Saturday, 31 August 2013

So what about all those books?

Phillip Marlowe: more integrity than any Nabakov creation
After all the fuss about what books I was going to cart from London to the south of France, the question now is: was it worth it?

Well, the list ended up very much as I wrote on 6 August: I was half way through Marco Vichi’s Death in August, the first Inspector Bordelli mysteries, and so brought that to finish it.

Then, in order of how they were read, came Gore Vidal’s Julian, Nabakov’s Laughter in the Dark, Paul O’Grady’s At My Mother's Knee ... And Other Low Joints, Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron, Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and finally, a collection of Thomas Mann’s short stories, including Mario and the Magician and The Black Swan.

Briefly: it took me until about half way to get into Vichi’s tale, but once there, I was planning getting the subsequent books.

An intriguing and pleasantly intricate plot, plus some very human development and back story.

The Chandlers are – well, wonderful. Chandler was a poet. And Marlowe is a superb creation.

The Newman was thoroughly enjoyable: I was slightly wary of his era on this one, being as the first world war was so horrific, but I think he gets away with it (it is an alternative history, after all). It’s well written and loaded with very clever literary and history references. This is vampire fiction for people with brains.

Paul O'Grady as the magnificent Lily Savage
The first volume of Paul O’Grady’s autobiography is excellent – I bombed through 500 pages in little more than a day. Massively readable – a superb and utterly convincing memoir of growing up in post-war working-class Birkenhead: funny and poignant and very honest. I look forward to reading the second volume.

Now (cracks fingers) for the somewhat longer considerations.

Vidal’s Julian is superb: light and yet based on serious historical knowledge and understanding. It’s not for nothing that Vidal was so highly regarded as a writer of historical fiction.

It’s witty, catty, bitchy, sharp, and also humane, human, poignant and, in the end – and despite what one might expect – very moving. Remarkably, even though he doesn’t create a set of characters that are intended to be easily likeable, by the denouement, you actually hold the eponymous Julian in enough regard that you care what happens to him and how.

In the meantime, the book has Things to Say. And the biggest thing that it has to say is about the nature of religion as a whole and Christianity specifically.

The dominant point about Christianity that Vidal makes is that none of it was unique: that it was all plagiarised from other, older religions.

But he does it, as you would expect, beautifully.

Then we move to the Nabakov.

Now I’ll say, to begin with that I rate Lolita as an astonishing and brilliant book, and Pale Fire is just sheer genius. I don’t think that anyone in the 20th century used language in the way that Nabakov did.

The Blue Angel – well before Laughter in the Dark
And to be strictly fair, the author himself never claimed to ‘say’ anything or ‘mean’ anything.

But in lacking any morality – for want of a better word – his books leave a certain coldness. And Laughter in the Dark is no exception.

Indeed, the idea of the upright man brought low by a woman wasn’t even an entirely original premise: to mention just one, Heinrich Mann had done it in 1905 with Professor Unrat, which became the iconic movie, The Blue Angel.

So what does Nabakov bring to that theme? Well, nothing, except the cleverness.

Yes, it’s clever: he wrote it in Russian originally, but translated it into English himself – another mark of the genius of the man – but for all the cleverness, it’s lack of a soul is telling.

I wonder how much Nabakov has influenced more recent English literature (and the “English” is deliberate and intended to be quite specific).

How many writers have felt that they wanted to rise to the challenge of Nabakov’s literary brilliance, but cannot offer even that in order to compensate for what are, essentially, the stories of nasty people with no redeeming features?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying I won’t read any more. Nabakov can dazzle. But his entire oeuvre doesn’t have the integrity that Chandler brings to a single short volume.

And it leaves you with a slightly uncomfortable taste – almost as though you were guilty of some verboten indulgence.

And so to Mann. Well, I’ve only just started the collection in question, but what a joy to be back with him. And he makes for a fascinating comparison with Nabakov.

Maybe it’s just my rather puritanical, northern European Protestant background, but I found myself relieved to be back with Thomas: moral, ethical, thinking, questioning, doubting Thomas. Nothing rushed, but everything planned and executed with the greatest care and deliberation.

