Apr 08

Doing the Sardana in Ceret


















It wasn’t on the scale of the festivals we’d just experienced in Perpignan, but we were delighted to return from the city to our little village of Ceret to find the French Catalan community out in full force on Place Picasso doing a folk dance known as the sardana.

On the drive to Ceret last week, Sasha, the manager of our holiday rental here, had said that the locals loved to get out and do the Catalunyan circle dance at every opportunity, yet we didn’t actually expect to get a chance to see the sardanistas, as the dancers are called, in action. When we heard the sound of the trumpets from our courtyard, we threw on our coats and went to investigate.

The main street of Ceret had been closed to traffic, and the tables and chairs on Bar El Pablo’s terrace – empty for most of our stay so far – were crammed with cheerful locals chatting over beers as they listened to the band and watched their friends do the traditional dance.

Originally from Spain’s Empordà region, and dating back to the 16th century, the dance is said to have become hugely popular among Catalans in the early 19th century, during the Renaixença, a period of rebirth for Catalan nationalism. It appears that Ceret is currently experiencing its own small Catalan renaissance, and the locals’ eagerness to perform the dance is just one example of evidence of the community’s increasing pride in their Catalan heritage.

There are a couple of different types of sardana, a short and a longer version, and the dance circles vary in size. We saw some circles started just by four people, two couples, but then opened out to allow more people to join in, expanding the circle. Within each circle men and women alternated, partners staying together apparently, unless children joined in, which they seemed keen to do. Some of the larger circles of older people looked like they’d been dancing together their whole lives. When the music stopped they all mingled together happily, and as soon as it started again, they immediately reformed into the same groups.

The dance is performed to the cheery music of an 11-piece band called a cobla. The musicians play typical Catalan instruments, comprised of ten wind instruments, including a small flute and two instruments from the oboe family, trumpets, fiscorns (a type of saxhorn) and a trombone, as well as a double bass, and small drum called a tamborí.

The musical pieces the band plays are called sardanes, and are usually in two sections repeated in different ways to form the complete dance. The beat, like the dance, is fairly slow, but that didn’t stop the locals from getting excited when they played a piece they obviously loved. When the bandleader made a speech that signalled their last song, the dancers noisily protested, cheering and clapping them on to encourage them to play more.

We’re not certain whether they were dancing to celebrate Easter or simply the fact the sun was shining, but they were certainly having fun, fun it was clear they didn’t want to end.

CLICK on the image above to see our multimedia slideshow of the locals dancing the Sardana to the music of the cobla in Place Picasso, Ceret.

Ceret holds an annual Festival de Sardanes every July. This year, the 53rd festival begins on 23 July with a dance in Place Picasso, and continues for three days with dances taking place at various squares around town.

Apr 07

Price Check: a Ceret Shopping List

Price Check is a series of posts from every destination we visit that could serve as a shopping list to stock the kitchen at the start of your stay, as well as a cost of living index in a way. We’re including some basic items to get you started plus a local specialty or two from the place.

What we are really loving about doing this Price Check series – more than forcing us to do comparison shops at every destination – is that it’s making us pay more attention to what’s on the shelves at supermarkets, rather than what we are buying, and is therefore helping us to understand what people are actually eating in the places we’re spending time in.

Ceret’s supermarkets have proven to be very revealing. Yes, the village is renowned for its Saturday morning market, which we’ll tell you more about in a few days, as well as a handful of excellent butchers and bakers. But it also boasts three very different supermarkets, each telling a very different story about its clients, and therefore the social and cultural make-up of the town.

In the heart of the centre ville is a small, budget-priced Netto supermarket, with little of anything of note and the lowest prices in town; on the outskirts of Ceret is an enormous InterMarche (ironically its website boasts that it’s noted for its convenient location!) with a huge array of products, while in between is our supermarket of choice, a medium-sized Carrefour-owned Champion supermarket.

Our Champion supermarket, like any French supermarket, has all those wonderful products that make it uniquely French that you get excited about when you haven’t been to an European supermarket in a while – the kind of products you don’t find in many supermarkets around the world, and the kind of products that got us excited about going shopping when Carrefour first came to Dubai.

What kinds of products am I talking about? Shelves and shelves, and in same cases row upon row, of fresh and packaged, French regional and local products – everything from bags of fresh escargot, Escargots de Bourgogne, Coquille St Jacques Recette Normandie, terrines, rillettes, lardons, jars of fish soup (Soup de Poisson, see below), cheese soufflés, blini, foie gras, a hundred other duck products, and endless counters of cheeses and sausages, and I could go on. Simply, all of the things we just love to drool over and then take home to devour.

