Catalan culture in France and Spain: Homage to both Catalonias
Ferne Arfin samples Catalan culture in both French Catalonia and Spain's Catalunya, in an area straddling the French and Spanish border.
French Catalonia, or Catalogne Nord, climbs from a small patch of coastal Roussillon, that includes Perpignan, up into the eastern Pyrénées.
Though local signs identify the regional capital in the Catalan language – Perpinyà la Catalana – this is a recent innovation and somehow you just know their hearts aren’t in it. Catalan was only recognised as a regional language in the Pyrénées Orientales in 2007. If you try the Catalan pronunciation for a place name or a menu item, Perpignan locals will still steer you back to French.
In the mountains, closer to Spain, it’s a different story. The air of the enormous Saturday market in Ceret resounds with Catalan; the market stalls are laden with Catalan specialities – bunches of vegetables and jars of sauces rarely seen elsewhere in France.
After visiting Ceret’s gem of a modern art museum (Picasso, Matisse, Soutine, Braque), we stopped in a café to try pain à la catalana (pa amb tomàquet), toasted bread topped with ripe tomato and olive oil, and calçots with romesco sauce, a combination of almonds, pine nuts, sweet peppers and garlic.
A pair of fortified villages high in the mountains might explain the cultural amnesia that, until its recent revival, turned French Catalan culture into a mountain outlaw.
When the 17th-century Treaty of the Pyrénées put most of Catalonia in Spain, Louis XIV drove the language underground by banning its public use. His architect, Vauban (whose works seem as common in France as pubs named the King’s Arms in England), fortified two border outposts in the mountains to make sure that France stayed French. The Sun King’s fortresses, Mont Louis and Villefranche-de-Conflent, near the base of Mount Canigou, are part of the Vauban Unesco World Heritage Site in the Pyrénées Regional Natural Park.
Mont Louis, at 96 acres and 5,250ft, is France’s smallest “commune” and highest fortified town. Though parts of it can be visited year round, its citadel is still an active military base where French commandos train.
Villefranche-de-Conflent is an unusually oblong-shaped walled town crammed into a narrow valley, between steep slopes and the River Tet. Though the fortifications had a Vauban makeover, most of the pink marble town and its walls date from the original 11th-century “enterprise zone”.
The local Count of Cerdanya and Conflent built it as a freetown in 1095 to control the valley and cut off his enemies’ wine supplies in winter. To attract a population of shopkeepers and craftsmen, he invited settlers to live tax free for three years, after which they could pay when and only as much as they wanted. Their stone shopfronts and tall, narrow houses line deeply shaded streets that open onto dazzling mountain views.
Several hundred feet higher, 18th-century Fort Liberia clings to an outcrop, protecting Villefranche from “aerial” attack. Visitors can take a shuttle bus from the parking area outside the town walls.
The reward is a view over three valleys Mont-Louis, Vernet-les-Bains, and Prades. While you’re there, take a
10-minute side trip to Vernet-les-Bains. The historic spa town is the site of the world’s only monument celebrating the Entente Cordiale.
The A9 motorway crosses the border into Spain near Perthus, flying over the high passes before descending to the plains of Girona, one of the provinces which, with Barcelona, Tarragona and Lleida, make up Catalunya.
Since 1978, Catalunya has been one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities. Its language, suppressed for four decades under Franco but now spoken by about half the population, has official status and is taught in schools.
This part of Spain feels like an empty quarter. The impeccably restored medieval villages of Pals and Peratallada are lovely but eerily quiet.
Crossing the small province capital of Girona, we came across a group of people outside the polytechnic faculty of the University of Girona taking part in a training session of the Colla Castellera dels Xoriguers. This peculiarly Catalan activity, known as castelling, is a feature of public holidays and feast days all over the region.
Castellers form human towers, or castells. The castell is complete when the person at the top – often a child – raises one hand in a four-fingered salute. While we watched, the castellers reached three, four and finally five storeys.
In the Costa Brava town of Palamós we watched a sardana, or Catalan circle dance. It seemed to happen spontaneously, like a flash mob, as people gathered to listen to the oddly harsh woodwind music. Family groups, elderly couples, teenagers and children put down their handbags and toys, linked arms and began the lively, complicated dance.
Within minutes, the entire seaside was alive with wheeling circles of dancers.
Girona Airport is the gateway to the region. Ryanair (0871 246 0000, calls cost 10p per minute; www.ryanair.com) has flights from Stansted to Girona from £35 one way. Car rental is available at the airport.
THE BEST HOTELS
Hotel Ciutat de Girona, Girona ££
In the centre of the city, this is a smart modern hotel with a stylish, Catalan-influenced restaurant (0034 9 7248 3038; www.hotel-ciutatdegirona.com; doubles from €90/£79.50 per night).
Le Mas Trilles, Ceret ££
A traditional Catalan farmhouse, just outside Ceret. Colourful rooms have views of Mt Canigou or of the gardens (4 6887 3837; www.le-mas-trilles.com; doubles from €93/£82 per night).
Hotel Aigua Blava, Begur £££
This luxury hotel is difficult to get to but worth the trouble for its dramatic views. Rooms are arranged in several buildings, giving the hotel the feeling of a small coastal village (9 7262 2058; www.aiguablava.com; doubles with terrace from €223/£196 per night).
THE BEST RESTAURANTS
Le Cedrat, Le Boulou £
Near the French/Spanish border, in the unlikely setting of a casino. Chef Jean Plouzennec puts a modern spin on traditional ingredients (Joacasino Le Boulou, Route du Perthus; 4 6883 0120).
Restaurante Aigua Blava, Begur ££
First-class restaurant at the Hotel Aigua Blava, presided over by chef Lluis Ferrès. Fresh, local ingredients, with very good seafood and shellfish (9 7262 4562; www.aiguablava.com).
Bo Tic, Girona £££
Molecular cuisine, along with nouvelle-ish interpretations of the traditional flavours of Baix Empordà. Young chef/owner Albert Sastregener has just landed his first Michelin star (9 7263 0869; www.bo-tic.com).
What to avoid