Mann might have lacked the obvious flair that Nabakov had, but I know which I prefer. And I know which, in spite of the surface cleverness, I think is actually the better writer – and the writer whose work and thought continues to have genuine relevance for our times.

Although the more I think of it, perhaps Nabakov is the writer for our days: all style and no substance. Just as Dalì was an artist that was the father of an art for our times, in much the same mode.

So if you don’t like such depressing thoughts, stick with Mann for real substance: or Vidal, for that matter. For all the literary fireworks, both ultimately show Nabakov wanting and leave him standing. And if that's heresy, I'm with Vidal on that subject.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Fortifying food – and another fort

Forteresse de Salses: light and shade
After a few days on the beach, the beginning of the week seemed like the perfect time to take another day trip and see something more of the region.

So in the late morning, we headed up to the railway station and caught a train north, to Salses.

Just two stops beyond Perpignan, it was like walking into an entirely different world. Spoiled by spending time in busy tourist towns, this was real rural France. And when we arrived, it was pretty much deserted for lunch.

Talking of lunch, by that time we needed some ourselves.

We sat down outside what appeared to be the lone open eatery, but after a lengthy wait in which nobody appeared, we wandered away in search of somewhere – anywhere – else.

Eventually, we managed to find a café-sports bar, Cafe de la Paix, which we’d actually walked within a few metres of to start with.

Café de la Paix
There was a limited available menu – sandwiches – so we ordered that. In the event, a ‘sandwich American’ turned out to be a quite a meal.

They arrived wrapped tightly in foil; a hulking big bun, toasted, with two steak hachés inside, plus thick slices of tomato and onion and, in my case, two varieties of cheese and some mayo.

The burgers were delicious: cooked to still be pink in the middle – and most certainly not something that had come out of the freezer.

These sandwiches hit the spot completely.

It was clearly a working class bar and they probably don’t get many holidaymakers – which might explain why the woman behind the bar wondered whether we were Australian!

But she was delighted when I commented on all the Catalans Dragons flags around the place and said that the team was good.

Now this is a sandwich
We were made very welcome – indeed, when two young lads popped in to pick up their own sandwiches for lunch, as they left, they waved and wished us a ‘bon appetite!’

Opposite was an old church, that, amazingly, seemed to have a building that had been attached to it demolished. The space was acting as a carpark, and young lads were playing boules there.

But we hadn’t ventured to Salses on the off chance of finding something: there was a specific motive in mind.

And after that supremely satisfying lunch, we ambled off to find what we made the trip for: the Forteresse de Salses.

Church, Salses
One the way, we spotted a fascinating flower with yellow flowers and along, red stamens – entirely appropriate for Catalan country.

Its scientific name is caesalpinia gilliesii but it’s also known, rather poetically, as ‘oiseau de paradis jaune’: ‘yellow bird of paradise’.

And so on to the fort, which can be seen from both the train to the east and the main road on the other side.

Its positioning is no accident. To the east lie the Corbières hills and to the west, the Etang de Leucate. The fort was intended to guard the narrow strip of land between the two, on what, in Roman times, had been the Via Domitia between France and Spain.

'Yellow bird of paradise'
The region has a turbulent history. Roussillon was conquered by the Arabs in 720, then passed to Carolingian France in 759 when it was liberated by the delightfully-named Pepin the Short.

The first mention of a castle on the site goes back to 1007, and it was rebuilt in 1192 for Chevalier Raymond de Saint-Luarent.

Suffice it to say that it has had as long and fascinating a history as the region: it was partially destroyed in 1496 by the French, but under the following year’s treaty that ended the first Franco-Spanish War, it was returned to Spain.

In June 1497, work began to rebuild the fort. The architect – only recently discovered by historians – was Francisco Ramiro López.

It was to be a revolution in design and withstood three sieges – one coming before it was even complete.

Fort entrance: Other Half waiting
In 1685, when its role had passed into history, Vauban was amongst various people who considered razing Salses to the ground, but that would have been too costly, so instead, he made a small number of improvements.

