The Mole Diaries: Perpignan
Elizabeth Gibson is a student of IPML French and Spanish at the University of Manchester and is spending her year abroad as an English Language Assistant at a Lycée in Perpignan, France. This is her insider guide to her favourite French city! You can also read her blog for more information. She also keeps a French blog for schools!
When I received my contract placing me in Perpignan I had to keep looking at it to be sure it was real – it seemed too perfect to be true. I had longed for Perpignan due to my love of the region (I had previously spent time in nearby Carcassonne and Montpellier) and my fascination with Catalan language and culture. Its location near the border with Spain is also useful for people who like me are doing French and Spanish.
From the my arrival, when the train glided silently through salt lakes, with water on either side of the tracks, like that scene in Spirited Away, I was smitten. That evening on my way to Carrefour I looked up and saw the sky a dark red I had never seen before, the Pyrenees black and solid against it. Those were my first glimpses of the uniqueness and great beauty of Perpignan and the year that has followed has provided many, many more such glimpses.
I initially stayed with a teacher from the school in which I worked, and then moved to University accommodation. I have found uni accommodation to be a great choice – the studios are comfortable and it is fairly central. My residence also has an affordable supermarket below it.
The Perpignan buses are the lifeblood of the city and surrounding area. For me the main problem is how early in the evening they stop running (as early as 19.30 depending on the line). This means if you live out of town and enjoy partying, you may find yourself raking up taxi fares.
I live centrally and have found the buses very satisfactory. They are comfortable and a yearly pass – ask at the bus office in town – gives you a huge amount of freedom. Canet, the seaside neighbour of Perpignan, is on the bus map and makes a great day trip.
The famous Perpignan €1 Bus is a godsend. As you might guess, each journey costs 1 euro but you can buy weekly, monthly or yearly passes. You can get all over the region – into the mountains, along the coast, to thermal springs and ancient towns. However, reading the return timetable is a must as the last buses back can be pretty early and certain buses don’t run on certain days – you don’t want to end up stranded in the mountains!
There is a €1 Train to Montpellier but booking a place on it is, in my experience, a complete nightmare. Other, full-price trains are comfortable and efficient; the train that goes through Girona to Barcelona is especially useful. Just remember your passport! Perpignan is also a great city for walking in as long as you are sensible. I walk rather than getting the bus whenever possible.
3. Things to do
1. Climbing the Castillet
The big red castle with a fantastic view of Perpignan is free provided you have valid ID – a student card did for me.
2. The Little Train
Like a tour bus; it costs €7 and gives a comprehensive tour of Perpignan. I did it in my first week and it was a great introduction to the city.
3. Seeing the Plane Tree Park fountain lit
There seems to be neither rhyme nor reason to which nights they light it but it is a sight to behold. Red, green, purple… It is magnificent.
4. The Christmas Market
The Christmas Market is really enjoyable. Products include honey, chocolate, Catalan food, toys, ornaments and beautifully-made nativity crib figures.
5. The Sanch Procession
This takes place on Good Friday and includes many red- and black- hooded figures marching solemnly to a drum beat, carrying statues of Christ and other religious figures.
The main beach is nice but Marenda beach, reached by a walk along the seafront, is lovely and less touristy. There are some nice bakeries and a lot of public art.
The village where I lived when I first arrived is pretty and quaint and needs to be seen at Christmas as their lights are really something.
A sparkly seaside town that can be accessed via the €1 Bus. Lovely artisan pottery and great seafood and ice-cream.
A town on the €1 Bus route: famous for its cherries and generally picturesque. Very nice art gallery with works by Picasso and Mirò.
4. Places to eat and drink
A little patisserie by the river which is very famous in the local area for its costly but divine cakes and pastries. I recommend the Hérisson – a crunchy chocolate tart.
This American-style open-air coffee shop became the main hang-out for this year’s assistants and I imagine there’s a good chance it will be yours, too – comfy, central, good drinks and a great ambiance.
3. The French Coffee Shop
Near Columbus, with squishy chairs and gorgeous drinks. Their Kinder Bueno milkshake is a must-drink.
4. Le Petit Fournil
A bakery near to Espi; make good panini which you can sit and eat right by the river.
5. La Mie Câline
Another bakery, channelling the “cute” vibe with very pricey but delicious cakes and cookies. Their raspberry heart-shaped cookies have to be tried once.
A shack selling brilliant crepes and waffles next to Plane Tree Park.
7. Wood fire pizzas
Little vans selling pizzas made in a wood fire are a common sight in Perpignan. One I recommend is Marino in Moulin à Vent.
8. Biscuiterie du Tech
A shop in Cabestany that sells local sweet delicacies: chocolate, turrón, jellies, biscuits, macaroons. Expensive but you can buy misshapes relatively cheap…and there are free samples!
9. And a few general things that Perpignan does well...
Mussels Serrano ham with butter Galettes complètes Crème catalane Ice-cream.
My pupils often ask the difference between the weather in Manchester and in Perpignan. My reply is that the weather in Perpignan is way more extreme.
In September and October it was so, so hot - lizards basked in the sun and a sunhat and sun cream are essential. Sun cream in Perpignan pharmacies is extortionately priced so bring your own! In November and early December it was storm season: wind so violent my shutters rattled and I was terrified they would be lifted clean off; blue lightning even when there was no rain; flooding. And for none of this would school be cancelled – I had to make my way in somehow.
Late December and January: freezing cold, especially at night. Bring or buy an extra blanket. Then in February, spring arrives and everything is sublimely beautiful and it’s worth all that’s come before. The flowers are out; the sky is blue; the birds sing; it’s like a different world.
Perpignan is like that: intense, electric, extreme, otherworldly. And that’s why I love it and would recommend it to anyone.