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Photo by David Murano
Perpignan - Town hall with Maillol statue
Town hall with Aristide Maillol's statue 'The Mediterranean'
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Photo by David Murano
Perpignan - Castillet
Perpignan lies within an hour and a half's drive from Barcelona, with much to offer visitors. It is a crossroads where France and Catalunya meet, the Pyrenees end and the Mediterranean begins. And, while Salvador Dalí, in the Sixties, called its train station the centre of the world, today that same station is the focus for Perpignan's future as it braces itself for the arrival of the high-speed train link.
Although Perpignan has officially been within French territory for the past 350 years, its Catalan past has not been diluted, and it continues to be known as the capital of north Catalunya. The tourist blurb sells it as Perpignan la Catalane, highlighting its double-stranded history.
The golden age of Perpignan took place during the time of the Catalan kings of Mallorca. In 1276, Jaume I set up his court there, which at the time was one of the major forces in the Mediterranean. The citadel built by these rulers still retains a key position in the historic heart of the town. Catalan traditions and culture continue to be celebrated with Sant Jordi, for example, an important day in the local calendar. The red and yellow colours of Catalunya's flag are in evidence everywhere, from the free bus that zips around the town centre, to the team colours of its extremely successful rugby team, USAP, who have TV3 as one of their sponsors. Apart from the Perpignan la Catalane slogan, another phrase which also crops up with evident pride is that of Fidelissima Vila de Perpinyà ('very loyal town of Perpignan'), a moniker for the resistance of the town against the French king, Louis XI.
However, some may question how Catalan the locals actually feel. Statistics produced by the Generalitat last year stated that 65.3 percent of Northern Catalans understand the language, with 37.1 percent able to speak it. The debate as to whether the town is more Perpignan (French) or Perpinyà (Catalan) has been, and continues to be, fundamental to the spirit of the town and visitors can take advantage of exploring the two cultures in a relatively small area.
Apart from the commanding landmark of the Catalan kings' castle, the main area of interest is the old town, about 10 minutes' walk away and a pleasant complex of small streets. This is also the main shopping area, with boutiques side-by-side with more familiar national and international chains. Many buildings here have retained original features, such as the 13th-century Loge de Mer, once the stock exchange of the town and now a modern restaurant. Next door is the town hall, from the same era as the Loge, where one of the inner courtyards typical of the period can be found, with a bronze statute by Aristide Maillol called 'The Mediterranean' as its focal point.
Nearby is the Cathedral of St. Jean l'Evangelist (St. John the Baptist), which houses a cacophony of statues and side-alters in a suitably dusty atmosphere. The main style is Gothic, but changes and additions made to the structure through the ages mean that there are also Baroque and Renaissance features.
On the east side, leaving by the Bethlehem door, is the cloister cemetery, Campo Santo (literally 'Holy Field'), the largest and oldest of its kind in France. Coming out of the main entrance of the cathedral, and turning right up a little side street, there are the shell remains of St. Jean-le-Vieux (St. John the Old), which was the original cathedral of the municipality built in the 11th century. It is not possible to go inside, however, largely due to the fact that it was turned into an electricity stationin 1980, but there are plans to restore it.
When leaving the historic core of Perpignan, the most impressive way to go is through the 'Castillet'. It was once the gate for entering the town and the red-brick tower is still an important local symbol. Once out of the older part of town, a good place for a stroll is down the Quai Sebastien Vauban, where there is a slightly over-cared-for narrow garden, running down each of La Basse, a tributary of the main La Têt river. Sebastien Vauban was a military engineer in the 17th century who designed the fortifications of Perpignan. Today, next to nothing of the walls reamin, torn down to allow the town space to breathe and expand at the start of the 20th century. However, in the streets Pierre Ronsard and Charles Perrault, it is still possible to see remants of the outer walls standing and try to imagine the immensity of the construction as it was four hundred years ago.
In many ways, the newer areas of the town, such as those around the remaining fortifications, do not have much to say for themselves, but visitors can be grateful that over-zealous town planners have not allowed tall, modern blocks of flats to be built that might have drowned out the view of red-tiled roofs, such as those of the army barracks and archive situated just above the old town walls, peeking out from among more recent constructions.
At some point, the high-speed AVE train will arrive in Barcelona, allegedly making the journey time to Barcelona just 48 minutes [when this article was written, the train line was due to be finished by 2009. However, in summer 2010, the final completion date is still unclear]. The implications are overwhelming - it will be less than an hour from a significant international airport, and a true bridge between the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe. All over town, work is currently taking place to ensure that it is not just the train station that is a slick 21st-century landmark in amongst the older heritage.
What makes Perpignan such an interesting place to visit is its mix of cultures and eras. So that, while it has many familiar Catalan features, at the same time it is still possible to enjoy a perfect butter croissant here.
Good times to visit Perpignan during the year include Good Friday (when a special Easter procession winds its way through the town, featuring hooded men and veiled women walking solemnly, some bare-footed, carrying effigies of Christ, his mother and scenes from the end of his life), spring for the Festival of Sacred Music, in September for the International Photojournalism Festival, Visa pour l'image.
There are beaches about 15 minutes away from the town centre, including Canet Plage, with a long, golden beaches.
First published October 2005.