Perpignan is the capital of the département of Pyrénées-Orientales. It is located on the Têt River, 8 miles west of the Mediterranean Sea and 19 miles north of the modern Spanish border within sight of the Pyrenees ( Pirenèus, Pirineus, Pyrénées). Catalonia straddles the border, so Catalan culture is dominant in the language and cuisine.
Perpignan was the capital of the old Catalan province of Roussillon, under the Counts of Roussillon. In 1172 it became the possession of Jaime (James) I, King of Aragon. When he died, his realm was divided between his sons. His younger son, also called Jaime, got a rather bizarre ersatz kingdom, called the Kingdom of Majorca which included the Roussillon, Majorca and other Mediterranean possessions. Jaime was the first of three hereditary kings of Majorca. They made the city their capital between 1276 and 1344. Perpignan was a stronghold town throughout the middle ages.
In 1659 Perpignan became French as the result of the Treaty of the Pyrenees. Like other fortification on near the new border perpignan was visited by the french military genius de Vauban with a view to consolidating the new border. When Vauban made his first trip to the region in 1669 Perpignan was defended by an immense system of ramparts boasting nine bastions. In addition there was an impressive citadel complex with six more. The system of defence works was so good that (unusually) Vauban's role was limited to repairs and refinements. His main improvements were in adding outworks. The outline shown on the right is classic Vauban - and therefore classic 17th century fortification work. Sadly, perpignan's city walls were dismantled towards the end of the 19th century. Today little or nothing remains of the town's defences except for the citadel.
The modern town has crept right up to the citadel's walls (encroaching housing is faded in the ariel photograph above to make the citadel's outline more obvious). At the heart of the citadel is the fortress palace of the former Kings Of Majorca, surrounded by a later bastioned citadel built by the engineers of the Emperor Charles V. The greater part of the compex remains in tact today is attributable to the fact that it houses not just an historically important palace but also an operational army barracks.
An outer layer of the citadel today still houses a large barracks which backs on to the old Royal Palace. The two are separated by the moat which surrounds the old palace and which divides the centre of the citadel complex in two. the whole area is surrounded by a third system of defences, a massive six bastioned curtain wall constructed by the Spaniards in the reign of Phillipe II.
In summary the four rings of defences, working from the centre are:
- The fortified palace, with moat, circa 1300
- The Bastioned citadel built for Emperor Charles V, c. 1540
- The citadel built for Phillip II of Spain, c. 1590
- Vauban's outworks - c. 1700.
During and after the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) the city received Spanish Republican refugees. After Algerian independence was conceded in 1960, it became a refuge again, this time for French settlers from North Africa. In 1971, the University of Perpignan was established.
The city has long been a flourishing market centre for the wines, fruit, and vegetables. Most of the produce comes from the rich plain on which the city is located. These plains are alluvial, with plenty of sunshine and water from the Pyrenees. They are also the furthest south in all of France, so historically the area around Perpignan provided the rest of France with the earliest fruit and vegetables each year. The premium prices disappeared along with demand, as refrigeration become common.
If you wonder why there is a statue of Salvador Dali outside the railway station, it is a tribute to the man who helped the tourist trade by claiming, after a visionary experience, that Perpignan Railway Station was the centre of the universe.
Other things to see include:
The Palais des Rois de Majorque. The medieval palace of the kings of Majorca dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. It is partially restored and may be found in the southern part of the town. It is surrounded by the bastions of a great 17th and 18th century citadel.
The Rigaud Museum contains a collection of paintings by Catalan primitive artists and by the Perpignan native, Hyacinthe Rigaud. You will find it in the Castillet, a 14th and 15th century crenellated fort that once defended the principal gate in the city walls. (Rigaud settled in the Castillet)