The French connection
In the footsteps of architectartist Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Roussillon
The painter and his wife were enchanted by what she called “this lovely, rose-coloured land”. It was 1923, and Scottish architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his lifelong partner Margaret had left smoggy London for the sunshine and warmth of southern France.
They were not the first to be seduced by the light and land of Roussillon, then a rustic heartland of Catalan hill farmers and fisherfolk where the Pyrenees tumble down to the Mediterranean. A few years before, Henri Matisse declared it had the bluest skies in France. A holiday became a permanent stay, and for the remainder of Mackintosh’s life the couple roamed happily between the Vermillion Coast and river valleys leading to the high mountain plateaux of the Cerdagne.
Almost a century later, their travels have been waymarked on a structured Charles Rennie Mackintosh Trail with reproductions of 30 of his watercolours in situ where they were painted, interspersed with interpretation centres. It is a journey through time and space, from castles built by the kings of Aragon to Roman spa towns and a place Mackintosh, known particularly for his art nouveau Glasgow buildings, called fairyland.
Much has changed, but much has not. Inevitably tourism has made inroads, but the hill villages and port towns of Roussillon have been largely spared the glitz and glamour of the Cote d’Azur. It remains a place where one can wander lonely as a cloud, although there are few of those in the sky. The Mackintoshes’ first destination was Amelie-les-Bains in the foothills of the Pyrenees. It is the kind of place that used to feature in art nouveau railway posters: a fashionable spa resort with healing thermal waters, air as crisp as wine, and plenty of walking trails.
Rushing merrily through it on a rocky bed is the River Tech, which is so full of life it once hosted the World Trout Fishing Championship. It is a quiet, unpretentious little town where couples come to take the waters, and gather for aperitifs in pavement cafes. The ambience is unhurried and sociable, a perfect antidote to the relative bustle of coastal resorts. After a day strolling and musing by the river, I immerse myself in the vaporium of the Roman baths. This is like being in a sweetly scented rainforest, and is followed by a massage with air jets in thermal water, and a kaolin mud bath that leaves mind and body deeply grateful to the sybarites of imperial Rome.
On a hill above the town, reproductions of Mackintosh’s work are displayed in an annexe of a 10th-century church in the hamlet of Palalda. It is a fine little exhibition, featuring watercolours, furniture, textiles and vid- eos of his early life in Glasgow. For the lone traveller, it also has an inspiring quote by the artist: “Be independent … shake off the props tradition and authority offer you — and go alone …”
Thus encouraged, I drive on over the Route des Cols, a winding mountain road snaking through deeply wooded mountains, and through villages dotted with abbeys and priories that have weathered storms of nature and human conflict for 1000 years. The road eventually leads to the valley of the River Tet, where the Mackintoshes spent a winter in the market town of Ille-sur-Tet. The big attraction here is a natural amphitheatre of pillars of rock said to resemble organ pipes. In fact, it is more like a geological fortress, flanked by knife-edge buttresses.
Up the valley stand forts designed by Vauban, the military engineer of Louis XIV, to withstand the slings and arrows of neighbours. One of his masterpieces is Villefranche-de-Conflent, an impeccably preserved medieval town enclosed by fortified walls that is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Take away the gift shop signs, and cue d’Artagnan and his musketeers for swashbuckling action.
High above the town, Vauban installed an artillery position known as Fort Liberia, which commands panoramic views of a chaotic jumble of mountains and defiles. In its day it served as a prison for ladies who fell out of favour with the French royal court, and then for World War I German officers. Now it has a small exhibition devoted to Mackintosh.
Port-Vendres, top left, where Charles Rennie Mackintosh, above, and his wife Margaret stayed in a hotel overlooking the harbour; rock formations of Ille-surTet, above right