Salvador Dali called Perpignan’s station “the centre of the world” and for a few days it was the centre of my world as I caught the train from here to Villefranche-de-Conflent, Collioure, and Salses-de-Chateau.
Perpignan is a Catalan town where very little Catalan is still spoken. The Catalan flag flies from the red-brick Le Castillet on Place de la Victoire, the only surviving tower from the old town walls, but I found Perpignan to be the most ethnically diverse city I visited in the south-east of France.
I walked along the banks of the Tet River and turned along the Promenade des Platanes lined with plane trees and headed towards the spectacularly choreographed fountain by the WWII War Memorial. Here I headed outside the city walls and then found the Eglise St-Jacques, which from the 18th Century has been reserved for the use of the brotherhood called ‘La Sanch’. These Penitents perform a solemn march on Good Fridays. Next door to the church is a public park given over to the plants found in the garrigue landscapes of the south-east of the Languedoc region.
After the park, I walked to the Arsenal area of the city and then headed back towards the Old Town via place du Puig. This area seemed to be lived in by recent immigrants from Morocco and Algeria. The music was all Arabic, the restaurants were selling kebabs and meze and there were no bars. Cars were being driven around the inside courtyards of modern apartment blocks and the atmosphere reminded me of The Middle East in the 1990s. Suddenly, when I was one block from the 600-year old Campo Santo graveyard, I noticed the streets were deserted and the Old Town of Perpignan had magically reappeared.
The Campo Santo has pointed alcoves and marble recesses set into walls made from brick. It was completely deserted every time I walked by and looked closed, unusual for a graveyard where you normally see at least a few people wandering around. The Cathedral of St-Jean was consecrated in 1509 and has an elegant campanile containing a 15th Century bell.
This is the part of Perpignan where there’s a lot to see in a small area. The first building of interest is the Loge de Mer dating from 1397. High on the south wall are three coats of arms standing for the classes of people who ran the town council – merchants and drapers, doctors and notaries, and artisans and gardeners. There are a gargoyles and a sailing ship on the edge of the roof. It was in this square during WWII the passeurs could be found, the brave people who would be able to get refugees across the Pyrenees and into neutral Spain. Next to the Loge is the Hotel de Ville with Aristide Maillol’s La Mediterranee bronze in the courtyard. The Palais de Deputation is next and this is where the Roussillon Parliament met hundreds of years ago. Further on is the Place de la Republique where there are many cafes and restaurants with seating on the square.
This extract is from the book Travels through History : France by Julian Worker