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Magical Collioure weaves its spell


As the last of the sun dips on the Cote Vermeille, the folk of Collioure come out to spread their brand of magic and mayhem.  Nights unravel here like Shakespearean plots: confusingly, surreally and with hilarious fallout. The cast of players is infinite. The genre places somewhere between the comedic and the tragic. Only one thing remains certain: If you’re in town and hoping for quiet evening, well then you’ve come to the wrong town.

If this was A Midsummer Night’s Dream then my Puck would be Max. Mischevous (but never to the point of malevolent) he casts an alacritous eye over the night’s proceedings, ready to stir any potential pots of scandal or intrigue. My first introduction to Max came about not long after we arrived here. It was one of those delicious summer evenings where the sky holds fast to the departing sun and a certain frisson spikes the air. We were at a loose end. We decided to take a stroll into town and headed, as everyone does, for the Café Sola. The Sola sits squat in the centre of town and is to all intents and purposes the hub of Collioure life. On an average day you can order a coffee or beer and delight in the voyeur-ship of quotidian life.

collioureThat night though, the locals were having a toga party. It was as if we had entered the set of Carry on Cleo long after the cameras had stopped rolling. Vast bowls of punch were being refilled, legitimately or otherwise, and drained at an alarming rate. Random body parts protruded from bed sheets hastily pinned to sweaty Catalan bodies. Plastic cups were thrust in our hands. I drank with unhesitant urgency. Around us fêtards were dropping like (bar) flies. The staff bore the haunted look of those who have witnessed great travesty. All the while the Collioure fanfare band played on, as I imagine the fated band did on the sinking Titanic, but with less skill and hope, come to think of it. They are legendary in Collioure, famed less for their musicianship and ability to play the same tune at any given time, and more for their proficiency in simultaneously smoking, drinking and tooting. Plumes of smoke billowed out of their brass instruments like an Apache warning. We decided it was time to save ourselves. Safe outside, we noticed a toga’d figure approaching, dragging something cumbersome behind him. As he neared, it became apparent what was trailing him. He had brought his own casserole to the party. On a skateboard. ‘’Max .‘’ he said. ‘’Enchanté.’’

Max is as much to Collioure as the Cloché tower, as the lucent sun. Tall, astute and with a cloud of white hair he patrols the town like a friendly sentinel, hands clasped firmly behind his back. You’ve heard of someone having a twinkle in their eye. Max’s Mediterranean blues coruscate like two Catherine wheels. These eyes see all, delight in all……. but especially the female form. His fondness for the ladies is well documented and tales of him sheltering in wine barrels from the hands of scorned husbands never fail to tickle me. At our wedding (to which I must add he attended in full kilt, as a true, honorary Scotsman) he arrived with a sporran stuffed full of condoms and a bottle of home-made hooch, ready to woo the visiting lassies. The man is 70. He now proudly steps out with the lovely Françoise, a woman of equal warmth and with a covetable vintage sunglasses collection.

collioureHis story is remarkable. Born in what is now, appropriately, a bar, he has patrolled the streets of Collioure for tens of years. Such Colliourenc roots would earn the assumption that he would lament the influx of foreigners, that he would deem them a chink in the jewel of French Catalonia. On the contrary, his welcome has been benign. I am not naïve. I am sure that for him, we are a source of entertainment, mere pawns to be manipulated in the wicked games that play in his mind. For every congenial word directed our way, there is a devilish subtext, an impenetrable turn of phrase that is lost on us but which fuels the fire in his eyes. Regardless, his love for the town, for its inhabitants and for life itself is great. Regularly, we are invited into his home, to sample such Catalan treats as Fiduea or Zarzuela, while he regales us with anecdotes of attempts on his life, of lost dogs at sea. I was proud to be present at the now fabled house party he hosted where the fanfare band played with such fortitude that it spurred hotel guests to flee the town and landed Max a police visit and a hefty fine. He posted the fine on his Facebook page with all the pride of a 15 year old’s ‘selfie’. (A hasty whip-round on the part of the band left his wallet replenished and his reputation untouchable.)

If Françoise is his first love, then his second is undeniably his boat. He likes to fish for calamar. I would call him less of a fisherman, more of a calamar whisperer. While others trawl the waters fruitlessly, he returns with a full catch and a thirst for wine. Such is his love for the calamar, he even dressed as one on New Year’s Eve, in a costume he had fashioned himself on a budget sewing machine. My four year old son was fortunate enough to be privy to one of these calamar fishing trips last year. He returned with eyes as wide as dinner plates. Soul ignited and with fevered pride he handed over our evening’s supper. It was an unforgettable education for him in how food reaches our plates.

His boat also lays scene to one of my fondest Collioure recollections. A couple of summers ago Max took me and some friends on a midnight boat trip to neighbouring town Argeles. The water was eerily still and seemed to glow as if lit from within. The crescent moon grazed the surface like a suspended Christmas bauble. The boat ploughed through the expanse effortlessly like a seasoned workhorse. Everyone was quiet. We drank straight from bottles of Champagne and relished the salty breeze on our faces. With Max at the helm we felt safe, happy. It was utterly magical and a memory I revisit often.

Such benevolence means Max has become a dear friend to my family, and to much of the English speaking community, despite our flaccid grip of the French language. His mother harboured British soldiers during the war. I like to think her legend lives on in the protective wing he provides to us floundering étrangers. He has taught me countless times, and in countless ways, that life ultimately, is to be enjoyed.

A glass to you, Max.

kirsten mackintoshKirsten Mackintosh is from Scotland. She lives in Collioure with her husband , a winemaker and two children. She has an art studio and a very keen interest in food including a baking complusion/addiction. Kirsten’s website: www.ateliermackintosh.com

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