Perpignan, Collioure, and Elne

Our second week was spent in and around Perpignan, in the southernmost region of France that some call French Catalonia. For most of the Middle Ages it was part of the Kingdom of Aragon that became part of Spain rather than France; it was even briefly in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries part of the short-lived Kingdom of Majorca that also included the Balearic Islands and the area of Montpellier. The region only became part of France in the seventeenth century.

In the twentieth century, this region saw even more diversity. In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, some of the leaders of the losing side fled across the border rather than risk the wrath of Franco. They might have intended only to stay a short while, but Franco remained in power so many decades that they remained here in France. So there are many people of Spanish descent, too. In the 1960s, then, again in the aftermath of the War of Algerian Independence, many of the French from Algeria as well as the Algerians who had collaborated with the French colonial government and those of mixed descent also fled to areas like Perpignan (as well as Marseilles), bringing a North African feel to the region.

In recent decades, the people of Perpignan and its region have been celebrating their Catalan heritage, and street signs are posted in both French and Catalan.

So Perpignan has a very multicultural feel, incorporating these varied elements of Catalan, French, Spanish, and North African cultures.

Our apartment in Perpignan was in a building alongside the canal formed by the Basse River as it flows through the city.

Perpignan is a poor city, and our neighborhood--and much of the city--was a bit rundown. But it was clear that there
was once great wealth here, at least in the late nineteenth century, as evidenced by the many mansions with fine details.

This elegant nineteenth-century department store, about a block from our apartment, is now a music store.

Perpignan's downtown is mostly pedestrian, so it is easy to stroll around and admire the sights,
like this Gothic building from the fourteenth century that once housed the customs house for trade goods.

Parts of the city have the feel of North Africa, with sand-colored houses topped with tile rooves, and olive and palm trees.

One of the chief monuments of the city is the former palace of the Kings of Majorca. It was built in the thirteenth century as a royal residence,
but heavily redesigned when Perpignan became part of France in 1642, after which it served as a fortress and a garrison for French troops.

The huge moat that surrounds the palace was part of the seventeenth-century redesign.

The interior courtyard is part of the original thirteenth-century structure.

The former residence is now used in part as an art museum and in part for local music recitals and exhibitions.

The central tower of the palace gives a commanding view over the city.

Another interesting local monument is the Castillet or "little castle" that was once the main gate of the city's walls.
It was built in the fourteenth century and now houses a museum of Catalan folk art and culture.

From its tower you can see the old mansions lining the canal of the Basse. It was very
easy for us to find our way to and from the downtown simply by following the canal.

One day during our week in Perpignan we headed south along the coast, almost as far as the Spanish border.

The French call this part of the Mediterranean coast the "Côte Vermeille" or "Vermillion Coast,"
as opposed to the French Riviera that they call the "Côte d'Azur" or "Azur Coast."

Our first stop was at the seaside town of Collioure, which turned out to be a real highlight of the trip.

It is clear that Collioure can be a busy place, if the numbers of restaurants and seaside cafe tables is any indication.
But we were there early enough in the season that it was peaceful enough.

Collioure is recognizable by the distinctive belltower of its small church that
juts out into its harbor and that once also served as the town's lighthouse.

Also alongside the harborfront are restaurants and hotels and lots of places to sit and relax.

Walking away from the harborfront we encountered many narrow and twisting streets that climb up the hills amid colorful houses.
Apparently there are lots of apartments for rent in the old town for those who want a seaside vacation.

Not far from Collioure but inland is the former home and workshop of the early twentieth-century sculptor Aristide Maillol, who mostly sculpted nude young women, but whose sculptures are found across France but especially in his native region. (Have another look at the Gothic building in downtown Perpignan and the interior courtyard of the Palace of the Kings of Majorca in the photos above on this web page for other examples of his work.) We were the only visitors, but enjoyed walking around his country house and admiring his sculptures.

Before returning to Perpignan that day we stopped at Elne, a former Roman town named after Helen, the Emperor Constantine's mother.
In the Middle Ages Elne was home to a bishop and so there is a large Gothic cathedral there, with a beautifully preserved cloister.


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