allowing their owners and crew to step off the gangplank and straight to their table of choice.
A few yards further along, you can still see the apartment where Toshie and Margaret lived. The mustard-yellow corner block above the Banque Populaire on the Quai Pierre Forgas has the same balcony, perhaps with the same metal rails, where they once sat, looking out over the port.
It’s a delight to follow in these footsteps. Pop into the town’s Mackintosh gallery and museum, in the peaceful gardens of Le Dome, then let the Mackintosh Trail lead you through the beautiful Catalan country, where olive groves and vineyards sit side by side with giant cactus, at the point where France is closest to Africa. There are 13 panels on this trail that allow you to “stand where Mackintosh stood” to view scenes such as the quayside at Port Vendres, the lighthouse and the Chateau Royal in Collioure.
Summer starts early here and lingers too, great for out of season. At the other end of Mediterranean France, the Cote D’Azur has an undoubted allure. Here though, where the sea meets the mountains, where the sun makes every building glow, and the water sparkles with life, Mackintosh found beauty, inspiration – and happiness.
* At the invitation of the hotel, we stayed four nights at the Hotel du Golfe www.hoteldugolfe-argeles.com – and tourism site www.port-vendres.com offers plenty of info on apartments and hotels in the town, plus loads of general info.