Then there are the aisles that we find odd – considering we’re in France – including a long row of shelves of packaged manufactured desserts, from pomme tartin to profiteroles; several rows of frozen and ready-made meals, including everything from paellas (more varieties than I’ve seen in Spain!) to pastries, madeleines, quiches, and even toasted cheese and ham sandwiches (truly – that was a first for us!). Why odd? Because there seems to be a bakery/pastry shop on every corner in Ceret.

Then there’s the ‘ethnic’ and expat aisle, of which the English shelves are particularly revealing: Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce, Colman’s Classic Mint Sauce, HP Sauce, Scott’s Porage Oats, Dorset Cereals, Branston Baked Beans, Wilkin & Son’s Orange Marmalade (twice the price of local marmalade), and more.

On the one hand these products demonstrate that the French have some of the most demanding and discerning palates in the world, which is exactly what we love about these people. On the other hand, the products also reveal that the French are just like everyone else on the planet: busy, tired, and after a long day, are happy to microwave a pre-packaged, low-grade, manufactured product containing unidentifiable ingredients, when they could just as easily (and more cheaply and enjoyably) cook the same thing at home if they made the time. That’s disappointing because it shows that the French food culture and lifestyle are changing – for the worse.

But what we hadn’t realised before is that French supermarkets are just as globalised as supermarkets the world over, with their Mexican Old El Paso taco kits and their Heinz tinned foods. Although I guess if we lived in Ceret we’d probably be pleased about that. Spice of life and all that.

What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you feel about the globalization of food culture?

1.5 litre water €0.32 £0.28 US$0.43
1 litre milk €0.59 £0.52 US$0.80
Bottle of local wine €3.50 £3.07 US$4.74
San Miguel beer €0.98 £0.86 US$1.33
100g Nescafe €3.25 £2.85 US$4.40
250 g Segafredo €3.05 £2.67 US$4.13
Lipton’s tea 50 bags €2.30 £2.02 US$3.12
1 kg sugar €0.99 £0.87 US$1.34
Jar of cherry jam €1.60 £1.40 US$2.17
1 loaf of bread €0.60 £0.53 US$0.81
250g quality butter €2.45 £2.15 US$3.32
200g Comté cheese €3.20 £2.81 US$4.33
500 ml olive oil €3.70 £3.24 US$5.01
1 dozen eggs €3.69 £3.24 US$5.00
1 kilo tomatoes €2.20 £1.93 US$2.98
1 kilo onions €2.80 £2.46 US$3.79
1 kilo apples €2.20 £1.93 US$2.98
250 g pistachios €4.85 £4.25 US$6.57
630g jar Soup de Poisson €6.90 £6.05 US$9.35
Total: €49.17 £43.12 US$66.61

Apr 07

Perpignan: the Procession de la Sanch

Good Friday, or Vendredi Saint, is marked in no small way in the town of Perpignan with the Procession de la Sanch. This slow, somber march through the streets of the old town opens the Easter Holy Week, or La Semaine Sainte, celebrations, and even when we arrived a few hours before the march, the solemn hymns were already being piped through the streets, reverberating off the walls of the old buildings of the town.

The Procession was the main purpose of our visit to Perpignan. In Jerez a month earlier that we’d seen the tiny figurines of penitents in their Klu Klux Clan-like costumes in gift-shop windows, and noticed dozens of groups of local men (the brotherhoods) rehearsing for that city’s famous Semana Santa processions. Around midnight, night after night, dressed in track suits or t-shirts and shorts, with weightlifters’ supports wrapped around their neck and shoulders, they would heave the weighty wooden frames along the route, as if in training. We couldn’t help but be intrigued.

The brotherhood of ‘La Sanch’ (the blood) was founded in 1416 by Vincent Ferrier, originally from Valencia, Spain, to aid the condemned on their journey to their death. The robes and hoods were worn by both the executioners and the prisoners so that the identity of either party could not be determined. The march today celebrates the Passion of the Lord – or Christ – and his walk to his crucifixion.

Carl, our host in Perpignan, had printed out the map of the route of the procession for us, armed us with a more detailed map of the old town, and advised us to follow the procession when we could but to use the maps to find ways to duck in and out of lanes to get ahead of the march and not get trapped among the crowd.

