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

France - - Contents -

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.

Coloured mar­ble

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

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