After a few days in Perpignan it quickly became one of our favourite French cities. Here’s our guide as to how to make the most of a weekend in Perpignan.
GETTING YOUR BEARINGS Our bus (one euro) from Ceret to the regional capital Perpignan dropped us at Gare Routière, closer to the centre ville (town centre) than Gare SNCF, which is where you’ll arrive if coming by train from Paris or Barcelona. From Gare Routière it’s a five-minute walk along Avenue Général Leclerc to Place de la Résistance and Place de la Victoire. From there, stroll along La Basse, a pretty canal which was lined with tulip gardens when we visited, to Place Arago and the tourist office to pick up a map. Or just plow on through the city gate Porte Notre-Dame, beneath Le Castillet, into the maze of pedestrian lanes that is Perpignan’s medieval town.
BRUNCH For stunning views of the splendid red-brick Castillet and Porte Notre-Dame, pull up a seat on the shady terrace of Grand Café de la Poste for coffee and a croissant. If oysters and bubbles are more your style, head across the Place to Brasserie Le Casty, opposite, where you’ll get a dozen freshly-shucked huitres (in season) for 13 euros.
GOURMET WALKING TOUR From Le Casty, stroll up the attractive alleyway that is Rue Fabriques-Nadal (note Café Sansa, where you should return for lunch) to Rue de la Loge. Turn right, and at Place Jean Jaurès turn left onto Rue de la Barre, then turn right onto Rue Mirabeau to Place de la République. There are a few fresh produce stalls here every morning, although there are more on Saturday, which is the big market day. Carl, who owns the lovely little studio we stayed in (see this post), likes to shop here for mountain miel (honey) made by Nathalie and Claud Duffaud, and award-winning organic fruit and veg from the Famille Nicolas Payré.
From Place de la République, head for narrow Rue Voltaire off the southwest corner of the square, dotted with bakers, chocolate shops and boutiques. The first lane on the left boasts an excellent fromagerie (cheese shop) while the second especially atmospheric market alley, Rue Paratilla, is home to shops such as Epicerie Sala and Aux Bonnes Olives which specialise in spices, herbs, dried fruit and other exotic goodies, such as Aleppan olive soap and henna. Cailis is the spot to head for perfectly-formed fruit and vegetables, and there are also a couple of brilliant fish shops. Lost among them by day is tiny Bar de la Marée which comes alive in the late afternoon, after the stalls and shops are closed, when locals fill the lane here to share stories over beers.
If you continue along Rue Voltaire, which becomes Rue de l’Ange, you’ll find a couple of quaint tea rooms and an aromatic coffee shop La Cafetiére Dammann Freres, where they roast and grind their beans. Have a quick espresso at the stand-up bar at the back. Backtrack a little and turn left into hilly little Rue de la Cloche d’Or.
Just around the corner, at Au Crémier Gourmand, you can buy mixed plates of cheeses to emporter (take away), from a Plateau Classique (8 euros), which includes Comté, Tomme chartreuse, manchego artisanal and Tomme de chèvre, to a Plateau Gourmand (10 euros) which features Reblochon Fermier, Saint-Nectaire Fermier, Rocamadour fermier and ‘le cousin’. If you’re already peckish, sit at a tiny table on the lane to savour the cheeses with a bottle of Roussillon rosé (7 euros).
Next door, at El Serrano, you can also take away a selection of sublime pork products from Spain (this is a Catalan city after all), carved and sliced to order, or sit down at a small table to try the generous tasting plates of melt-in-your-mouth Iberico hams and Pata Negra de Salamanca, which you can wash down with house wines. By now it must be time for lunch!
LUNCH Back on narrow Rue Fabriques-Nadal, Café Sansa is Perpignan’s most atmospheric restaurant. A favourite hangout of Dali, it’s walls are cluttered with maritime memorabilia, bullfighting posters, drawings and paintings, and a few pictures of the artist. Opt for the good-value menu du jour if you’re on a budget or seafood or steak from the menu if you’re not. If Café Sansa is full, Carl also recommends the Catalan-focused Bodega de Castellet next door, where he says good-naturedly “you’ll get a great meal if the owner isn’t drunk yet!”
COFFEE & CAKE For an afternoon pick-me-up, Carl suggests heading to Café Vienne on Place Arago for a strong coffee and something sweet; while the locals like the tables on the square, the elegant interior is full of character.
SIGHTSEEING After the Castellet (see above), Perpignan’s main sight is the colossal castle, the Palais des Rois Majorque, although there are a few splendid churches in town too, including the striking 14th century Cathédral St-Jean and Church of St-Jacques, dating from the same period. Perpignan is also home to many contemporary art galleries that you’ll come across, often wedged between boutiques, so keep your eyes peeled.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK The fascinating multicultural quarter south and west of the Church of St-Jacques is worth sauntering. On the main street of Rue François Llucia you’ll find businesses ran by North African immigrants with eateries specializing in tajine and couscous, bakeries selling baklava, and barbershops and general stores with signage in Arabic. The backstreets, home to Perpignan’s Romany population, are reminiscent of Marseille and Naples, with washing hanging over balconies and families sitting in the streets gossiping.
SHOPPING For gourmet goodies, you can’t go wrong with the excellent honeys, olive and dried sausages from the Saturday market on Place de la République. For fresh patés, terrines, foie gras, and other goose and duck products, head to Pradal on the square, between Déclic Caféand Boucherie Espinet. There are delicious chocolate shops dotted all over town, but especially on Rue Voltaire, which is also lined with gorgeous stores, such as L’Atelier, which sells stylish jewellery that they make on the premises, and chic bags and accessories. Around the corner on Rue Mailly, also lined with boutiques, Les Comptoirs has a wide range of espadrilles, the region’s traditional shoe of choice.
APERITIFS You can’t beat a late afternoon vin blanc in the sunshine on the square at Déclic or adjoining Republic Café, which are both wonderful for people watching. During the warmer months live jazz bands perform on the square. Or join the locals for beers at Bar de la Marée (see above).
DINNER Foodies won’t be able to resist trying La Galinette by Michelin-star chef Christophe Comes, whose cuisine is based on fresh seafood and vegetables from the Chef’s own garden, although we were disappointed. After a sublime bright green pea soup, our tasting menu went downhill with confused dishes constructed from way too many flavours, and a lot of fried, over-cooked food that didn’t let the fresh produce shine. We enjoyed stylish La Table on Rue de la Poissonnerie more the next night. The buzziest place in town at the moment, it was packed with locals enjoying good quality if unadventurous food in a fantastic atmosphere.
POST-DINNER DRINKS Look no further than Les Indigenes, Chris Albero’s buzzy wine bar-cum-shop a couple of doors down from La Table, which specialises in organic wines from the region. Chris worked for many years at Lavinia, one of Barcelona’s best wine stores, as their French wine specialist, and really knows his stuff. You can tell Chris what style of wine you like and he’ll enthusiastically open a bottle, tell you all about it, and pour you a glass. It’s open until 2am on weekends. They also serve tasting plates if you’re still peckish. But you couldn’t be by now, surely?