Perpignan is a city that doesn’t shout about its assets; unlike flashy Barcelona, or chi-chi Montpellier, it isn’t a tourist honey-trap. Which, of course, makes it all the better for visitors. It offers a castle, a lovely shopping quarter, a new state-of-the-art theater and an excellent international photojournalism festival, Visa Pour l’Image, held in early September. But, with a car, Perpignan also offers both beach and mountains.
If you’re a sun bunny, then make for Argeles, St Cyprien or Canet – flat, wide, stretches of sand with all the usual noisy, beachy fun. For a prettier, more grown-up experience, with lovely seafood, but a rockier seascape, then explore the village of Collioure down the coast; it’s a little touristy, but makes an enjoyable day out. You could even drive down the freeway into Spain to Figueras, a gorgeous place, home for many years to Salvador Dali; expect long, long traffic queues if you do (there’s only one slender, winding road in and out of the village). But if I were you, I’d turn my back on the beach, point my car in the opposite direction and head west.
The Pyrenees, the mountains that make up the 300-mile-long range dividing Spain and France, dominate this landscape. The peaks climb up from Collioure, all higgledy-piggledy, broken teeth smiling up at the sky. On the sun-scorched Spanish side, the Pyrenees are barren, red and brown; the north-facing French flank is greener, yet no less dramatic. There are more rivers and waterfalls here than in the Alps, though, oddly, fewer lakes. The passes between France and Spain are few and precarious. The most dominant mountain in this area is called the Canigou. If you fly into Perpignan airport, you see it towering above the other peaks; up until the 18th century it was believed to be the highest in the Pyrenees (it’s not: those in the central Pyrenees are taller, reaching over 3000m). On the ground, there are signs to it all everywhere, in French and Catalan. We are in Northern Catalonia, and the Canigou (Canigo in Catalan) is sacred to the Catalonians.
Set off along the road to Andorra, the fast-flowing N116, and, to be honest, there’s no need for signs. The Canigou is there, on your left, all the way. Most of the year it has snow at the top; in summer, that disappears, but the Canigou’s little coronet of peaks at its summit is easy to spot.
We’re aiming inland a little way, but first, you might want to stop off at Millas, about 15 minutes’ drive from Perpignan. In the summer, people descend upon this small town by the thousands, pouring in from miles around. Why? For its feria. Ferias – long-established local festivities involving bulls – are plentiful in this region, but Millas is the big one. Be warned: it’s not for everyone. The running of the bulls – where locals herd these beautiful but scared and, therefore, dangerous animals through the village streets – can be perilous, with many a silly young man gaining a nasty hole in his side for his recklessness. There are bullfights in the Placa de Toros (bullfighting arena) and a LOT of revelry in the evenings, which makes the town’s dances hilariously free-form affairs. Everything is very convivial, and very French Catalonian. Many years ago, a friend and I witnessed a silly competition at the Feria de Millas, a little like the television show “Jeux Sans Frontiers” between local villages. Young men crawled through tunnels, cycled broken bicycles, fished out live fish from a paddling pool with their bare hands. All foolish fun, until a young bull was introduced into the arena, to liven up the action.
The Millas feria, quite understandably, is not to everyone’s taste, though the days are fun for families, with lively markets, traditional dances and food served on the street. But if you’re after a quieter day out, skip Millas and put some kilometers under your belt.
Only half an hour farther along the road, you come to Prades, a small market town. Prades isn’t particularly pretty, but it’s pleasant on its market days, Tuesdays and Saturdays. Stock up on local produce and crafts and, afterward, go for steak frites at any of the bar-restaurants around the square. If you like your lunch more Michelin-starred, then Restaurant Le Galie, on Route de General de Gaulle, is for you.
Like Perpignan, Prades has culture, but it doesn’t like to show off about it. Every summer, there’s an excellent classical music festival, Festival Pablo Casals, named after the famous Catalan cellist who founded it in 1950. The best concerts are held at the monastery, St Michel de Cuxa. Follow the signs from Prades, on the D27 out through Codalet, up to St Michel. Surrounded by meadows, the monastery is a lovely sight, worth visiting even when there’s no music. Wander through its cool corridors, sheltered from the hot sun. It’s closed at lunchtime, so take a picnic (Prades boasts three vast supermarkets: Super U, Intermarche and Lidl), park your car in the monastery car park and spread yourself out on a meadow. The easiest to get to is to the left of the car park as you’re facing the monastery; it’s just a short scramble down.
From St Michel you can push along the D27 to Vernet les Bains, a lovely winding drive through Fillols. There’s a great cafe here, though it’s rarely open. Vernet les Bains was once a modish Victorian holiday destination, a favorite of the English Royal family and Rudyard Kipling, who came here with many other luminaries to take the local waters. Sadly, in the early 20th century, much of the town was destroyed in a freak flood and the bains of the town’s name are now housed in a terrible 60s monstrosity of a building. Still, the old town that remains is nice for a coffee (don’t eat around the square, book the excellent Bistrot le Cortal, on top of the hill, though kids aren’t welcome) and if you have the energy, there’s a steep, short walk up to the town’s church, which rewards you with some lovely views of the valley, the town and the Canigou.
If you’re here in early August, don’t miss the Championnat du Canigou running race that ends in Vernet’s square. Eight hundred madmen and women from all over the world come here to run up the rocky trails to the top of the Canigou and back down. The race was established in 1905 and many runners carry backpacks filled with rocks, weighing 8 kg, to simulate the blocks of ice that were carried from the glacier by “porteurs” to refresh the overheated Vernet visitors of the Victorian era.
Now, if you want to cool down, you can head for Vernet’s fantastic open-air swimming pool, boasting waterslides, a baby pool, plus a middle-size one for arm-banders and a full-length one with a diving board. It is lovely to swim with the Canigou looming above you. Remember your skimpy Speedos: in France, men and boys aren’t allowed to swim in shorts-style swimsuits. Next door, there are tennis courts, available for rent at a very reasonable 6 euros an hour. You’ll find both if you take the second turn on the right on the road to Sahorre. After your dip, continue on the road, over the mountain and into one of this area’s prettiest valleys. Stop for a coffee, or a cheap and cheerful meal at Sahorre’s only restaurant, the Cafe de la Mine, opposite the town hall, then continue along the road, back to the N116 and Villefranche, the fortified village that is one of the “plus beaux villages de France”.
Villefranche is very pretty, but off-the-scale touristy, every shop offering you overpriced gifts that no one will ever thank you for. Explore the town walls and clamber up to the fortified Fort Liberia. It’s a steep climb and once you’ve made it, you have to pay to get in, so take some money. There are two sets of caves nearby — the truly magnificent Grottes des Grandes Canalettes, a tiny way on the road back to Vernet, (some Pablo Casals concerts are held here) and the smaller dinosaur caves, which jazz up the stalactites and stalagmites with life-size plastic dinosaurs. Not exactly magnificent, though kids love them.
At Villefranche’s station, you can take “le petit train jaune” – the little yellow train that is, in fact, painted in the Catalan colors of yellow and red – a delightful steam train that runs in peak season and takes you up toward the higher ski stations. The views are amazing en route, properly breathtaking, and you pass over a dramatic suspension bridge. Plenty of photo opportunities. Most people get off at Mont Louis, home to France’s highest fortress (1600 m). Be aware that it’s a bit of an uphill walk to Mont Louis and, once you’ve got there, the town is nothing to write a postcard about. But it’s a fine place to lunch before hopping the train back to Villefranche. If you don’t fancy Mont Louis, you can continue all the way to Bourg Madame, and walk through to Spain and the bustling town of Puigcerda.