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The Unbeaten Path
In French Catalonia, the Power of Picasso

By Nan Chase
The Washington Post
Sunday, May 24, 1998; Page E02
   


Sure, there are lots of Picassos in Paris. But if you're going to be in France this summer, why not go to the source? Consolidate your crowded Parisian museum visits into a trip to French Catalonia, where Picasso made his revolutionary art in the decade before World War I.

The Museum of Modern Art in Ceret -- 400 miles south of Paris, near France's Mediterranean border with Spain -- is the place to go. The museum got its start in 1950 with a gift from Picasso of more than 50 of his works, including a fascinating set of 28 small bowls he painted to celebrate bullfighting, a passion still alive in Ceret today.

The museum's permanent collection includes works by Chagall, Juan Gris, Dali, Manolo and Matisse. The collection attracts visitors from all over Europe, but is blessed with a certain remoteness from the main French cities -- no crowds.

Explore the countryside around Ceret and you'll absorb the atmosphere that nurtured bold 20th-century art: the clear air, the vibrant colors of coastal towns like Collioure, the rich cuisine and strong young wines of the Pyrenean villages. Ceret was for many years the center of an artists' colony. Today, the hillsides all around are still lush with orchards and vineyards, and the towns are bewitching. It's easy to communicate in Spanish here, since the Catalan culture predominates.

By traveling in June, we beat the high prices of July and August and were able to find rooms every night without having to reserve ahead. And the heat of midsummer hadn't kicked in yet. We missed the craziness of the bullfight season in Ceret -- a good thing -- and had the museum and its excellent gift shop nearly to ourselves.

My husband and two of our three teenage children approached the Languedoc-Roussillon province along the southern French coast last summer. Bypassing gritty Perpignan, we turned off the main Barcelona highway toward a string of small resort towns along the Mediterranean. The dark, vineyard-clad Pyrenees Mountains meet the sea right at the Spanish border -- a glorious sight on a clear day -- and we stopped at the town of Banyuls-sur-Mer.

Drawn to the waterfront Avenue de Fontaule, we took two small rooms at the modestly priced but noisy Hotel La Pergola. The view couldn't be beat: There was the Mediterranean, where my son and I took an afternoon swim in the cool water, and there was a never-ending game of petanque -- similar to boccie -- going on in the shady seaside park just beyond our window.

Our beach trip to Collioure the next day will always stay with me: the clear black water of the Mediterranean, the soaring architecture and narrow streets, the quiet beach scene, the shops and cafes. The following morning we took in Banyuls's Sunday market and headed into the lower Pyrenees, still and green.

Ceret merited its own half-day visit. Warm and open, the center of town looks today much as it did when Picasso and his friends sat at the sun-dappled sidewalk cafes. There in the midst of it all sits the Museum of Modern Art, steel and glass but blending in fine.

We spent nearly two hours touring the galleries. The first three are filled with superb modern masterpieces -- and then comes the incomparable display of Picasso's painted bowls honoring the power of bullfighting. Just looking at them, I could hear the crowd, feel the heat. If a room can be worth a whole trip, this was such a place.

France's Languedoc-Roussillon region is 400 miles south of Paris -- about a 10-hour drive. Or you can fly from Paris to Perpignan, less than an hour's drive from Ceret; round-trip air fare on AOM French Airlines from Paris's Orly airport is $125. The Museum of Modern Art (8 Blvd. Marechal Joffre, Ceret) is open year-round; admission is about $5.60. For more information about Ceret, contact the French Government Tourist Office's France on Call service, 202-659-7779 or http://www.francetourism.com.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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