In 1886, it was listed as an historic monument and, in recent years, the Historic Buildings Department has been painstakingly restoring it.

It’s deceptive to approach, being partly below ground, surrounded by a vast moat, which disguises its real scale.

There are two gate houses to pass through, and then a main gate, before you come into the central courtyard, with its well at the centre, a chapel (dedicated to St Sebastien) on one side, barracks and stables on another, and the main keep to the left.

There’s also the complete oddity of a baroque clock above the barracks – for which I can find no explanation.

We went on the tour around the keep (donjon). Unsurprisingly, they don’t let you wander around it on your own – not least because it’s labyrinthine. For me, it brought to mind the castle/library in the film of The Name of the Rose.

Fort courtyard from the keep
Then we were able to wander freely. The barracks used to be on three floors, but is now one vast, cavernous room that seems almost Roman. The stables are down ramps below.

There’s a starkness to it that is quite unlike anything else I’ve seen. If you want to see the extremes of Mediterranean dark shadow and bright light, against an incredibly simply background of sand-coloured stone and blue sky, then you can do so at Salses in the right weather.

Well in the foreground. Barracks, stables & baroque clock
The scale is astonishing; the state of repair is remarkable (and yes, they’re still very obviously working on it) and the sense you start to get of how it was designed to work in a military sense is every bit as fascinating.

There are something like 400 ‘loopholes’ – holes where soldiers could train a weapon on the exterior. There are a fair few more that would have allowed soldiers to train arms on the interior too, should enemy troops break through.

Once outside, we took the time to stroll around the entire exterior, above the moat.

And here we spotted something entirely different and quite unexpected: vast numbers of small snails on the stems of fennel.

Snails on fennel
As any schoolchild knows, the French word for ‘snail’ is escargot. In Occitan country (not far to the west of where we are) it’s escagaròl and in Pays Catalan it’s cargol – hence a cargolade is a Catalan speciality of barbequed snails, which are served with assorted regional meats, such as saucisse Catalan, the regional sausage.

The most common snail used is theba pisana – sometimes known simply as the Mediterranean snail – which can be spotted aestivating: or in essence, having a lengthy doze during hot periods.

And that was what we spotted: hundreds – no, thousands – of small, pale snails clinging, in utter stillness, to fennel stalks.

Every bit as much a pest as the common or garden British variety that hides away and loves the wet, this little bugger at least has a gastronomic virtue.

In just a few weeks, after the grape harvest, a large number of them will be found vine leaves on grills over open fires, doused with hot fat.

It’s a rather nice thought.

Monday, 26 August 2013

A taste of the sea itself

Oysters – or seaside food porn, as it might be known
As the struggle to deal with a kitchen that includes a fancy juicer gadget but no knife sharpener continues, it’s not really felt as though there have been a huge number of culinary successes to report.

There have been one or two simple meals – not least a boudin Catalan, sliced in half lengthways and grilled briefly – and the inevitable magret de canard.

This was, after all, where we really learned last year that, to be a proper magret de canard, the meat must be from a duck reared in the south west of France for foie.

There’s a reason they have a fabulously thick layer of fat on them – all of which can be saved for potatoes.

A little fish has been cooked – not easy to prepare, though, when you don’t have a thin, flexible, sharp knife to fillet, and the only knife that’s worthy of the name is a cook’s knife, which is fine for many things. But not filleting or skinning fish.

Little soles thankfully required no prep, but an attempt to roast some white fish (I haven’t a clue what it was) in a fresh tomato sauce rather turned into something akin to a stew as the fish, finally skinned, fell apart rather a lot.

The Other Half was complimentary, but I felt far from thrilled.

I tried a very small chicken too – just like last year – but that was disappointingly flawed. Stuffed with garlic and lemon and basil, and with paprika and pepper generously applied to the skin, it had been placed on a trivet of lovely red onion chunks, in the roasting dish. A little liquid was added, the pot was lidded and went into a fan oven at around 160˚C. Less than an hour later, the onion was pretty much cremated.

