Forget the tricolore, France’s southernmost département flies the striped red-and-yellow flag of Catalonia, a sign of its separate culture and turbulent history. The area was wrested back and forth between France and Spain in a centuries’-long tussle and though nowadays it has become fairly frenchified, the old language, Occitan – and even modern-day Catalan – still influences the strange, nasal ajbjfkkFDGDGDGjfkDJBSKFJKDJ French you hear in these parts.
The very name of the département even shows the history: It is the south-eastern portion of the Languedoc-Roussillon region and Roussillon, sensibly enough, was it’s old name. Nowadays, it’s officially Pyrénées-Orientales – a clear sign of the French stamping their mark on this patch of land. Personally, I find that Roussillon flows better.
Perpignan, Roussillon’s capital, is closer to Madrid than it is to Paris, and Barcelona is a mere 3 hours away by train (although I had one memorable experience where it took an awful lot longer, but that’s another story…)It’s a less-popular destination than surrounding southern areas, but that’s definitely part of its charm, combined with the fascinating culture, the pride of the locals and the spectacular landscapes.
There is an international airport just outside Perpignan, but it is small and flights are limited and infrequent. An easier option might be to fly to Girona (Spain) and take the Frogbus (yes, really) from the airport into the centre of Perpignan. The bus takes about 2 hours. Alternatively, you can fly to Toulouse and take the train – also a 2-hour journey.
Where to Stay
If you want a bit of city culture (admittedly on a small scale), Perpignan is the place to stay. It’s gorgeous, with a labyrinthine Old Town and palm-tree-lined squares. Snow-capped mountains are clearly visible from the centre of town and pavement cafes just beg for you to sit and watch the world go by.
Citea Perpignan offers pleasant self-catered rooms in the heart of the city centre, just metres from the Castillet. It’s very reasonably priced and offers a dining room for breakfast, as well as a small kitchenette in the room for preparing your own meals.
An independent family-run alternative is the delightful Hotel Aragon, owned by a very sweet old couple. The rooms are a little more basic, but it is well-placed close to the centre and the charm of the owners will make you glad you stayed.
Places to Visit
Canet Plage is the nearest beach to Perpignan, a short drive away, or you can get a local bus there. Buses leave from Place Arago and take about half an hour to reach Canet. The beach is lovely, if a little built-up, but a stroll along the coast will take you to wilder areas where kite surfers play. Further south, Banyuls-Sur-Mer is a pretty Mediterranean beach town with a lively spirit.
Collioure is a disarmingly beautiful harbour village, with some great places to eat serving fresh mussels and anchovies. The main attraction is a church to make you sigh with wonder – at certain angles, it appears to float on the water and it is so pleasing to the eye that your heart skips a little.
Perpignan is a great base from which to visit the Eastern Pyrenees – unsurprising, since that’s what Pyrénées-Orientales translates as. To make the most of the area, you will need to hire a car, or be prepared for some serious (several-day) hiking. You’ll discover plentiful vineyards, the ruins of castles which harbour a violent history – and views to die for.
One of the best places to go to understand the history of the area is the Palais des Rois in the centre of Perpignan. This imposing castle once belonged to the Kings of Majorca, which sort of sums up the region’s Catalan identity. Besides the history, climbing to the top of the tower offers panoramic views of the city and the mountains.
It’s an intriguing, beautiful and easily accessible destination – it’s just amazing that more people don’t go. But keep it a secret – it’s better that way!