Pyr�n�es-Orientales - Perpignan

Brodering Spain and close to Languedoc’s beaches and ski resorts, Perpignan is a perfect base for exploring, says Caroline Hill

My first visit to Perpignan was a long weekend break inspired by a Ryanair special offer. I loved the town, the setting, the vineyards and the beaches, but was particularly impressed by what I assumed to be their pride in the local rugby team USAP’. Their team colours (yellow and red stripes) seemed to be displayed everywhere, whether on posters, flags or car stickers – there was even a large banner flying from The Palace of the Kings of Majorca, one of the most famous tourist attractions of the city! Luckily, I didn’t mention my thoughts to any of the locals as, much to my embarrassment, I now know that these displays of yellow and red are, in fact, the Catalan flag!

Of the five departments of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, the Pyr�n�es- Orientales (department 66) is the most southerly, bordering Spain. It is also known as French Catalonia – from the days when Roussillon was governed by James I of Spain and Perpignan was home to the Majorcan kings. Since the Treaty of the Pyr�n�es in 1659, the area is now French’ again but with a distinctly Catalan flavour.

Heading west on the A9 autoroute along the Languedoc-Roussillon coast, you will pass Montpellier, B�ziers and Narbonne. The Mediterranean will be twinkling invitingly to the left and the Pyr�n�es will be looming on the horizon. Just before you reach Perpignan, you will notice a tall curved sculpture with four deep grooves set in the hillside on your right. This sculpture is called The Gateway to Catalonia and marks the old frontier between France and Catalonia.

The first difference you will notice as you enter this region is that the road signs will now be in Catalan as well as French, and you will see the red and yellow striped flags (depicting blood smeared on gold shields’ during the fierce battles for the region) displayed in shops, streets and on cars. Benvinguts al Catalunya – or welcome to Catalonia!

The beautiful south French Catalonia is, to me, the real south of France but with a Spanish twist’ – which is hardly surprising as it is right on the Spanish border. Also known as Roussillon, or the Pyr�n�es-Orientales d�partement, this small corner of France manages to offer something for everybody. The mountains and ski resorts are just 1�-hours’ drive from the Mediterranean Sea, the winters are mild and the summers are long and warm, cooled by the Tramontane wind. The scenery varies between dramatic mountains, lush foothills, gorges, lakes, vineyards and, of course, miles of long sandy beaches. The area is said to have its head in the mountains and feet in the sea’ and is one of the few places in the world where you can ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon – although I wouldn’t recommend the water temperature during the skiing season!

One of the most famous Catalans was the surrealist artist Salvador Dali who gave Perpignan one of its proudest claims to fame by declaring that Perpignan railway station was the centre of the world! This may (allegedly) have less to do with the impressiveness of Perpignan station and more to do with the fact that, due to political unrest, he had to bring his paintings from his home in Figueres just over the Spanish border across to Perpignan to export them.

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Salvador Dali would be even more excited today by the news that Perpignan railway station is being totally redeveloped in anticipation of the opening of a new TGV line, which will link Perpignan with Barcelona in just 50 minutes. This will be one of the most important events in the history of Perpignan as it will provide a huge boost to industry, commerce and tourism in the area. €225m is being spent on the new station and surrounding area and plans include shops, offices, 116 hotel rooms, parks, a leisure centre and, of course, new housing. Estate agents are already rubbing their hands with glee as forward-thinking investors start to take advantage of the situation and snap up apartments off-plan in anticipation of the rental market. Older, rather less glamorous studios in the surrounding area can still be bought for €40,000 and bring in rentals of €300 per month.

The region is already easily accessible from the UK, with budget airlines flying direct to Perpignan, or just one-hour’s drive to the north there is Carcassonne and the same distance to the south, Girona, which is a major Ryanair hub.

Property potential While many UK buyers are still adopting a wait and see’ attitude before making the decision to purchase abroad, my advice would be not to wait too long. – nowadays beachside apartments are available from around €120,000.

The Languedoc market has held up pretty well, mainly because tourism isn’t restricted to the summer season but attracts visitors year-round who enjoy the skiing, sports, walking, historical buildings, swimming and even the thermal spa resorts. Last year the CRT (Regional Committee for Tourism) announced that in 2008 there were 100 million overnight bookings (including campsites) and that bookings were already up by 10% compared to last year. The only effect of La Crise is that more people are booking all-inclusive or full-board packages in hotels so that they can keep a closer eye on their budgets.

This is the third-most popular region to visit in France, so whatever you buy and wherever you buy, you have a good opportunity of supplementing your income by short-term rentals to tourists. While property prices dipped a little lower during the first three months of the year, the general feeling among local agents is that prices are now stabilising and will begin the slow bounce back to the steady annual increases of around 3-4% that French property has traditionally enjoyed. Good news if you are planning on buying in the near future!

An ideal base from which to explore French Catalonia would be the town of C�ret, nestling in the foothills of the Pyr�nn�es and just 20 minutes from Perpignan. With a population of just 7,500, this is the unlikely home of one of France’s top modern art museums, featuring works by Miro, Chagal, Dali, Matisse and Picasso – many of whom lived in the town for some years. This is a truly Catalan town and holds many not to be missed’ festivals throughout the year featuring everything from cherries to bull-running! On the outskirts of the town is a stunning privately owned hotel called La Chataigneraie where you can relax on a sunlounger by the pool and enjoy breathtaking views across the Roussillon plain to the Mediterranean sea in one direction, and of the majestic Mont Canigou in the other. You will feel so at home here that you will want to stay – so, if you’ve got a spare €1modd, why not buy it, as the owners are reluctantly selling!

Caroline Hill is a property finder for Perpignan Properties covering the coastal area up to the Spanish border, the foothills of the Pyr�n�es and the Roussillon plains.caroline@perpignan-properties.com Tel: 0033 (0)4 68 54 49 90 or 07957 114998