Forget pricey Cannes and the Cote D’Azur, and keep on heading South towards the Spanish border until you reach the perfect French town of Perpignan.
Nestled at the foot of the Pyrenees, close to the Mediterranean coast, you will find this picturesque town with a well preserved walled medieval city centre and a glittering river running alongside it.
Perpignan has a rich Catalan heritage, over 300 days of sunshine a year, and the bluest most cloudless skies I’ve seen in a while. The summers are long and hot and the winters bright, as tourists head for the mountains when it’s ski season. The artist Salvador Dali claimed he once had a dream that Perpignan Station was the centre of the world and indeed the station today bears the title ‘El Centre Del Mon.’
The Centre of the World
Located in the heart of the Languedoc-Rousillon wine making region, Perpignan is surrounded by vineyards, orchards and farms. The river Tet makes the area surprisingly lush and green despite the very hot climate.
Perpignan is a city steeped in history and culture. Its medieval walled centre, with the castle gate still standing, has many beautiful historical buildings, parks and squares. The winding streets are lined with elegant boutiques and restaurants.
Open air markets operate every day of the week at different locations around the city. I love local markets and despite the poor exchange rate with the pound, everything seems pretty cheap to me. Some markets have lots of fruit and vegetables and herbs, all grown locally. Some sell bric a brac and antiques and books.
There are lots of clothes on nearly all of the markets and there is a huge flea market (marche aux puces) on a Sunday morning. I love this market in particular and it sells just about everything including engines (which can be started for you on request) cheese graters, plant pots, phone accessories, local produce and pyjamas.
There are lots of cool museums in Perpignan. I decided to explore the museum of contemporary art. The exhibition in this museum housed in a beautiful old building is contemporary, amusing and clever and oh so ‘avant garde,’ in that way the French do so well.
Exhibits included a video of two security guards in full riot gear doing the tango in a beautiful Madrid museum hall. Another installation showed a giant chocolate coloured Michelin man proclaiming ‘One World for All.’
Other museums are the Natural History Museum showcasing local flora and fauna, and museum of Catalan history. There is another larger modern art museum and a museum of dolls too.
Perpignan is threaded with some breathtakingly pretty canals which are tributaries of the river Tet. They wind through the pretty town centre lined with hot pink bougainvillea and camellias.
Perpignan – city of fountains
This is a sunny Southern City and there are fountains everywhere in squares and parks and unexpected corners.
You get an idea of how important fountains are to Perpignan when you see there are three whole pages in the local tourist guide dedicated to them.
The newest and most impressive of the fountains is in the park Allees Maillol. Huge metal flowers spout timed jets of water to different heights and patterns on the hour. Occasionally music and coloured lights add an extra dimension to these dancing springs.
Festivals are big in Perpignan and every month has a different event or two attached to it. When I was there some gigantic carnival characters were processing through the street. Skipping monks with horns on their habits danced along behind them waving enormous four foot sparklers for a good half an hour.
These particular sparklers also emitted incredibly loud continuous bangs which did sound uncomfortably like gunfire. On Thursday nights in July the town comes alive with street theatre and music performed in the open air in one of the most popular weekly summer festivals ‘Les Jeudis De Perpignan.’
Perpignan a la plage
Eating out is always an adventure in France, and most restaurants will have a ‘Plat du Jour’ or dish of the day. You can often find a lunchtime three course meal for under 20 euros. If you are on a budget you cannot fail with a sunny picnic and some French bread, cheese, fruit and wine.
The coast here is lovely, all long sandy beaches and dramatic skies. Canet Plage embodies more of the usual seaside fare while St Cyprien is a little more upmarket.
Many French families come down to the beach in the evenings when the air and the sea are still very warm. Watching the sun setting the sky aflame behind the Pyrenees is nothing short of spectacular.
Perpignan is a delightful place to visit in the gorgeous South of France. It’s quite a compact city centre and so is easy to navigate around and explore. There really aren’t that many tourists here compared to some of the other more well known coastal areas of France which is also a plus point.
It has beautiful countryside and coastline, vineyards, food and sunshine every day. The city centre is packed with things to see and do and has great shopping too. Everything has that French ‘je ne sais quoi’ about it.
A winning combination of arts, culture, sea, sand, sun and a gorgeous landscape makes Perpignan a must see Gallic destination. Check out Perpignan Tourism for info or try the new 3D app to get a view of the real thing.
Check out the gorgeous nearby town of Carcassone