Vibrant city close to Spanish border
www.perpignantourisme.com. A vibrant southern city just 30 km from the Spanish border, Perpignan is more Catalan than French. Jaime I, King of Aragon, settled the question of his succession (1262) by dividing his kingdom in two. His younger son, Jaime II, received Roussillon and the kingdom of Majorca. Perpignan became his capital, and the city flourished during the 13th-14thC. The web of narrow Old Town streets enfold the best of the sights, excellent shops and an enormous selection of reviving bars, cafés and restaurants offering plenty of Catalan specialities.
An excellent place to start exploring is the Musée Pairal laid out in a 14thC city gate on place de Verdun. On the way up to the roof-top look-out, stop off for a whistle-stop introduction to Catalan culture by way of peasant crafts, costumes and furniture. On summer evenings, outbreaks of the sardaña, a traditional Catalan folk dance, take place on the square.
A short walk down rue Louis-Blanc, place de la Loge boasts a Maillol sculpture and the 13thC Loge de Mer, the former stock exchange and seat of the maritime court. Its Gothic arches now front a hamburger franchise, but inspect the gargoyles from a well-placed café table.
Nearby, an iron grille gives on to the courtyard of the 13th-14thC Hôtel de Ville, where Maillol strikes again with La Mediterranée posed on a neat patch of grass. The concierge lets visitors into the Salle des Mariages with a typical Hispano-Mauresque painted ceiling. From place de la Loge, rue Saint-Jean leads to the relative calm of place Gambetta and the 14thC Cathédrale de Saint–Jean adorned with a frivolous iron belfry on one side, arched buttresses and gargoyles looming over a small courtyard on the other. Concealed in the impenetrable gloom of the interior there are a couple of fine Renaissance retables or altar panels (light switches on the left), and two early 16thC masterpieces painted on 12-m high doors removed from the organ loft. Hung either side of the exit to the Chapelle de Christ, the doors depict the Baptism of Christ and Salome delivering John the Baptist’s head – the latter, in particular, reveals a wealth of rich and rare Italianate detail.
Another Old Town sight is the little Musée Rigaud, 16 rue d’Ange, named for the 18thC court portrait painter, Hyacinthe Rigaud. There are several of his works on display, plus Catalan and Proven√ç¬µcal primitives, some jaunty Dufys and Maillols. Both lived in and around Perpignan, as did Picasso who also features (closed Tues).
Adrift in the flapping laundry and mean streets of the Algerian and gypsy quarter to the east, the old Catalan Eglise de Saint-Jacques dates from the 14th-17thC. It is the starting point for the historic Good Friday Procession de la Sanch with its robed and hooded penitents who wend their way to the cathedral as they have done since the 15thC. Across the street, the Jardin de la Miranda meanders around the city walls.
Vauban’s massive fortifications draw a six-pointed star around the 13thC Palais des Rois de Majorque, rue des Archers. Founded by Jaime II in 1274, the two-storey palace is bordered by gardens with views across the city to Canigou. The Gothic arcaded courtyard reflects a distinct Moorish influence, and there are two chapels, one above the other, the upper with a fine banded marble Romanesque facade.
Winter sun: Perpignan and French Catalonia have some winter sunshine.
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