As The Other Half observed when washing up, the pot itself may not have helped, being almost impossibly lightweight for a casserole. Did that make a difference? I don’t know.

However, the most noteworthy success thus far was meatballs.

The local boucherie sold me approximately 340g of a mix of pork and beef mince – perfect – and this had paprika, pepper and some bread that had been soaked in milk worked into it, before being shaped into balls the size of a large plum. Inevitably, there was an odd number. C’est la vie.

I skinned some of the local tomatoes – the ‘ugly’ ones that taste of the sun – and browned the meatballs in olive oil before setting them on one side.

Some sliced onion and garlic was then softened in the frying pan, before the tomatoes (drained and chopped roughly) were added, together with a little more paprika and black pepper.

After simmering gently for a minute or two, the meatballs were returned to the pan and a ‘lid’ was created with foil, since there was no proper one.

It was cooked for approximately 30 minutes, and garnished with tiny basil leaves on the plate. And the result was good – really good.

We have, in the last week, had one evening meal out, returning to nearby L’Amphitryon for the third time.

It had, we’d heard, a new manager. So there were questions about whether anything had changed and, if so, what?

A lovely view for dining
We booked (sensible, since it was a Friday evening) and found ourselves in a delightful corner on the terrace with a lovely view of the chateau as the sun descended.

Last year, when we dined there on our last night, we had been presented with very fancy amuse bouche. One was a tiny quiche each, with parmesan in, which – and regular readers may need to make sure they’re sitting down – The Other Half ate, knowingly, and didn’t object to.

Anyway, this year, the amuse bouche had been simplified to small croutons with Serrano and cheese on one, and a swirl of aïoli and a curled anchovy on the other.

And damned fine they were too, relying not on fancy culinary skills, but on the quality of the ingredients.

My starter, I admit, was as simple as it comes: six oysters.

Now it was late last year that I tried my first oysters, with no problems. These were rather different – being Mediterranean oysters and rather larger.

Not only are they larger, the taste is different: these really zinged with a sense of tasting the sea itself – just as Elizabeth David described the experience of eating utterly fresh sea urchins in Italy. What an absolute joy. There was some shallot vinegar with them, but I didn’t bother and stuck simply with the lemon. I’m too much of an oyster baby to want anything extra.

It was also a new experience in that they had not been cut free from the shell, so I had to do a new kind of work for my kick.

Cod, chorizo sauce and very nice vegetables
That may have been the cause of the problem I had some hours later, when a single dash to the bathroom was required. Not enough – thankfully – to make me believe that I’m allergic to oysters per se.

For my main course, I opted for cabillaud – cod – with a chorizo sauce. And very nice it was too, with a selection of vegetables that were also superbly cooked.

I know it’s boring, but I finished with ice cream, because I was just far too full for anything else – and the portions sizes were generous, to say the least.

We enjoyed a nice bottle of local rosé to wash it all down.

One of the few other differences we could see was the presence of chips – hand cut – where we don’t recall seeing them before.

But I’m delighted to report that the food at L’Amphitryon remains of excellent quality, and helps it stands out far from the ‘tourist trap’ restaurants to do exist in the village. And the service too is charming and unrushed.

All in all, it was an excellent evening.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

More Vauban and a quartet of hippies

Panorama from Collioure to The Square Fort, taken by The Other Half
Saturday: change-over day. Yesterday afternoon, we bade farewell to fellow holidaymakers with whom we have exchanged pleasantries on the beach over the last fortnight.

It was the chance to learn a new phrase: ‘à l’année prochaine’: ‘until next year’. It’s lovely to feel so accepted.

Blackberries – with some just ready for picking and eating
And with the departures came rain and storms to briefly take their place.

A cursory look at the sky this morning told its own story – the sun was out, but dark clouds were not far away, and it was even more the case when taken in tandem with the actual forecast.

So we decided against the beach and pottered for a while, taking coffee – far stronger stuff than we can make with the machine in the house – at Le Saint-Elme and then wandering into the centre of the village.

So, what to do with the rest of the day?

‘How about a walk before the rain comes?’ said The Other Half in fine jovial manner.

