The French con­nec­tion

In the foot­steps of ar­chi­tec­tartist Charles Ren­nie Mack­in­tosh in Rous­sil­lon

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION EUROPE - GAVIN BELL

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

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