Even the train station has a place in art history. Salvador Dali once called it the center of the world. Ever since then the city has been eager to use this label in its self-promotions. It becomes the "central city", the "universal city". Another, less famous, modern painter has decorated its ceiling with a mural clearly designed to high-light the central place of Perpignan in the scheme of all things. And in the street at the far northern end of this very long train station there is an art gallery that advertises itself as "Galerie Aucentmetresducentredumonde" (The one hundred meters from the center of the world gallery). The banner proclaiming its current exhibition is dominated by a single huge word: SEXE. In tiny letters below this one finds the words ou pas: or not.
A reservation with the Youth Hostel had been made a few months earlier; I quickly discovered that it was only a short distance away, partway between the train station and the heartland of the old city.
The hostel sits behind a police station and is next to a camp for training police dogs.
The hostel itself has the air of a ludicrous comic opera:the overcrowded rooms were shared by both men and women, amusing in principle yet productive of Faydeau-farce disasters in practice; all the lockers were broken. The heat wave had turned all of southern France into a furnace; despite this I took few showers in the Hostel during my stay there. The floor of the men’s shower room was covered with two inches of water most of the time. I therefore tried to find a time when the women’s shower room was free. Invariably I was in the middle of soaping up when a sharp female voice at the door barked “'Femmes'! That means 'Ladies'!”
The contents of the kitchen and its garbage cans looked much alike, particularly when young hostellers ran off after breakfast without bothering to clean up or wash their dishes. It was best not to look inside the microwave before using it. When I tried to read in the common room and night, I was assaulted by thousands of moths. And the lights on the terrace were only bring enough for drinking.
It would take up too much time now to relate all the bizarre, stupid and deplorable things I found there. The Perpignan hostel is cheap, the breakfast excellent, and I got to like the staff. However it is definitely not recommended.
My luggage disposed, (all valuables kept on my person at all times) I set out to explore the city. The Avenue de Grande Bretagne holds the train station at one end, the youth hostel, police station and dog-training camp in the middle, and highways and bridges connecting with the old city at the far end. There is a park , La Pepinière, on the left as one leaves the hostel. One walks in this direction until coming to a turnabout with multiple roads and a bridge. One then turns right to walk down the Avenue de Joseph Rous (named, as are many streets in Perpignan , after Resistence heros) then down the Avenue Escarguel past Chinese restaurants, all the way to rue de la Republique.
Along the way one encounters many monuments to Resistence fighters killed in WWII.
I took a break with a demi (half liter) of beer on the terrace of the Cafe Monte-Cristo. From there I proceeded down the rue du Quatre Septembre to the series of canals that, like capillaries and ventricles, surround the heart of the city proper.
Dinner was taken on the terrace of a charming restaurant, O Canto d'Amalia. For € 13 one can command an assortment of 10 Tapas (appetizers), with a small pitcher of Sangria for €2.50. The middle-aged, wiry owner was flitting from table to table, asking all the customers if they were satisfied. I told him that I’d often played the Canto d'Amalia of Llobet on the guitar. He smiled stiffly. I dont think he knows this lovely piece.
The waitress knew of it.
The municipal gobernment of Perpignan has produced a very detailed map of the downtown center for tourists. On Sunday morning, August 23rd, I went back over the bridges to visit the Tourist Information Center at the Place d’Arago. The young man who answered my questions prepared himself with a set routine of answers, and not much besides . Subsequently I was amazed at how little he knew relative to what I was able to find out after only a single day.
He claimed that there were no grocery stores near the youth hostel, and that I have to do my shopping in the Monoprix in the center of the old city. I discovered a Casino supermarket less than a block away from the hostel. Walking about I noted several other franchise supermarkets in the city.
He informed me that the only cybercafé in town was by the bus station. In the first hour of my stroll about Perpignan I discovered at least a dozen. All of them are managed by immigrants from the Middle East, largely Turks.
He only knew of one library, the large Mediathèque. Anyone who knows anything about France knows that a city the size of Perpignan will have several libraries. In fact I had to repeat my question a few times before he realized I was looking for the Bibliothèques (libraries), not the Librairies (bookstores).
