Monday, July 6, 2009

Perpignan, departmental capital

Roussillon or Pyrénées-Orientales - see my article below about the confusion of names - tends to be dominated by the departmental capital Perpignan. With a population of around 120,000 and expanding suburbs, it is an important administrative centre, with not only an impressive mairie, but also the péfecture, a major chamber of commerce, a court house, a Palais des Congrés, the Palais des Expos, several museums, a cathedral and its own university with some 10,000 students.

Perpignan has a vibrant social and cultural life and can be reached in 30 to 45 minutes from almost every corner of Pyrénees-Orientales, thanks an efficient local road system. Perpignan's old town comprises a maze of pedestrianised streets, lined with interesting boutiques and cafés, leading to the cathedral and former convent buildings used as centres for international exhibitions such as the Visa de l'Image (photo-journalism) held in the autumn. Just off the town centre to the south is the impressive Palace of the Kings of Majorca, a reminder of the time when the whole area was under Spanish rule.

Opposite another fort, the Castillet, there is a branch of Galeries Lafayette, situated on a broad boulevard which follows the river Basse (see photo above) leading westwards towards the Palais de Justice and beyond to the refurbished Place Catalogne and impressive FNAC (major French bookstore) building. The boulevard to the east runs alongside a small park with shady plane trees which provide a nice place to rest or take a picnic after your visit to the tourist office inside the Palais des Congrés building close by.

The university is located to the south of the city centre, close to a comparatively new suburb called Moulin à Vent which also features a huge muti-sports complex with outdoor and indoor facilities. Just beyond is the major shopping complex at Porte d'Espagne centred around the Auchan hypermarket. To the north of the city is an even larger shopping centre, which includes a Carrefour hypermarket and all the major French retailers.

Perpignan is well provided with hospitals and clinics, including the Clinique St Pierre west of the town centre and the general hospital complex to the north, near the USAP rugby stadium. The main cinema has become a multiplex located on the main road south (towards Argelès-sur-mer) with easy parking.

Perpignan continues to expand, a process which began in the 1920s when the rather ugly city walls were demolished and replaced with an inner ring road, which defines the shape of the inner city today. The smartest suburbs are to the south and west towards the coast, with easy access to the resort towns of Canet, St Cyprien and Argelès. The international airport is located 10 minutes drive north of the city centre and the railway station is just off the town centre, to the west. All the main hotel groups can be found along the principal boulevards.