Sunday, 19 August 2012

Hearts over Collioure

The Fêtes de St Vincent is over for another year and Collioure will soon return to normal – whatever that is!

We had talked for some time of being around for the largest festival of the year, but this was our debut.

Our first discovery was that every year, a fêtes bandana is produced. Collections from down the years adorned the balconies of one or two houses.

They’re worn around necks and waists, on heads and wrists, and even attached to handbags. And since this is a village where there’s a big link to art, local artists are commissioned to produce designs for both the bandana and the poster for each fêtes.

In a neat little coincidence, this year’s bandana was designed by Barry Blend – a self-taught artist who originally hails from London’s East End, but has been living and working in the region for some years with his Dutch wife. Which is, in itself, a neat comment on the nature of this place.

And I know all this because we have two originals and two numbered, signed prints at home already.

It was three summers ago and we were wandering around the streets of the village, glancing into galleries, having decided that we wanted to take home a painting.

Once glance into Barry’s gallery and I was hooked.

The paintings and sculptures are utterly unique. His work seems to combine stained glass and cartoons. It’s vibrant and fun – and captures the joyful, voluptuous essence of this place far better, for me, than many of the more traditional artists.

Not that he paints just Collioure: other favourite subjects include jazz musicians, private dicks – and I’ve even seen one of the Red Baron’s plane.

So there they were, these bandanas. By Barry. We were always going to get into the spirit of the fêtes, but this gave it an added pleasure.

There’s also a bottle of local wine, especially labeled for the holiday. And a plastic beaker that comes with its own lanyard.

This is for when you’re wandering around the town catching some of the host of different musical acts performing on temporary stages, and taking advantage of the temporary bar that are open in the evenings.

The festival began on Tuesday evening, in the Place du 18 Juin (named to commemorate Charles de Gaulle’s 1940 BBC radio broadcast imploring the French to resist Axis and Vichy troops).

A small square, festooned in French tricolour and Catalan red and yellow pennants, a crowd swelled suddenly as the mayor arrived on a stage to speak.

Michel Moly has held the position for around three decades.

A maths teacher – when do you last remember a politician who has ever had a real job? – he’s largely credited with keeping the developers at bay and preserving the village’s unique charm.

Which makes him very much okay in my book.

His speech was greeted with enthusiasm – particularly when saying that “Collioure sera toujours Collioure” – the village’s alternative motto.

Meaning, simply, ‘Collioure shall always be Collioure’, it’s a nod to an old Maurice Chevalier song, Paris sera toujours Paris.

Chevalier did, incidentally, play Collioure, along with many other iconic French stars.

There was a little banter from some in the crowd and lots of laughter all round, including from M Moly, before he introduced the Chevalier du Fiel – a temporary ‘mayor’ for the duration of the festivities.

This year, it was Eric Carrière – a former footballer, born in Foix, who played for Nantes, Olympique Lyonnais and Dijon, as well as being capped 10 times for the national team.

There was a delightful hint of the anarchic as they all processed off the stage, to loud applause, accompanied by stilt walkers from Barcelona, dressed as Arabs riding camels, with suitably 'Arabic' music to see them on their way, after a canon had been fired three times from the nearby castle.

Adjourning to the promenade for a sundowner, we were entertained then by the Bizar’s (pictured above) – an anarchic band from Perpignan, all brassy fun.

On Wednesday, we watched in late afternoon as the local sports club gave a demonstration of rowing in old boats on the bay, followed by a return to the Place du 18 Juin to see a small, traditional orchestra playing the music for sardanes – the traditional Catalan dance.

One elderly man started the dancing – all on his own, the delicate steps in espadrilles, arms raised, utterly uninhibited.

Gradually, more people joined: from tiny children, the growing circle spanned the generations. A delight to see.

Thursday morning gave us more tradition, with the Procession sur Mer, as we dumped our bags on the beach and ambled around the St Vincent beach, where the tiny chapel of that saint’s name stands on a rock above the beach.

A small crowd was outside listening to a special mass. With that concluded, M Moly appeared – in jeans, a white open-necked shirt and his Barry Blend bandana – tying a red sash around his waist as he headed down the steps to the beach and toward one of the traditional Catalan barques (fishing boats) that had moored on the pebbly beach.

He was followed a short while later by a member of a confraternity in a long red robe, then another, barefoot and carrying a cross. And then a young boy with a banner.

After them, more of the confraternity, carefully bringing a reliquary down the narrow, steep steps; the ornate, golden box, containing (apparently) a relic of St Vincent, glinting in the Mediterranean sun.

Joined by clerics, they processed the short way to the barques and boarded one. An elderly nun boarded too, only to be guided off again, to board another barque with the rest of the confraternities, male and female; the men all in black robes, the women with their veils.

Members of the barque’s crews pushed them off the beach and back into the sea. The cross carrier said to his two fellow villagers, in their white shirts and red sashes: “Allez! Allez!” as they bent every muscle to the task. He was smiling as he said it.

The boats formed an orderly procession and headed around the corner to the next beach.

In much older times, the only way the chapel at St Vincent could have been reached was by boat, before it was joined to the mainland. This echoes that geographic history.

The disembarked, surrounded by swimsuit-clad crowds, sang a hymn or two, and then processed the short way back to the main church of Notre-Dame-des-Anges, where they carried the reliquary into the dark.

As M Moly chatted with the clerics, I had a wonderful sense of watching something that, if not straight from the pages of Clochemerle or the Don Camilo stories, recalled that in a way I’d never seen before.

Moly (a member of the Socialist Party, which hardly detracts from that impression) is clearly a consummate politician: the little pats on arms, the shared words.

I found myself grinning from ear to ear watching.

It was intriguing to witness the entire festival – a mixture of the old and new (lots of clubby stuff at nights for people a few years younger than I); the religious and secular. The only thing that I can think of that comes close is the Whit Friday celebrations in the north of England.

In Mossley, the day started with a religious procession of all the churches in the town, with bands and banners and statues. That would be followed by an afternoon of games at the local football club and the day would end with the band contest.

But back to Collioure, that evening, it was the chance to view a firework display over the bay – the climax to the fêtes.

The place was rammed. The top road above the town visibly nose to tail with traffic, as thousands poured in. The harbour was pretty much blocked off by a flotilla of boats, visible only by their lights, bobbing in the dark like hovering fairies.

I’m not a big fan of fireworks, but done properly (as when we spent one New Year’s Eve waiting on London’s Embankment to watch them), they can be quite magical.

As golden specks of light twinkled down over the water, there were cries of ‘Oooo’ and ‘Ahhh’ all around us.

And it would take a far bigger cynic than me not to be delighted when red hearts took shape in the velvet dark above.

Collioure sera toujours Collioure indeed!

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