Into the hills
‘What a jolly good idea,’ I responded, in likewise mode.

After all, I’d felt invigorated by yesterday’s first paddle around the bay in a kayak (three times, no lifejacket – they were all for children – and not even a hint of panic) and then an actual swim later, so a spot more exercise would be welcome.

So off we set for the Mouré, the ‘posh’ bit of the old village.

The artists used to live there and, even now, on almost painfully picturesque streets that wind steeply and narrowly away from the centre, there are plenty of galleries and studios to be found.

The Square Fort
We climbed and wound our way around until we were below Fort Miradoux, the base for French commandos doing the watery bit of their training – and then headed further up beyond it; uncharted terrain for us.

The aim was two more of the fortifications that dot the region: ‘The Round Fort’ and ‘The Square Fort’, which makes it sound like something that Brian Cant would have said on Play School.

This, as unlikely as it sounds, recalled to mind Leeds. Back in the spring of 2011, when we spent a long weekend up there, I had been offered a choice of activities for the Friday afternoon when we arrived.

There was shopping – surely the girly activity of choice – or the Royal Armouries, which is as museum of … well, you can work it out.

Being me, I opted for the latter. Go on – hands up: how many birds do you know who would have done the same?

Centaurea cyanus
Anyway, more Roussillon fortifications held plenty of interest for me.

It was certainly exercise, and in the humid atmosphere, I had difficulty keeping my glasses on for most of the way up. It may look bad, but I’m going to get one of those bands that hold specs in place to avoid such problems in the future.

The track was clear and led through a veritable cornucopia of plant life: blue thistle-like flowers of centaurea cyanus dotted the dry landscape.

Vast amounts of ripening blackberries were another, and we were not the only walkers who picked and tasted: gorgeous.

Cicadas were audible, making their almost impossibly loud song. It’s made by the male insects’ tymbal muscles being contracted and relaxed, and is amplified by their mostly-hollow abdomens.

The sound can reach an extraordinary 120db – which to put it into context, would mean that, were one to sing right next to a human ear, it could cause permanent hearing loss.

The Round Fort
All of which makes them sound really rather dangerous. But I love the sound – it’s a sound of the Mediterranean, and although I possibly first heard it in South Africa, I first remember hearing it, years ago, in 2006, in bushes outside a hotel in Perpignan on our first visit to the region.

Anyway, first up was The Square Fort. It was, err, square, with a dry moat and a drawbridge, and various characteristic signs of old Vauban – designed in such a way that any defenders would have an easy time picking off any attempted assailants.

It also bore the marks of having been further altered during WWII – and there was a further concrete construction from that conflict; a base for a gun looking out to sea.

Walking further on, we discovered that a trench had been dug, and shored up with bricks, to create a hidden pathway to The Round Fort.

Sea and stone pine
Here again, were obvious signs of Vauban at work – not least the style of brickwork on a wall that had been added to the little building.

It overlooked the road that goes from Collioure to Argéles and on to Perpignan.

The views all around were spectacular: even with the sky growing greyer, we could see for miles, north up the coast and east, up into the hills.

Needless to say (but I’m going to anyway) coming back down hill was a great deal easier than going up.

Once back in the village, the next question was food.

Rather good tuna
At The Other Half’s suggestion, we headed again for Au Casot.

This time, as my delightfully moist and rare tuna arrived, the rain started hammering down on the canvas above us, lightening jagged to the sea behind, and thunder rolled threateningly around.

So much so, that a quartet of aging hippies who were sitting barely under that canvas roof had to move in further, coming right next to us.

I have to confess that tales of an American ashram and the jolly “queen” of an “east Indian” dancer who voraciously grabbed every male visitors’ bollocks for a friendly squeeze is the sort of lunchtime conversation that makes me roll my eyes.

After the storm
At one point, the woman who was, by then right next to me, looked as though she was about to have a panic attack, and the man leaned across the table and started stroking her arm.

The Other Half thought he was about to start chanting. Fortunately, the woman seemed to calm, and no further action was required.