So he was helpful, but not very much. However he made me wonder again about a phenomenon that puzzles me: Why is it that an army can invade and occupy a city that hardly anyone in the army has ever lived, while the residents who have been there all their lives are unable to prevent them from doing so?
The fact of the matter is that most people who have lived in a city all or most of their lives, have little or no notion of either its overall or even its detailed structure. From ages of 8 to about 11 I lived at 10th and Pine Streets in Philadelphia. How many people living there, including myself, parents and sister Carol, would take it upon themeselves to explore every little alleyway and side-street of this neighborhood? How many people living in downtown Philadelphia would know anything at all about Germantown, or Frankfurt, or Wynnfield? Work, family and friends might make them familiar with a few districts, only a handful of the districts of a city of that size. Nor do people, for the most part, know very much about local streets, though they may have lived in a given neighborhood all their lives.
Yet the strategists of an invading army make it their business to know all the particulars of the geography of their occupied territory. They need to know, for example, which streets are large enough to hold the passage of trucks or large numbers of troops, or which narrow alleys might hide guerilla fighters or snipers. Rather than relying on memory or familiarity they would be constantly updating their information, revising their mappings, sending out reconnaissance missions and the like.
It might have been instructive had I revisited the Tourist Information Office just to confront the person I'd spoken to, holding the heavily marked up map of Perpignan that resulted my two days of active exploration!
Misreading the map gave me the impression that Perpignan’s Music Conservatory is only a short distance from the front of the Palace. The walk along the Avenue Gilbert Brutus to the Boulevard Felix Mercadet is down a steep hill.
The Conservatory was very close by on the rue Marechal Foch. I collected several brochures and a catalogue. See the gallery of photos.
Continuing down rue Marechal Foch I came across a small municipal archaeological museum. It holds many artifacts and ruins dating back to Roman times. The exhibition I visited in August consisted of a detailed, carefully arranged display tracing the roots of the names of all the settlements in the Rousillon as they were changed, modified or transformed in the languages of settlers or conquerors: Basque, Catalan, Roman, French.
It was only a short way from there back into the center of town.
After resting up I visited the Cathedral of St John (The Baptist: the ultimate hippy!)
On the stone ledges by the steps outside the Cathedral one finds the ubiquitous church-front beggars. The tradition goes back to the Middle Ages. They sit there, very silently, with their plastic cups in their hands. Very Hindu – no doubt one gains merit by donating to them.
All of them were women, very gentle and quiet.
I encountered the nastier sort of panhandlers in the narrow streets around the train station.
Continuing along the rue Cabrit I was accosted by a pack of very drunk and brazen panhandlers who could easily have mugged me had it been late ay night. It made me very sad, that one could not visit the “Dead-End of the Poet” without being threatened by muggers! That’s life.
Unpacking my Walkman radio, I made a systematic search through all its Hertzes to uncover the frequency of France Musique at 97.10 FM. As I rested and reflecting on the day’s discoveries I listened to a Bach cantata, ecstatic through loud clouds of static!
Then back to the noisome youth hostel. When I recall the charm and helpfulness of its youthful staff, it pains me to have to recount the miserable condition of the hostel itself.
The Place Arago
Statue of the astronomer Arago, at the Place d'Arago
O Canto d'Amalia
Music festival posters align the spiralling walls of the portcullis entrance to the Palace of he Kings of Mallorca. They are held in the palace itself, on stages which appear in another photograph. This advertises another Casals festival.
Banner outside the centmetresducentredumonde art gallery.
The Music Conservatory on the rue Marechal Foch
The plaza at the foot of the climb to the Palace of the Kings of Mallorca. Every bar and restaurant and Internet cafe on the esplanade is managed by immigrants from the Middle East.
It is not clear whether Dali was referring to the train station, or just its ceiling. Dali might have been thinking of something else entirely as he walked across the floor and murmured "...the center of the world..."
The long narrow treet named "the Great Camino Real". It leads to the Palace of the Kings of Majorca.
This incredible Mural beside the door of an ordinary laundromat on the rue du Grande Real.
Sculpture by Aristide Maillol, "La Mediterranée" in an enclosed courtyard outside the Hotel de Ville.
