Sunday, July 5, 2009

What's in a name?

One of the problems of this lovely region where I live - just south of Perpignan - is that we suffer from having too many names! Hence, a few words of explanation.

First of all, we are part of Roussillon, the southern half of Languedoc-Roussillon, which is one of France's 22 administrative regions, and comprising 5 départements, each of which has its own identifying name and number (which you will still see for a while on the old-style French number plates).

The départements are: Lozère (48) to the north which includes the town of Mende and its spectacular new road bridge; Gard (30) to the north-east, with the towns of Alès and Nimes, and which borders the département of Provence-Cote d'Azur; Hérault (34) with its capital Montpellier, site of the regional préfecture and with an extensive Mediterranean coastline; Aude (11) which includes Narbonne and the walled city of Carcassonne; and finally Pyrénées-Orientales (66), literally 'eastern Pyrenees', with its capital Perpignan, a Mediterranean coastline which goes all the way south to Spain and the Costa Brava, and the Pyrenees forming a land border with Spain and Andorra, and home to a number of popular winter ski resorts.

Where Languedoc ends and Roussillon begins is a bit of a mystery, but it includes at least part of the département of Pyrénées-Orientales, which starts just north of Perpignan and stretches south to the Spanish/Andorran border.

If you arrive in Roussillon from the north by road or rail, you will pass through four of the five départements and will notice the wide differences in landscape from the wilder, more rugged hillsides of the north, which contrast with the flat Roussillon Plain, south of Perpignan, which ends at the Albères, which form the foothills of the Pyrenees. Inland to the west, Roussillon is dominated by the snow-capped Mont Canigou.

Local people are proud of their Spanish Catalan heritage, perhaps due to the fact that the area only officially joined France in 1659 when the border with Spain was move southwards from Perpignan to the Pyrenees. As a result, the area is sometimes also called French Catalonia - with Spanish Catalonia reaching south to Barcelona. There are many traces of the Spanish occupation, including the palaces of the Kings of Majorca in Perpignan and Collioure, and the impressive forts such as Salses le Chateau north of Perpignan. These were replaced by Vauban, castle builder to Louis XIV, further south in places like Le Perthus (Bellegarde) and Prats de Mollo, closer to the new border with Spain.

A line of signal towers can still be seen along the ridge of the Pyrenean foothills which warned of further Spanish incursions, using smoke by day and bonfires by night. News of invaders could reach the whole region within 20 minutes!