Collioure is not the Mediterranean of millionaires, whose yachts and bronzed bodies clutter the azure waters of Saint-Tropez. Collioure is that rare workingman's Med: an unpretentious fishing village with pebbly beaches, 320 days of sun, and a tan it comes by honestly. Yet somehow it still exudes the mysterious air once breathed in by artists like Henri Matisse, lured here by its pure light and lusty vitality.

French for the past 350 years, Collioure is a distinctly Catalan town, set in a cove where the Pyrenees fall into the sea, just 15 miles from Spain. Its pastel row houses ascend from a small bay that twinkles like wet paint. Life in Collioure carries little urgency. In summer the beaches fill up with French families on holiday, but there are five to choose from – the Plage de Port D'Avall is the town's best. Grilled fish a la plancha and glasses of wine are served nearby on sunny seaside terraces.

At night Collioure's cobblestone streets feel intimate, as Catalans duck into lamp-lit cafes like Casa Léon on Rue Rière. Order a crème catalane, a rich custard dessert, and a glass of local Banyuls red, which smells like baked fruit and tastes sweet, sunny, and sincere – everything the Mediterranean should be.

Getting There: Fly to Barcelona and catch a three-hour train ride [$42]; it's six hours from Paris. Casa Païral is a 19th-century Catalan home. [From $120; en.hotel-casa-pairal.com]