Palace of the Kings of Majorca
A palm tree close by the palace
Terrace of the Monte Cristo cafe
The old stock exchange, Place de la Loge, now the City Hall.
All of them were originally fishing villages that have been transformed into meccas for vacationers , French and foreign. Relative to the squalid horrors of the Riviera, these towns are "unspoiled", though of course they cannot totally resist the pressure to foster the Atlantic City-Disneyland atmosphere that is unavoidable in their commercial goldmines.
A long coast road, the old road for the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostella, links all the towns of the Cote Vermeil.
These 4 photos present views from it of the Mediterranean, the bay and the harbor of Collioure. All the phases of terrestrial landscape are brought together here, the azure sea, sandy beaches, bright sunlight, mountains, farms and vineyards, forests.
A piece of the brickwork of the Moorish fort, built in the 14th century.
This street is along one of the quais, the many docks which stick out like tongues into the sea around the harbour.
In the 20’s this hotel/restaurant was a favoured resort for painters living in France. Many of them, as we know, have become famous. The hotel proprietor accepted paintings in lieu of rent, and built up a collection of masterpieces by Picassos, Braques, Chagalls, Modiglianis and other works by lesser known artists. The collection was, and still is, worth millions. The owner refused to sell them; after his death several of them were sold to provide money to expand and modernize the hotel. When I first visited Collioure in 1971 I used to take breakfast under this stunning collection, trying my hand at identifying the painters who'd contributed to it.
I found a clothing shop on the main road that offered breakfast and got a into conversation with its manager. Visually she was ugly, whatever that means - all human beings are hideous bags of garbage with, hopefully, a bit of mind stuck inside - very short, dwarf-like stature, frozen muscles in a strong super-masculine face. She was also one of the most delightful people I encountered in my two days there. She pointed out that we were in the height of the tourist season; all the hotels, moderate or dear, were booked to the rafters.
She gave me the names and locations of hotels that charged less than a fortune, but warned me not to expect to find a place to stay. She was right: they were all booked until Monday, when I had to go back to Perpignan.
From her shop I walked down a winding road to the Tourist Information Office, staffed as they so often are, by very capable college-agers. (The office in Perpignan was an exception, not the rule.) The first opening that the girl who worked with me found was a double-room, at € 110 euros a night! Too much, but that was all that was available in Collioure.
Leaving the waterfront I walked along a road going to the train station and stopped off at Collioure’s Centre Culturel. If I couldn’t stay in town overnight I at least wanted to attend the first day of a 3-day conference on André Malraux. One of the women organizing the conference suggested that I go back to the Tourist Office and ask them about what might still remain in Port Vendres.
Port Vendres is only a few miles away along the coast road , an easy walk of an hour or less in decent weather. And a decision by the regional government to support tourism by cutting the prices of local trains meant that I could take a train there for € 1.20 .
So I went back to the Tourist Information Office and spoke again with my case-worker. Miracle of miracles! - she found me a room in the hotel directly opposite the Port Vendres train station – at € 40 a night! Combining the € 75 euros for 5 nights at the hostel, with an additional 40 for Friday night, the total cames to € 23 euros/night - half the cost of the Hotel Picard in Paris!
Two photographs of the train station at Collioure:
(1) A snapshot of jolly vacationers on Platform 2 in the Collioure train station, on their way to Perpignan.
(2) The almost deserted Platform 1. I find these lonely train platforms in small tows in France, with their round clock faces and decaying buildings, incredibly romantic.
The proprietor's first husband was a doctor. He was the first person in France to set up a hotel for the elderly under medical supervision, similar to the one in Philadelphia my father lived in during his final year. Her present partner is a judge. Although the hotel property belongs to his mother, the conflict of interests prevent him from running a private business. So she runs it for him.
The Hotel Béar in Port Vendres
The girl at the Tourist office had told the hotel proprietor that I was in Collioure directing a symposium on André Malraux. I would have gotten the room anyway, but this was certainly a boost. I corrected the mistake, but she was impressed by an American who knew so much about the most famous local author, that he could attend a series of talks and readings entirely in French!
