La Basse as it flows through the city centre
Ever wondered where the centre of the universe is? Turns out it’s Perpignan railway station, or so proclaimed artist Salvador Dalí when, following a trip to the city, he said that he always got his best ideas in its waiting room. Dalí’s painting La Gare de Perpignan (1965) encapsulates the feelings of ‘cosmogonic ecstasy’ that he experienced there on September 19th, 1963. Today, there is a monument to Dalí on top of the station, and ‘Perpignan centre du monde’ (Perpignan centre of the world) is inscribed across the surface of one of the platforms. With its warm, terracotta glow, tree-lined squares and labyrinth of medieval streets, the accolade is not entirely undeserved.
At just one hour and 20 minutes by high-speed rail link from Barcelona, and five hours from Paris, Perpignan may be part of France, but its historic ties with Catalunya remain strong. Today, Perpignan is the capital of the modern day Pyrénées-Orientales department, but it was once the main city in French Catalunya, the portion of the principality ceded to the French in the 1648 Treaty of the Pyrenees, and the Catalan spirit flourishes here—street names, cuisine and traditional festivities all embody the city’s Catalan heritage. Modern Perpignan has a multicultural flavour and is home to several vibrant international communities, making for a diverse city and an interesting weekend destination just a stone’s throw away.
Settlements in the area are thought to date back to the Roman period, although the medieval town of Perpignan was founded in the 10th century. The old town lies at the heart of the city’s historic centre, just a short walk east of the railway station. Most sights are situated in the centre and can be easily visited on foot.
Palais des Rois de Majorque (Palace of the Kings of Mallorca)
The 13th and 14th centuries marked a golden age for Perpignan, when it became the continental capital of the Kingdom of Mallorca, a region that covered the Balearic islands and the counties of Roussillon and Cerdanya. Due to its position of importance, Perpignan started constructing this palace-fortress in 1276 in the Gothic style. Built on a hill, the ramparts provide sweeping views across Perpignan’s ochre rooftops. Rue des Archers. Open every day, 9am-5pm.
Construction work started on Perpignan’s cathedral in 1324, although it was not completed until 1509. The imposing structure looms over the old town in all its Gothic grandeur. 1 Rue de l’Horlage. Open Monday-Friday 8am-6pm, Saturday-Sunday 11am-5.30pm.
Photo by Le Zibou
Place de la Loge
The Place de la Loge is Perpignan’s historic administrative centre and is home to a row of three important civic buildings. Firstly, there’s the 14th-century, Gothic Loge de Mer, which was once Perpignan’s stock exchange, then a maritime tribunal, and today houses a café. Secondly, the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), a 12th-century building with two archways that lead into an airy courtyard. Finally, next door to the town hall is the 15th-century Palais de la Députation, which used to be the seat of the local parliament.
This former city gate is now all that remains of the city’s medieval defensive walls. Built in 1368, the red-bricked edifice stands imposing, watching over all those wishing to enter or leave the city. Today, it houses the Casa Païral Museum of Catalan arts and traditions. Place de Verdun. Open Tuesday-Sunday 11am-5.30pm.
Photo by Jorge Franganillo
A bustling, local food market held Tuesday to Sunday from 7.30am to 1.30pm in the city’s lively central square, Place de la République.
Parc de Sant-Vicens
Boasting a wild smattering of Mediterranean riverside flora and fauna, this lush park is a treat for those looking to escape the city for an afternoon. Many walkways and cycle paths weave through the wilderness and there are picnic spots where you can sit and take in the natural beauty. Traditional ceramicists come here to sell their wares from Tuesday-Sunday.
This lavish mansion, with its sumptuous interior of gold, marble and onyx, exemplifies the tastes of the wealthy elite at the turn of the 20th century. It is owned by the city council and opens to the public in September for the renowned international photojournalism festival, Visa Pour L’Image. 18 Rue Emile-Zola.
The ornate, Art Nouveau Cinéma Castillet, built in 1911, is believed to be the oldest cinema in France still in operation and has a special connection with Barcelona. During the Franco era, people would cross the border to Perpignan to escape Spain’s strict censorship rules, which prohibited them from watching anything considered to be erotic, and the Cinéma Castillet was a top destination to see such films. The original building currently houses a bank and the Castillet cinema has moved next door. 1 Boulevard Wilson.
Photo by Jean Pierre Dalbéra
Designed by France’s leading starchitect, Jean Nouvel, in collaboration with Brigitte Metra, Perpignan’s newest cultural landmark is the eye-catching Théâtre l’Archipel, opened in 2011. It’s possible to visit this daring architectural oddity by guided tour, or check out the listings of upcoming performances via the website, theatredelarchipel.org. Avenue Général Leclerc.
Square Bir Hakeim
This three-hectare park, considered the city’s green lung for the past two centuries, is situated east of the city centre. It’s a peaceful spot, known for its incredible trees, including plane trees dating from 1809 and a ginko biloba tree with a circumference of 3.80 metres and a height of 30 metres.
EATING AND DRINKING
- La Baratine. A friendly, cosy bistro tucked away in the corner of this rustic square. 1 Place de la Révolution Française.
- Les Frères Mossé. This vintage bistro serves up authentic French fare. 14 Rue de la Fusterie.
- Le Saint Jean. Located beneath the ancient arches of the cathedral, with a stunning patio surrounded by carved Medieval walls, this restaurant provides French food with a twist.1 Rue Cité Bartissol.
- Hôtel de la Loge. Hidden away in one of the old town’s narrow alleyways, this mid-range hotel is housed in an ancient building and makes the perfect base to explore the delights of the old town. 1 Rue Fabriqués d’en Nabot.
- République Serviced Apartments. Compact and stylish holiday apartments in Perpignan’s lively central square. 1Bis Place de la République.
- Train. Barcelona Sants-Perpignan by high-speed train (AVE). 1 hour 20 minutes. Car. 2 hours (200km).