The main railway line from Barcelona to the French border passes through the small inland town of Figueres. Trains from here to Portbou, the last town in Catalonia before crossing the Spanish-French border, use the narrower Iberian-gauge track. Some trains from Figueres terminate at Portbou, others continue via the narrow-track tunnel to Cerbere in France.
Adventurous travellers who stop in Portbou for a couple of hours usually head for the beach promenade, a graceful place ideal for a stroll in an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. Portbou’s harbour has changed over the last decade from a small haven for fishing boats to a complex concrete construction that caters for pleasure boats and mid-size yachts. From the harbour, it is a short hop by boat to one of the several secluded seashore spots along Portbou’s coastline. A case in point is Platja del Clape, a small beach that offers an ideal combination of sand, sea and water-sports facilities.
Visitors heading for the south of France often skip Portbou and choose Cerbere as their first destination in France or as a base from where to take a train to travel north. Stopping in Cerbere for a few hours is not a bad idea. The high-rise hotels and blocks of apartments right on the coastline are definitely out of place but the fantastic views of the hills in the background more than compensate for this. If you have the nerve to walk uphill, the view of the rugged Mediterranean coastline from the hilltop is a superb portrait-pretty panorama few other spots can match.
An easy destination from Cerbere is Perpignan, a French city where most residents speak as much French as Catalan. Signposting to attractions is also bilingual while signs in English in the city centre are not uncommon, particularly in areas frequented by tourists.
Perpignan is not on the coastline but one can easily reach from here a number of coastal towns, most of which are endowed with a combination of wide sandy beaches and secluded rocky shores. Worthy of mention is Canet-Plage, Perpignan’s nearest beach resort. A hike along the picturesque promenade of Canet-Plage gives one the opportunity to breathe in the salty Mediterranean air that is blown inland from the sea whenever the frequent violent Tramontane wind strikes the area. From the seashore promenade, look at the steep terraced vineyards that cover the fertile hillsides as these drop into the sea.
Perpignan is an ideal base for those who want to get acquainted with the Cote Vermeille, a coastal stretch of land renowned for its tiny picturesque villages and fishing ports. Collioure is the place to come if you want to see tens of art galleries, all filled in to capacity with landscape paintings, most of which depict either traditional multicoloured fishing boats or local houses washed in soft pastel colours. Most of these are genuine works of art painted by local artists who take their easel to a vantage point where they can get in touch with nature. Some are however imitations or poor copies and cost next to nothing. So if you intend to buy, examine the paintings carefully before committing yourself.
Collioure is synonymous with Henri Matisse since it was here that the famous French painter of Fauvism got his inspiration to throw in splashes of intensely bright colours onto a canvas in an effort to demonstrate the effect of time on nature. The ‘Chemin du Fauvisme’ is a guided walk around Collioure that takes one past twenty reproductions of artworks made by Matisse during the short time the artist lived here.
Though not on the coastline, Perpignan is a city where one can relax for a couple of days in an atmosphere of sun and warm weather. Add to this, Perpignan’s Catalan culture and great Spanish food and you will discover why this city is anticipating a flourishing exposure and a prosperous future.
Perpignan’s cultural attractions are concentrated south of the river Tet, a broad waterway that flows through the city before it discharges its water into the Gulf of Lyon. Perpignan’s town centre is bisected by another waterway, a narrow tributary that branches out of the Tet and flows southwest across the city. Both waterways are lined with wonderful passageways that are ideal for walking at leisure. Thrown here and there along the passageways are small manicured gardens, packed with rose bushes and hydrangeas, a veritable delight when in bloom.
Perpignan is without doubt an important centre of Catalan culture, tradition and history. There is no need to go around the medieval winding streets of the old quarter to discover this. A short walk along Rue Louis Blanc and Place de La Loge is enough to put you in touch with the city’s most important Catalan architectural heritage. One fine building that exposes in detail the influence of Catalan culture on the city is the Hotel de Ville, a typical Languedoc-Roussillon building whose frontal elevation is dotted with a profusion of river pebbles put in place as a means of reinforcing the thick plaster. Its huge doorway leads to an imposing courtyard surrounded by an arcaded corridor where one finds a number of offices used primarily as a working place of administration for the region. From time to time, the courtyard and the corridor are used to host cultural events, open-air concerts or temporary exhibitions.
From here, a short stroll towards the Basse (the Tet’s tributary) brings one on Place de Verdun. The fourteenth-century redbrick city gate that occupies a large section of the square is what remains from the bastions that formerly encircled the city. Known as ‘Le Castillet’, it houses a museum of Catalan folklore, packed with artefacts, historical documents and knickknacks related to Catalan culture. Its rooftop terrace provides great views over the medieval city centre.
Place Gambetta is Perpignan’s most popular square. A venue for a good number of city festivals, church celebrations and specialized markets, it is the symbol of Catalan identity in France. On one side of this square stands Perpignan’s Cathedral. Dedicated to St Jean, it is a massive fourteenth-century single-nave place of worship whose Gothic architectural design is typical of churches in the south of France. Its redbrick frontal elevation is dotted with an orderly array of river stones, making it appear much older than it really is. The single bell tower topped by a wrought-iron cage is typical of churches in Provence. Get inside and you will be faced with quite a few magnificent works of art. Worthy of mention are the huge stained-glass windows that illuminate the choir and the elaborate carvings and fine altarpiece that adorn the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament.
Adjoining the Cathedral of St Jean on Place Gambetta, the ‘Campo Santo’ is an interesting historic building notorious for its long rows of white marble Gothic porticoes. It is in actual fact a cloistered graveyard, one of the oldest buildings in Perpignan, ghostly, magical and unique in the whole of France. Definitely a must-see for lovers of medieval architecture.
South of the city centre on Rue des Archers, one finds the majestic Palace of the Kings of Mallorca. This huge redbrick fortress set within its own grounds is structurally immaculate and oozes history. Its impressive castle-like Gothic features are an extreme example of military architecture. The rooms and the tiny chapels within are empty of furnishings and decorations but they are nonetheless worthy of a visit for their imposing structural design. The top platform of the main tower provides great views over the city that stretch out to the mountains and the sea in cloudless weather.
Place de La Republique, a short stroll south of the medieval quarter is a shopper’s paradise. Besides dozens of small individual shops, the square and its neighbouring streets are packed with cafes and restaurants, most specialize in fine Catalan cuisine or innovative Mediterranean fare. In summer, the square becomes one long dining area. Tables perched outside and shaded by large parasols fill in most of the space, creating a refreshing ambience of entertainment.
It’s good to know that Perpignan’s medieval quarter is just one side of the picture. The other side is unfortunately a slum area inhabited by illegal North African immigrants who live in depressing poverty. If you venture east of the Old Town centre and walk uphill in the direction of the Church of St James, you will get a taste of a Perpignan that is utterly different from the Perpignan you have already discovered. Known as the Arab quarter, the area around Place du Puig and Rue des Mercadiers is a disgrace to society. The smell of North African spices, herbal concoctions and red-pepper paste may appeal to some but join the crowds of Arabs on the market square every morning and you will feel otherwise. The strong sneezing smell that abounds is simply too much for a European.