Perpignan is the kind of city people tend to come across by accident - and once they do, they discover that in some respects it's like a bijou Barcelona
A staging post between Toulouse and the Riviera to the north and Barcelona to the south, this city tucked away in the Roussillon region of France – framed by the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean Sea – is easily accessible via cheap flights from the UK, with seats more readily available than for those more popular destinations.
On arrival at the gare routière from Barcelona, my wife Katya and I contemplated the fact that a milestone once stood here marked ‘Centre du Monde, 0.0km’, inspired by Salvador Dali’s modest endorsement of the station; although citing this, writers often forget to add that this is only because he caught the Paris train from here. However, during our day out in Perpignan we unearthed a surprisingly multicultural city – brightly painted façades are redolent of Spain, whilst African influences are especially marked in Place Cassanyes, where a weekly bazaar brings the breath of Algiers to Southern France, and Arabic and sweet mint tea mix aromatically in the air.
Perpignan is predominantly Catalan by choice and French by vocation, with red and yellow flags keeping the tricolor company above thronged streets during Thursday nights in summer, when bands and entertainers perform around the town gratis as part of the city’s ‘Estivales’ cultural programme, and La Habana Bodéguita (5 Rue Grande des Fabriques) hosts its weekly salsa evening. On other evenings the Gaudi-inspired Café République (2 Place de la République) is an essential live venue. In these respects, Perpignan could easily pass for a bijou version of Barcelona – smaller and less spectacular, but offering similar ‘eats and ents’ (from tapas to street theatre) without the associated hassles or costs one endures on La Rambla.
An impressive redbrick gate leads through Le Castillet, a surviving fragment of the medieval walls once used as a prison. Within these walls is Casa Païral, an interesting museum that celebrates the history of rural Roussillon - though given the draw of the old town, which is thankfully pedestrianised, it’s easy to miss as one moves on to the central city square, Place de La Loge, with its pink marble pavement, patisseries and chic clothing stores like Boutique 66. Nearby Place Gambetta is a tranquil square with a fountain; a place to pause and ponder the imposing frontage of the Cathédrale St-Jean.
Restaurant Le Sud (12 Rue Louis Bausil) serves delicious evening cuisine – try the fragrant tagines or work your way through a creative cocktail menu on the leafy patio. However, there’s no set menu so you must order à la carte. A wandering minstrel who tours the tables with a frantic guitar will either deter or allure you. Le Sud is situated at the corner of the Gypsy and Arab quarter, so you can dive off into mazy streets after dinner, when the cathedral’s bells blend with snatched canticles of Arabic, French and Catalan in a surrealist play that would do Dali credit. S’il vous plaît becomes si us plas here, whilst bonne nuit is bona nit. Confusing if you’ve only just mastered the basics of French!
The Palais des Rois de Majorque is worth admiring for its form rather than contents, and the close-knit masonry reminds me of Robert Byron’s addiction to smart 'café au lait’ coloured brickwork in his Persian diary The Road to Oxiana. This Arabic connection isn’t entirely coincidental; the palace was built in 1276 by Jaures I, King of Islamic Mallorca, and it’s a commanding vantage point from which to survey Perpignan. On bright days you can even catch the Mediterranean exchanging sly winks with the sacred Catalan peak, Mount Canigou, from the citadel’s tower.
Devotees of Dali will enjoy the surrealist frisson of discovering that Perpignan is within easy striking distance of Figueres (60km to the east by rail), the artist’s birthplace and home to Teatre Museu Dali (€11), which showcases works from throughout his career.
It’s also worth setting a day aside to visit the artistic enclave of Collioure (only a few kilometres north of the Spanish border) for its bright winding streets and cerulean blue sky that inspired the bold colours and brush strokes of the French Fauvist school of Matisse, Derain et al. Here you can stumble around art shops owned by the shell-necklace/wooden-bird brigade of property investors turned ‘artistes’, or follow the Chemin du Fauvisme, a walking trail that commemorates the vantage points where the real masterpieces were executed, complete with steel-plated reproductions of these paintings.
The cobbled streets are steep, so it’s easy to work up a hearty appetite, and our favourite restaurant to look up on the descent is the cosy, family-owned Les Puits (24 Rue Arago), where a savage fight for elbow-room at the three outside tables is well worth while and the cassoulet de fruits de mer a minor miracle. Tapping the caramel crust of our perfectly torched crème catalane, we fell to thinking that – like an itinerant street musician in Perpignan, or perhaps one of the medieval troubadours who plied their trade throughout the former kingdom of Catalonia – everything is well-attuned in Roussillon, a delightful region that is gradually earning increased and well-deserved applause.
Hôtel Poste et Perdrix (6 Rue Fabriques-Nabot, Perpignan)
A 19th-century classic with comfortable en suite rooms from around €40.