The rain petered out and we made our way back to the house, picking up a few odds and sods for light snacking from one of the small local shops that really are so good.

Frankly, I am now officially knackered – albeit rather pleasantly so. But that really wasn’t bad for a day when the weather was not at its best.

* All pictures can be double-clicked to enlarge.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Survage revisited – and more

Survage: La marchande de poisson
Last week’s visit to the Collioure Musée d’Art Moderne had rather whetted my appetite, so the obvious thing seemed to be a day trip to Céret, which boasts a particularly prestigious Musée d’Art Moderne of its own.

Proper whetting of the aforementioned appetite was required, since such a trip, on public transport, is a bit of a trek.

Catching the 9.15am bus from Collioure – every journey in this area is €1, in an air-conditioned coach – the first stage took us to Argelès Villes.

After a break there, we intended to pick up the first available bus onward into the mountains to Céret.

The first part was accomplished easily, and gave us time for a brief look around the old town – so different from the tourist part, which is, frankly, rather too touristy for my liking.

We shall return one day to explore more.

Céret itself – old gate
Then we waited for the bus. It was delayed by around 10 minutes, but then we boarded for the journey, which was scheduled to take around an hour.

As it happened, traffic on the main roads added at least half an hour to that and I was beginning to get a bit like a tetchy version of Shrek’s donkey: ‘Aren’t we there yet?’

But eventually we made it – and stood at the bus ‘station’ in Céret itself thinking: ‘Have we got the right place?’ All we could see was a very modern, low-rise residential area, with a vast Carrefour nearby.

It was hardly the stuff of great artists.

Only after something of a wander, following signs for motorists rather than pedestrians, did we climb up far enough to find ourselves in the old town. Pouring sweat, the first thing on the agenda was reviving Coke.

Famed for its cherries, Céret is the capital of the historic Catalan region of Vallespir – note: if in Collioure, find Bar brasserie de la Marine and try the Vallespir salad, which comes with goat’s cheese drizzled in honey and melted on large croutons, and is served with leaves, toasted pine nuts, black olives and gloriously sweet, ripe melon. It is a dream.

Loutreuil, La conversation...
It is, entirely in keeping with the region, a very old town. The church at the heart of the old village is Romanesque – as are many others in the region: Argelès Ville, Elne and many that we passed through on the way.

As another aside, I'm rather thrilled that I can now spot the difference between a Romanesque and a Gothic church – and have at least a faint clue what it means.

Anyway, just as Collioure has been associated with art since the beginning on the 20th century, so too has Céret.

Picasso lived there in 1911-12. Braque, Soutine and Maillol all did the same.

And in the 1950s, artists Pierre Brune and Frank Burty Haviland created the museum there, with support from their friends, Picasso and Matisse.

Nether of the founders were bad artists themselves, as the museum’s permanent exhibition shows – even if you’ve never heard of them before.

Marchand, Le couvent des Capucins
Indeed, there are several names that many visitors will not be familiar with, and this is a great way to get to know some ' new' names.

Essentially, the permanent collection is made up of two sections: the early 20th century and the very recent.

I’m not going to go into detail on the latter, because, in general, I wasn’t really particularly impressed.

However, the first section is superb.

So, briefly: Maurice Loutreuil’s La conversation sous les platanes from 1919 impressed us both. I’m afraid the reproduction can only give a hint as to the quality of the picture itself.

The convent itself – more recent sports ground below
August Herbin’s Les trois arbres from 1913 uses colour really dramatically and vibrantly – and it works.

Jean Marchand’s Le couvent des Capucins from 1912, creates a sensuous, curvaceous landscape and inserts within it an austere, angular convent.

It was with a certain amount of chuffedness that, as we strolled back toward the bus stop later, I spotted that building on a nearby hillside – albeit softened with cypresses these days.

There would normally be some pieces by Èdouard Pignon – but they were in Collioure, where we'd already seen them last week.

Herbin, Les trois arbres
There was a substantial collection of Picasso. Now I am not the world’s biggest fan of ceramics, but the big display here may have made me change my mind.

