Lap up the French and Catalan influences in this vibrant Mediterranean city.
French and Catalan influences, both ancient and modern, combine to exciting effect in this Mediterranean city, says Robin Gauldie
Arrving in the capital of Pyrénées-orientales, I immediately get the sense of a city with a distinct cultural identity. Road signs welcome me not only to Perpignan, but to Perpinya. And not just to Perpinya, but to Perpinya –‘ Centre del Mon’ (Centre of the World).
There is no doubt that Perpignan is in France. That question was settled in 1659, after centuries of Franco-spanish squabbling. But the city has a clear Catalan identity. The border is only 35 kilometres away, and Barcelona is 650 kilometres nearer than Paris. The red and yellow Catalan flag flies over the hôtel de ville, alongside the tricolore and the EU’S star-spangled banner. They dance the sardana on Place de la Loge at midsummer, when bonfires are lit from torches carried from Canigou, the mountain revered by Catalans. And the street signs are bilingual.
Arriving at the Gare de Perpignan, I do not perceive any of the ‘frenzied energy’ that some writers have claimed inspired Salvador Dalí (who lived most of his life just across the Spanish frontier in Cadaqués) to declare the city’s railway station ‘the centre of the world’. In my haste, I fail to notice the Dalíesque swirls of colour that decorate its high ceilings.
It is not until I arrive on Place de Catalogne that I am reminded of Dalí’s links with Perpignan by a gleefully mad statue of the artist, arms flung wide to embrace the world. It is a copy of his effigy above the station entrance.
Knowing a little about Perpignan’s early history, I expect a historic centre replete with medieval mansions and churches, but it is the art-deco patrimony that surprises.
The city has more than 1,000 outstanding villas and other buildings in this style, says Philippe Latger, founder of Perpignan Art Déco. The organisation curated its first festival in 2015, which looks like becoming an annual fixture.
Until the 1890s, Perpignan was hemmed in by its medieval ramparts. With a craze for urban renewal sweeping France, they were demolished to let the city grow.
And grow it did. Behind Dalí on palm-lined Place de Catalogne is a grand wedding cake of a building with huge
windows and a glazed cupola. When it opened in 1910, Aux Dames de France – one of the earliest branches of the Gompel brothers’ department store chain outside Paris – was heralded as a steel and glass marvel of edgy early 20thcentury design. Seemingly doomed after some decades of dilapidation, it was rescued by millennium funding, and since 2001 has been a branch of the FNAC retail chain, its still-exciting exterior untouched except for the prominent logo of its new owner.
Among those who campaigned to save Aux Dames de France were the Font family, self-appointed guardians of Perpignan’s art-deco heritage and owners of another landmark of this adventurous era, the Cinéma Castillet on Place de la Victoire. Elaborately decorated, it stands just across the square from a much older, and better-publicised landmark. Le Castillet, a massive towered gateway of brick and stone, is all that remains of the old city walls. Once a prison, it now houses a museum of folk arts and Catalan traditions. Passing through its great arch, it feels as if I have travelled from the belle époque and the art-deco years to a much earlier era. Most of the surviving Gothic and Renaissance buildings stand within a few hundred yards of Le Castillet. They date from Perpignan’s golden age as a mercantile centre, when its skilled workers spun and wove raw wool from the Pyrénées into fine fabrics that were exported throughout the Mediterranean,
The Cathédrale de Saint-jeanBaptiste (Perpignan’s patron saint) looms over Place Léon Gambetta. Begun in 1324, consecrated almost 200 years later and (like so many cathedrals) never quite finished, it has an oddly modest facade, built not of dressed stone but (like Le Castillet) of Roman-style terracotta brick and rough red rubble boulders from the river. Within, though, it is anything but modest. An unusual single nave makes its dim interior seem all the more cavernous, dwarfing the scant remains of the 11-century Saint-jean-le-vieux, which it replaced.
A few blocks away, on Place de la Loge, the Loge de Mer – now housing the city tourist office – was the hub of the city’s trade, where merchant guilds bought and sold. Next to it, the courtyard of the 13th-century hôtel de ville is graced by La Méditerranée, a pensive bronze water nymph cast in 1905 by Aristide Maillol. The sculptor lived in nearby Banyuls, and this was the work that launched his career. There are more of his works in the freshly renovated Musée Hyacinthe Rigaud, but when I visited, its opening date was still a couple of weeks away.
Saving Perpignan’s most prominent landmark until last, I wander through narrow streets toward the medieval Palais des Rois de Majorque, pausing for a glass of mint tea at a Moroccan stall in the Marché Cassanyes, busy as ever on a Sunday morning. Walking round the ramparts, I can see that this was in its day both a grand royal residence and an imposing fortress (it was garrisoned by the French army until the 1990s).
The walls alternate courses of brick and boulder, though the inner courtyards would originally have been plastered and whitewashed. The halls and palaces, designed for James II of Majorca, are a blend of late-romanesque and Gothic, with coloured marble gracing stairs and arched doorways. James’s little kingdom, combining Roussillon, Cerdagne and
the Balearics, was created for him by his father, James I of Aragon. He became king in 1276, but the kingdom lasted only until 1349, when his grandson, James III, was ousted and his lands absorbed by Aragon.
On the way back to the station I tip my hat to Perpignan’s latest contribution to edgy design, the Théâtre de l’archipel, which opened in 2011. Here, architects Brigitte Métra and Jean Nouvel have created an arts complex with a hint of the surreal that might have pleased Dalí: a massive pink central blockhouse takes its cue from the towers of the Palais des Rois; a vast red bubble of an auditorium is inspired by the garnet pebbles of the Tet river-bed; and an arched metal wing echoes the vaults of Perpignan’s Romanesque-gothic churches.
During my stay, I have galloped through Perpignan’s older history and had time to glimpse some of its more recent architectural heritage. Next time, I plan to discover more of its art-déco grandeur, and I shall remember to pause to admire the station that claims to be the centre of the world.
ABOVE: The statue of Salvador Dalí on Place de Catalogne; FACING PAGE FROM TOP: Bustling Place de la Loge; The Le Castillet gateway; The Palais des Rois de Majorque
ABOVE: The Théâtre de l’archipel arts complex