With its mix of French and Catalan culture, Perpignan
offers the best of both worlds, says Lydia Gard - The Guardian
- Saturday July 9, 2005.
It's not surprising that Perpignan doesn't feature on
the quintessential tick-list for long weekend destinations.
For a start, it is squirreled away in Roussillon, the
southern-most corner of France, a district that is so
busy producing table wine that it has little time to
up its ratings on the tourism clap-o-meter.
Salvador Dalí once referred to Perpignan station
as "the centre of the world", which is to say
the least "surrealistic" as celebrity endorsements
go. Add to that the town's inherent identity confusion
and a reputation for being a gateway to finer things, and
Perpignan is way down the pecking order.
More fool us. While we have an online
bun fight for price-hiked flights to the Côte d'Azur, the spectacular 150-mile
stretch along the Côte Vermeille, lies perfectly,
peacefully empty. Set slightly back from the coast and
within hacking distance of the wild foothills of the Pyrenees,
understated Perpignan waits patiently. In one of Ryanair's
fits of generosity I took the bait and booked a free return
If you arrive expecting a typical French city, you'll
be surprised. Not only is it within smuggling distance
of the Spanish border, it is also on the road that links
the straits of Gibraltar to the Italian peninsula - the
Roman Via Domitia (or, less romantically, the A9).
Like every border or crossroad town, there is a mishmash
of culture. Order a bottle of vin de table and it arrives
with a plate of tapas. Turn up during the summer and red-and-yellow
bunting is draped across balconies, with occasional splashes
of white and blue. Listen carefully to gossip in the boulangerie,
and you're bound to hear Catalan embellishments. It can't
seem to make up its mind, but what Perpignan knows for
sure is it's Catalan first; French second.
city is also more cosmopolitan than you might expect.
In the old centre, which is mercifully pedestrianised,
elegant arcades and palm-lined squares open on to each
other. The Place de la Loge boasts a pink marble pavement
while rue de l'Ange is lined with smart boutiques and cafes,
such as the Paradis Fouillis, a bijous salon de thé.
Boutique 66 (Perpignan is the capital of department 66,
the Pyrenees-Orientales; at 14 rue Foch) is a chic new
shop for clothes and accessories, and rue des 3 Journées
is the place to find Catalan inspired decoration, fashion,
and children's boutiques.
Among the hotchpotch culture, there
is thankfully no confusion over what to do at midday.
Eating and drinking al fresco
is obligatory, and there is a great variety of places to
chow down. By far the best menu du midi is at L'Arago brasserie
(1 Place Arago, +4 6851 8196, from €15 for three courses).
After a hearty feed, it is a five-minute
stroll to the Palace of the Kings of Majorca. Built in
the 13th century
and once the court of the kings of Aragon, it now has an
eerily empty moat and fantastic views over the town. As
French towns go, it isn't postcard material, but there's
plenty of history among the churches, monuments and museums,
all marked by comprehensive histoire de la cité boards.
Les Trois Soeurs on Place Gambetta
is a good place to kick-off the evening. Through the
Gauloises haze a distinctly
trendy crowd mill around, knocking back mojitos. In the
summer, patrons of various bars spill out on to the street
and merge into a collective soiree. Le Républic
Café is the place for live music, though on Thursdays
in summer, bands and street entertainers perform around
the town anyway (July 7-August 18, until 11.30pm, free).
Another place for atmosphere is
Le Habana Club (5 rue Grande-des-Fabriques), a Cuban
bar and restaurant with
an extensive cocktail list. Over the road, le VIP (+4 6851
0230, 4 rue Grande des Fabriques, set menu €23), is
a sophisticated and intimate restaurant serving unusual
Mediterranean cuisine and spicy Catalan dishes.
The nearest beach, Canet-Plage (10
minutes out of town on bus number 1), is a swathe of
white sand, popular with
families. An afternoon spent sipping rosé over a
three-course lunch at La Fontaine de Klervie (Promenade
de la Côte Vermeille), will set you back €20.
Just north of the Spanish border,
the former fishing village of Collioure is what St Tropez
must have been like before
the yachts arrived. A cat's cradle of cobbled streets punctuated
by galleries and cafes - not to mention a splendid castle
- set the tone. Henri Matisse lived and painted here, and
famously said: "In the whole of France there is no
sky as blue as the one above Collioure." These words
drew Pablo Picasso, Dalí, Raoul Dufy, and Andre
Derain here, and it became the unlikely birthplace of the
colour-rich Fauvist movement. Today, local artists tend
to be of the handmade shell-mirror movement, but its charm
is still intact.
Mopping up the last splashes of lobster bisque before
my taxi arrived, I realised it's not always the obvious
places that end up scratching their initials on your passport.
In France, as in life, the quietest ones often have the
most to say.