Most were focused on the corrida and were created in the 1950s, but what they do show is that, unlike Dalí, Picasso did not become a parody of himself.

These are not just lazy daubs – they’re really fine, detailed, fascinating work.

And one of only two Picasso paintings in the collection (the first is a very early portrait, which serves to perfectly show how the exceptionally young artist had mastered art) Nature morte au crane et au pichet from 1946 is a surprise when one thinks one knows what to expect from the artist.

There is also a sketch of people doing a sardanes – with a dove above it, but that’s the nearest Picasso’s work that is displayed here even remotely approaches cliché.

Picasso, Picador, 1953
Then there was the surprise of finding Matisse sketches – all were of Collioure, except one gloriously simply one of a woman’s face. For goodness sake, we could even tell what beach he’d sketched each one on.

Then another surprise – a vast Chagall canvas, plus a number of “compositions” that the artist himself had presented to the museum.

It’s a fascinating thing to see again the work of an artist whose work you have so recently seen in an intense way, and to see it in the context of the wider art of the time.

Having thoroughly appreciated the Chagall exhibition at the Liverpool Tate, we felt that we could see these different works with a much more educated eye.

Picasso, Nature morte au crane et au pichet
But in similar vein, given last year's exhibition of his Collioure work at the village's own Musée d'Art Moderne, there was another real treat here: two Survages: La femme à la fenêtre from 1931 and La marchande de poisson from the same year.

An admission: I could barely stop myself from jumping up and down and telling anyone who was near, ‘I’ve got one of his! I’ve got one of his!’

What you really get from such an exhibition, though, is a sense of art in a time.

We'd seen the Survage a year ago. We'd seen the Chagall in June. We saw the Pignon last week.

All are linked. And here, you get the chance to see not just examples of their work, but of the wider artistic movements within which they painted and developed, and of the geography that drew them and linked them.

It's enormously rewarding in terms of helping you to develop an understanding.

Barceló, Planta
If the most modern permanent exhibits failed to excite, the temporary exhibition was a different kettle of poisson.

It was a substantial collection of work by Miguel Barceló, under the title Terra Ignis.

Born in Majorca in 1957, Barceló has worked in a number of mediums, but has recently been concentrating on ceramics.

Having traveled widely, he has been particularly influenced by West Africa.

He currently works from a brick works, creating pieces that range from table-top in size to so vast that they fill a room.

At first, when we walked into a room of vast terracotta goblets, most appearing to be in the process of breaking apart, and many apparently filled with ‘melting’ terracotta bricks, my thoughts were along the lines of ‘o-kay’.

But after paying some attention – and after seeing one in particular from a certain angle – I started to see something.

Looking at Planta from across the room, I could see a modern city collapsing. The terracotta bricks he’s fond of using become like city buildings.

There’s a hint of Dalí (at his best) when jugs or bricks are seen in a state that makes them seem to have melted. But there’s no pastiche here.

Barceló, Terra Ignis
And when you enter the room containing (barely) the exhibition’s title piece, you look and see faces staring out at you from everywhere in this mass of melting, disintegrating, chaotic construction: faces likes ghosts; faces of the ancestors – and all wanting to know what the holy hell we think we’re doing, wantonly destroying this planet.

Well, that was what I saw. In other words, I found meaning in the art – and that’s what it’s all about, isn't it?

Outside in the blazing sunshine, we moved to a café next door and ordered beers and simple food.

We were served by an aging hippy, complete with grey ponytail and a long, pink-peach shirt that had me observing that it brought to mind Hare Krishna followers.

And to conclude, wonderful colours at Céret's cemetary
After eating, I wandered off to the toilet – only to find myself walking into a tiny cubicle that was covered in Krishna artwork, with a soundtrack and flashing lights that began when the lights switched on.

I had trouble not bursting into hysterical laughter as I sat on the throne.

But we all look for meaning in different places – yes?

The journey back was better: although it was scheduled to be longer and take in stops at more tiny villages, it was traffic-free and speedier.

It was a lengthy day’s trek – but well worth it. Céret really can boast some excellent art.

Oh – and I’ve got a Survage too.