Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Scenes from French Catalonia: Perpignan, Collioure, & Ceret

Over the weekend, the Professor, the little one and I returned from a short but delightful vacation to French Catalonia. This is the region of France closest to Spain just on the other side of the Pyrenees; an area which, although technically a part of France, still identifies culturally as Catalan. (If you want to read more about the simultaneous existence of the French and Catalan cultures, I found this article fascinating). We took the high speed train from Barcelona to Perpignan where we stayed but we made day trips to the seaside town of Collioure and to a tiny, artistic town nestled at the foot of the Pyrenees, Ceret.

Before I share our pictures and the details of our stay, I have to mention that this trip came about in a totally backwards way. Normally when planning a trip, you first decide where you want to go, then you look for your accommodations, then you determine your means of travel. When I started planning this trip, I started looking for accommodations first without giving much importance to where we would visit. I knew I didn't want to travel too far from Barcelona (two hours on the train max) but there are just so many scenic towns around here (I'm not trying to brag. Seriously!). I considered somewhere on the Costa Brava and looked at many places in Southern France. I was scouring Airbnb for hours every day looking for an appropriate place. I wanted to stay in an apartment that was itself child friendly and in a family friendly city which basically just meant that the city had plenty of parks, supermarkets in walking distance and plenty to do. I finally discovered this place for rent in Perpignan and it was perfect for us. I wouldn't say that Perpignan is a must-see tourist attraction though it does attract many tourists especially at this time of year. It's a decent size city so it has many restaurants, cafes, nightlife, and high quality shopping but still with a village feel. It also has a major train station (Salvador DalĂ­ reportedly called it the 'center of the world') and it offers coach bus service to many of the surrounding villages for only 1 Euro. For us, it was the perfect destination!

Here are some scenes from our trip:

(Update: Found the photo of the canal! Here we are!)

This is the city center in Perpignan all decked out for the music festival which is every Thursday night throughout the month of August and some of July. On the left is a lovely canal that runs through the city. I thought we got a picture of it but apparently not.

This is one of the main tourist attractions in Perpignan, Le Castillet but we only saw it from the outside. When we travel, we rarely do the touristy stuff unless it's something major that we haven't seen before. We normally just prefer to explore a city the way the natives would. Nevertheless, I thought the castle was quite pretty at nighttime. 

Perpignan has quite a few good restaurants that serve a mix of French, Catalan and Spanish food. We can eat tapas anytime we want in Barcelona, so we chose to eat at places that did mostly French food. Roman was especially thrilled that all the brasseries we visited served his favorite dish--pommes frites (french fries). 

Walking around Perpignan at night really made us appreciate how pretty the city was. As we passed this narrow alley, I exclaimed in delight and told the Professor to quickly take a picture. It reminded me a bit of that famous Van Gogh painting. Do you see it? 

Snails! There was a farmer's market in the Place de la Republique every morning and we'd frequently stop by some of the vendor's stalls to buy fruit and just ogle vegetables really. We weren't brave enough to order any snails but they serve these in Spain too so we have time to warm to the idea. Have you tried them? What do you think? 

We always make a point whenever we travel to find local parks for Roman to play. It's an opportunity for us to have some downtime and for him to run and explore and interact with other children. In Perpignan, as in other parts of France we've visited to date, you can find such pretty ones! This one is in a square called Bir Hakeim a little outside the downtown area. It's obviously a great place to go if you have kids but even if you don't, it's quite a large park with trails, fountains, and plenty of grass so it'd be perfect for a picnic under a shady tree. 

I feel it's compulsory whenever in France to ride a carousel because you can always find one in a park or a plaza. This one is in the Place de la Republique and as you can see Roman was enchanted. He rode it twice and would have loved a third go round but we dragged him away. He didn't go quietly as you might have guessed. 

Front row seats! This was the night of the music festival and there were musicians, acrobats, and dancers all over town. We particularly liked this group, whose music I'm not even sure how to describe. You can check them out if you like: Les Brank'Ignobles. 

Outside the Cathedral of St. Jean, there is a marble fountain and because of its circular shape, Roman wanted to run around it a few hundred times. But at least he stopped to pose for this picture. He's getting much better at holding still for the camera and has even learned how to say 'cheese'. 

This was day two in Collioure. Apparently this place is not as much of a secret as I thought! There were as many tourists as there were pebbles on the beach. As we walked down the narrow streets, we were literally elbowing our way through. You can see the attraction though, right? The water was so blue and clear and the setting is just beautiful with this magnificent castle on one side and an old church on the other. 

The port was so charming and colorful. We loved the brightly painted boats. 

A shot of me and my little darling at the water's edge. On the one hand, the beach in Collioure is perfect for little ones because it's very shallow and the waves are small and gentle. But on the other hand, the ocean floor and the beach are covered in scorching hot pebbles and that can make it hard for little feet. Roman, for one, was not a big fan. He's just a Barcelona baby who's used to the sand. P.S. I have the craziest tan, I know. I was hoping my back would get some sun to match my shoulders but alas...

I loved walking along narrow alleys like this and getting away from the crowds. It wasn't the easiest thing to do with a baby in a stroller though but we managed! 

We didn't manage to find a single park or playground in Collioure and that was tough on Roman because he couldn't play on the beach since the rocks were too hot and too hard on his feet. So we found this little plaza for him to burn off some energy and he excitedly ran around for over half an hour while the Professor dutifully followed him. 

On to Ceret! I have to say, this town was my favorite one by far. It's so charming and quaint and undiscovered. There weren't throngs of tourists, because really, there's not that much to see. The city boasts one art museum (but it's a good one) and has neither a train station nor an airport. The only way to get here is to drive or take a bus. This makes it feel like a secret, special place and for us, it was. 

Ceret was a hub for many artists, most notably Picasso whose name can be seen in many parts of the city from squares to cafes. As you walk about, you can see why so many artists came here. It's so beautiful you just have to stop and paint it like this man above. 

 I loved this charming little detail on the corner of the building.

Throughout our trip, it was strange to hear French being spoken all around us but yet we saw such strong Catalan pride. This picture was taken of a house in Ceret that had decorative tiles all proclaiming this sentiment. In clockwise order they read, 'I am Catalan,' 'This is a Catalan home', 'Here lives a supporter of the Lille Metropole' (a football team), and 'Here lives a supporter of the Catalan dragons' (a rugby team).  

All around the city center, there were leafy trees which shaded us from the summer sun but also made the light so much softer. I loved the way this building mirrors the graceful curves of the trees in front of it and they even match in color.

Speaking of matching colors, I thought this little house with its matching door and flowers was so cute. Throughout the city, there were brightly painted shutters, doors and even lampposts. As we were walking around town, the Professor and I  couldn't help but debate which color we would paint our front door if we ever moved here. I said fuchsia or aqua but the Professor plumped for bright green. 

More pops of color. Wouldn't sitting here with a coffee cheer up a grey, winter day?

Lastly, I leave you with a shot of the little one on the train on the way home. Roman's favorite part of the journey no doubt. 

So that was our mini-vacation! What about you guys? Go anywhere fun?

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