Fin de saison (end of summer) is a perfect time to visit Perpignan in southwest France, even if that notorious tramontane puffs sand in your face on the beach or blows you off your bike. This northwesterly wind is in fact a milder version of the infamous mistral which I well remember interrupting langorous summers in Provence. Luckily the tramontane only visits occasionally, blasting the sky a clear blue to leave a toasty autumnal sun and golden light.
Photo exhibitions galore
I was in Perpignan partly to visit the international photo-journalism fest, Visa pour l’Image September 02 – 17, a visual binge that propels you through the dark sides of humanity, socio-politics and the vagaries of our planet. The hard core photo reportage displayed is sometimes evocative and magical, more often shocking and horrific, all by talented and courageous professionals. Over 20 exhibitions fill 9 different venues, with the greatest concentration in and around the grandiose Couvent des Minimes (below), a 16th c convent resurrected by the town council a couple of decades ago.
For hundreds of hard-bitten aficionados there are also open-air night screenings beside the cathedral (below). We (my glamorous Canadian cousin and I) made a beeline there on the first night despite having walked our feet off all day, then queued at length to enter this show. Not all the projected reportages were top notch and a few were killed off entirely by cheesey soundtracks, but I loved sitting there in the balmy night air being force-fed pictures of our world – for better and for worse.
Although Visa has existed for 29 years (you can bet the drums will be rolling in 2018 for the 30th anniversary), organisation was lacking. They got the bag-searching right, but staff offered conflicting information. And plastic beakers for hot and cold drinks in the Couvent des Minimes patio went very much against the environmental grain – particularly after seeing Vlad Sokhin’s stirring photos of the effects of climate change.
A big plus was that most events were free, though professional photographers paid 60€ to benefit from portfolio reviews and special talks by the great and the good snappers. Naturally there was a fringe ‘Visa’ too, scattered between every café and bar in town, but we didn’t get round to that. Overkill is overkill.
For me the most enlightening displays were Lorenzo Meloni’s searing Collapse of the Caliphate (on Mosul), Sarah Caron’s enlightening Inshallah Cuba (about an expanding community of Muslim converts in Havana) and above all Ferhat Bouda’s black and white photo essay on remote Moroccan Berbers, some living in mountain caves; poignant, personal (Bouda is of Algerian origin) and revealing.
Façades, food and Catalan Perpinya
Perpignan itself is small (just over 100,000 people), occasionally down-at-heel, yet with pockets of history, atmospheric old streets and colourful façades plus dozens of art deco villas (above).
Food is of course a priority (this is France after all), and the North African market on Place Cassanyes would feed an army (or the Foreign Legion, comfortably installed in barracks nearby) for a handful of euros. Local products abound – saucissons, patés, tapenades and honeys fill specialist shops. And at a small farmers’ market I found freshly laid organic eggs, homemade goats’ cheese, homegrown tomatoes, wild honey, wine and crusty homemade bread among the seductive offerings. Plus ça change, plus ils mangent…
I also learnt how fiercely Perpignan (Perpinya) now clings to its Catalan identity. During my 18-year sojourn in France which ended in the mid-1990s, I was never aware of French Catalogne, a region annexed by France in the mid 1600s. In fact it’s really in the last couple of decades that this identity and related language have strengthened into a milder version of Spanish Catalunya across the Pyrenees; Perpignan is the second Catalan city after Barcelona and locals call their region Northern Catalogne (Catalunya / Catalonia). Salvador Dali, who lived near Cadaqués just across the border, allegedly twirled his memorable moustache for hours in Perpignan’s main station while aiting to dispatch his paintings by train to Paris or elsewhere. He even dubbed it “the centre of the world”.
Paulilles beach and Alfred Nobel
That mountainous border between France and Spain, the Pyrenees, is omnipresent from the moment you land at the tiny airport to when you sit on Perpignan’s nearest beach, Canet-en-Roussillon, a broad and breezy stretch of well-populated sand with views of the rugged silhouette. Best of all though, even closer to the border near Port-Vendres, is a crescent-shaped beach made famous by none other than Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of detonators and dynamite. Hardly peaceful!
Paulilles beach (above, photo from L’Indépendant) is left with some rusty old machinery, the deserted factory itself (below) and a small museum, all part of a beautifully landscaped Mediterranean garden ending at the beach. A high wall protecting the shingle turns out to be a relic of World War II built by the Germans to prevent Allied forces landing.
Nobel chose this spot for its isolation as his pacifist heart baulked at the thought of anyone getting hurt. Nonetheless 50 people allegedly died in over a century of dynamite production and who knows what lies beneath the waves. Yet it seems the factory and its workers enjoyed a kind of mini-utopia complete with gardens, church and school. After closure in 1984, the extensive grounds nearly came prey to beady-eyed developers… thankfully thwarted by local conservationists.
Altogether ‘Northern Catalogne’ is an attractive, unspoiled part of France, very agricultural and the polar opposite of the glitzy opposite end of France’s Mediterranean coast between Cannes and Nice. And Perpignan itself, an almost-Spanish town, is earthy and welcoming – nor do you need to speak Catalan.