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Desperately seeking Dali
A traveller enjoys hiking the France-Spain border region, where rugged granites contrast with nearby Mediterranean beaches and towns. Picture: John Borthwick

In France there is no sky as blue as the one in Collioure," wrote Henri Matisse.

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My plan is to walk in easy stages from this picture-perfect Mediterranean village of Collioure in south-eastern France to the equally picture-perfect Cadaques in Spain.

I'm aided by a compass and a set of trekking notes that turn out to be a work of surrealist literature - quite fitting because surrealist painter Salvador Dali was also a dweller on this coast.

My notes promise a "sportif" amble south across coastal foothills from village to castle, vineyard to sunny beach, with overnight stays in local hotels. Hah!

With its palace of the queens of Aragon and a De Chirico-style watchtower, Collioure is so "Mediterranean" that tourism's publicists might have invented it. In a sense they did, but their names were Matisse, Derain, Picasso and Dali - painterly blow-ins who, early in the 20th century, were drawn by Collioure's medieval stonework, absinthe- tinted waters and crystal light.

I set out with my pack and allegedly trusty notes. The verdant coastline scallops south towards Spain while, to the west, the Pyrenees climb, steeply quilted by vineyards.

My notes tell me "waymarks" will indicate the trail. I spot one - not a signpost or arrow, but a yellow dash about the size of a band-aid. Then another, hiding on a stone wall about 50m away.

So, where's the next one? Nowhere. I revert to the guide notes but they have skipped to fast-forward while advising me to turn at "a vine." A vine? There are thousands - I'm beside a vineyard.

Reverting to compass and map, I head cross-country, hunting the elusive yellow dashes - rare as rocking horse droppings. I pass the time concocting punishments for the fantasist who brewed these notes, this expert from the "You-Can't-Miss-It" School of Disorienteering.

The day grows hotter, and the landscape both lovelier and more rugged. I give up on the needle-in-a-haystack waymarks and, finding a little used road, stick to it as it meanders towards Banyuls-sur-Mer where I will overnight.

Banyuls' beach has "sands" more like the stuff found in an Australian concrete mixer - grey, pebbly rubble - but the cool, clear waters soon wash away the sweat and madness of my day.

I face the next leg of my journey with renewed vigour and a plan - catch the train. In this I'm not unlike Dali who declared that Perpignan station, just up the line, was "the centre of the universe", apparently because he got all his best ideas in its waiting room.

In a few minutes the fabulous French rail system whisks me south past the Pyrenees' knees, so to speak, and all the vines, pines, prickly pear, dead-ends and phantom waymarks that may dwell therein. I hop off at Cerbere, a pocket of sunlight and somnambulism facing a bay. From here it is just an hour's hike up the last ridge of France. "Hola!" says the first person I meet there, not "Bonjour." Ergo, I am in Spain.

I'm now on Salvador Dali's beloved Catalan coast. Another short ride, past the unfortunately named town of Colera, brings me to the fishing and yachting port of Llanca where good dining - anchovies again - and sleep await.

The next walk is a breeze. I find a track that hugs the coast. The scents of pine and lavender drench the air. Tiny birds click in the shrubs like unseen typewriters. I swim. The beaches are dotted with burnished Spaniards, snoozing like punctuation marks, bronzing further. Port de la Selva appears, its whitewashed, white-hot buildings dished around the bay like solar panels. Beyond them the mountain ridges are a recession of blue-grey faces upturned to the sky.

The last stage of my journey will bring me Cadaques, ground zero for Dali, the place of his boyhood vacations and then long-term residency. I am determined to conclude the trip as I began, on foot, even if I end up walking like a surrealist.

The trail climbs through woods and old estates where dry-stone walls and hermitages are a reminder of the deep Catalan history. But soon it all goes prickly-pear-shaped. The waymarks have gone for a Burton again, the trek notes are a tale told by an idiot, less about Catalonia than catatonia, and I am lost again.

The Dali-esque rocks and clocks are meant to be melting, not me. I hear voices. Looking down from a high ridge, I see boats on a beach. I'll ask directions. Better still, they'll offer to ferry me to the nearest "civilisation". To reach them, I have to climb down a steep gorge then swim up a creek from which I emerge, confronting the sunbathers on the beach like a demented apparition from the wilderness.

"But it is impossible to get lost here!" trumpets an elderly Spaniard, looking like Pablo Picasso on his day off.

I stand before him as a reluctant, wringing-wet proof that, therefore, Australians can do the impossible. He's no help at all. The only way forward is back. I swim back up the creek, shoulder my pack and set off bush bashing again through rocky hills of stabbing thorns and thicket.

This is not called the Costa Brava, the Wild Coast, for nothing.

Dali depicted the local landforms as melting like cheese. I know exactly how they felt. Stretching to the east I can see Cap de Creus, Iberia's easternmost promontory, whose metamorphic rocks inspired the painter. He described this area as "where the Pyrenees dive into the sea in a grandiose geological delirium". Couldn't have said it better myself.

Smugglers and partisans once used these trails. Today the partisans have gone artisan and the smugglers' kids run sightseeing tours. But at least there is now a road. I spy the distant, crystalline walls and spires of Cadaques by the sea.

"Times does not pass in Cadaques," wrote Dali. Well, yes and no. I find a harbour town awash with sangria, celebrity bars ("no paparazzi allowed") and thousands of tourists, as well as the undiminished, seductive ambience of its old stones and fishing barques. "In the perfect and dreamy town of Cadaques … alongside the Latin sea, I have been quenched by light and colour," Dali mused, and the same still holds true on this thronged and partying summer night.

Next morning I take the short stroll two kilometres to Portlligat where Dali and his wife Gala lived, on and off, from 1930 almost until he died in 1989. It's a village of cats and lavender with just one industry - Dali.

The original fisherman's hut morphed during his six decades of residence into a white empire of conjoined buildings housing the Grand Guignol kitsch visions of Dali's extraordinary art and personality.