There are plenty of cities that claim to be the centre of the universe, but Perpignan enjoys the noteworthy endorsement of Salvador Dali. In 1963 the surrealist artist famously christened Perpignan railway station ‘le centre du monde’, a phrase that’s loudly commemorated in writing above one of the platforms, and by most residents if you give them half a chance to boast about their city.
To be fair, they’ve got a point. Perpignan is like a distilled, double-strength version of Barcelona, full of the sights, sounds and smells of its big brother to the south, but less crowded and just as authentic. The old quarter, Saint Jean, is the perfect example: a largely pedestrianised zone where you can wander round an undulating labyrinth of alleys and squares for hours, tripping into traditional craft shops, dozens of coffee and tea shops, and fast growing clusters of small designer fashion stores.
The city is also a great place to start experiencing the sweet and sour flavour of Roussillon. When you order lunch or talk to the shop keepers, listen out for the local accent with its strong Iberian tang. Sadly, the number of Catalan speakers is far smaller than south of the Spanish border, but locals still manage to convey their mixed allegiance to the French Republic and their fiercely independent origins in conversation and through the bright red and gold Catalan colours that drape the city.
If you’re visiting by car, try and park underneath the Place Arago to the west of the old town. Then take a walk along La Basse, a river that brings you to the Castillet (turret) de Notre Dame, a miniature castle that marks the entrance to the Saint Jean District. If you need to refuel, take a seat outside Taverne Maître Kanter and order the mussels, taking care to ask for plenty of bread to mop up the white wine sauce at the bottom of the pot.
When you’re back on your feet, walk through the Porte (gate) de Notre Dame and start wandering, with eyes (and ears) wide open. From then on you’re pretty much your own guide, but it’s definitely worth a visit to see the brightly coloured Catalan fabrics at La Maison Quinta as well as the Cathedral of Saint Jean La Baptiste. Then wander due south and you’ll come to the Place de la Republique.
From here you can take your pick of any number of side streets, but it’s always worth giving Rue de L’Ange a visit (via Rue Quéya) where you should stop for an aromatic tea at Paradis Fouillis, which doubles as a second hand furniture store. Then continue south to the vast Palais des Rois de Mallorca, or go directly back to the Place Arago. Of course, whatever you choose to do, take your time. This is the centre of the universe, after all.