Good advice, but we soon discovered an even better strategy. At the front of the procession were half a dozen policemen there to clear the path, and a dozen photo-journalists there to document the march. Equipped with cameras and multiple lenses, as we were, we simply joined them, spending the next three hours, running backwards ahead of the procession.

When the march started, our first glimpse was of the distinctive cone-shaped hoods, which are intimidating to say the least, particularly that of the red-robed figure (le regidor) at the front of the march who occasionally rings his bell to warn people of the procession’s approach.

As the march passed through Perpignan’s gypsy neighbourhood, a few eggs were thrown at the parade from the windows a couple of storeys above. The police began whispering warnings to eachother into their microphones and listening intently through their earpieces, but did little except to watch out for any further missiles.

While some of Perpignan’s residents continued to go about their daily lives, many others gathered to watch, some even appearing bemused by the spectacle. A woman with a pram and child deliberately, and somewhat provocatively, crossed in front of the regidor just a metre in front of him. Another, her arms laden with shopping bags, barged between the penitents.

The march moved slowly through the town’s streets, stopping occasionally so the followers carrying the heavy life-size depictions of Jesus and Mary on wooden frames could stop to rest and swap with other carriers. A tap of a stick on the cobbled streets was the signal to stop and after the changeover two taps signaled the resumption of the march. The taps of the sticks formed part of the rhythm of the march, along with the beat of the drums that some penitents carried. In several places where the procession stopped, some of marchers could be heard singing the hymns softly beneath their hoods.

Near the end of the march, the procession passed through a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood of Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian inhabitants, their shops boasting Arabic signage with the occasional English or French translation, such as ‘Halal’ outside a butcher shop. We couldn’t help but appreciate the contrast between the black pointed hoods of the penitents and the while skull caps of the North African men, and make comparisons between the black, lacy veils of the women in the procession and the headscarfs of the Muslim women.

Outside a corner café the North African immigrants sat, as they always do, chatting, drinking coffee and smoking, barely taking a passing interest in the procession – all except one young man, wearing a navy and white striped shirt, who went right up to the penitents and accused them of being ‘evangelicals’.

The Procession de la Sanch has centuries of tradition, continuing on and off since its inception, and while it stays the same, this modern, multicultural part of France is now a radically different place to what it was at any time during the march’s history. Perhaps this gives the participants the strength to carry the weight as much as the Passion of the Christ itself.

Apr 06

Perpignan, a City of Festivals

“The town is alive – there’s always something going on,” Carl, our host in Perpignan, had told us when he took us for a coffee shortly after we arrived. “I’ll hear a trumpet and drums from my window and I’ll stick my head out and there’ll be a band and crowd moving down the street, so I’ll just go and follow them,” he said.

Which is exactly what he did the next day and why we followed him when he phoned to tell us there were costumed dancers and drummers in the streets, and they were headed for the Place de la République, Perpignan’s main square.

We had noticed guys setting up a stage for some kind of concert when we were on the Place that morning, but we had assumed it might have been associated with the Good Friday Procession de la Sanch, one of the main reasons for our trip to Perpignan. It wasn’t.

Instead, the Place was a riot of colour and sound courtesy of an eco-themed fête to celebrate France’s national sustainable development week or Semaine du Développement Durable. Families, groups of children, dance and theatre troupes, jazz bands, performance artists, jugglers and fire-eaters, filled the square.

Kids wore homemade costumes created from recycled materials, their parents and the good citizens of Perpignan wore green sun hats, and there were plenty of eco-friendly products on display, and organic treats to try.

Perpignan, a city of festivals, is famous for its non-stop calendar of festivals, concerts and events held throughout the warmer months, especially in summer when events are geared toward the holiday crowds.

The most popular is Le Festival d’Été de Perpignan or the Summer Festival of Perpignan, which has a jam-packed programme of dance, music, theatre and film, and is held throughout most of July. Perpignan also hosts a highly regarded International Festival of Photojournalism, Visa Pour L’Image, held from August through September.

This, we’re guessing, was very different to the festivals for which the Catalan city is famous. This little fête was very much a family-oriented, community-driven event and there was something so endearingly local about the performances, the handmade costumes, the hastily put-together displays, as well as the laidback atmosphere. See for yourself.

Apr 05

Weekend in Perpignan

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?

Older posts «

» Newer posts