The hotel is not only adjacent to the Port Vendres train station, it is the only building in its vicinity! By the time I’d checked in and left my luggage in the room it was 10 minutes to 8 and I wanted to eat something. Every local grocery was either closed or would be closing by 8. I was told to hurry down the hill to the neighborhood "Super U".
A long helical road took me to this enormous discount warehouse at the bottom of the hill. I entered with 3 minutes to spare. With the staff whipping up the remaining customers so that we could pay up and get out, I ran around collecting cheese, ham, soda and bread: the doors literally slammed shut at my exit!
Walking a short ways back up the hill I discovered a small park with a playground, overlooking a view of the port and the descending slopes of the town. I took my time eating this semblance of a meal, watching the sun sink below the horizon and relishing the seabreezes and gentle noises of twilight.
It turned out that there had been no need to hurry. An elderly woman (translation : 5 years old than myself? ) who has been coming back to this hotel every summer for 15 years, had brought with her all sorts of good things, including real ham (not the synthetic stuff I'd picked up at the Super U), bread, champagne (!) and tea. The 4 of us sat around to 10 o'clock (A Shakesperian melange of the4 Ages of Man : Mariev is early 20s, the proprietor 40) , talking up a storm. It goes without saying that they all now have my calling card with the address of the Ferment Magazine website.
The next morning I joined them all for breakfast. Then I walked over to the train station and was dismayed to discover there is a 3 hour gap between trains in the morning , from 8 to 11 AM ! Fortunately Port Vendres is only a few miles away from Collioure, a pleasant walk in good weather along the coast road. The scenery is paradisical. A feast for the eyes!
The second picture, also from the auditorium, is of Jean-Claude Larrat, professor of French literature at Paris U , author of several books about Malraux ( including “Malraux, Theoretician de la Litterature”, and , (with Jean Guehenno) , “La Condition Humaine, Roman de l’anti-Destin” ).
He spoke to us on the ever controversial topic of "action" versus "letters" in the life of the adventurer/art historian/novelist/politician Malraux.
This much is certain: Malraux was no plastic hero. His biography is fascinating rather than admirable. On the other hand, the lives of many highly admirable people are often dull!
The next two pictures were taken at the conference on Saturday August 22, held outdoors on the Square Calloni, located right on the breakwater wall at the foot of the 14th century Moorish fortress. The speakers are journalist Claude Gallex, writer Jean-Pierre Bonnel, and professor Gérard Malgat.
Malgat spoke about Malraux's life-long devotion to Spain and the Spanish Republic. Like Picasso, Casals and others Malraux, following his participation in the Spanish Civil War, never returned to Spain while Franco was in power. Indeed, his death occured a few days before Franco’s. (Monster to the end, Franco steadily increased the number of political executions daily as the end approached.)
Jean-Pierre Bonnel (his website has a “Ferment Magazine” quality: go to blog a bonnel spoke about the grand programme that André Malraux and Charles De Gaulle had drawn up for "bringing French culture to the masses." It was a strange mixture of nationalism and condescension. They may have been sincerely motivated: it depends on how it was put into practice. Malraux did not begin his career as either a novelist or a left-wing guerilla soldier, but as an art historian. He sincerely believed that by exposing the population of France to the largest number of paintings, plays, musical compositions and so on, he could rescue the cultural heritage of a great nation. Ironically, this idealistic enterprise occurred in the same period in which he was joining his political comrades-in-arms, the Gaullists, in denouncing the student protests of 1968. His project failed by the way. The system of Maisons de Culture which he set up throughout France in the 60s and 70s no longer exists.
Another gathering was scheduled for that afternoon at 4 in the same place. The first half had nothing to do with Malraux. A local author, Hélène Legrais, discussed her detective novel, set in Collioure during the 60’s La croix des outrages, the standard talk-reading-sales-book format. What made it principally interesting for me was that it describes the very active fishing industry of that period, which has since almost completely disappeared.
This was followed by another panel on Malraux. It focussed on Malraux’s early years in Indochina, specifically that period when he underwent the personal transformation that changed him from from an art historian/dilettante who attempted to rob temples and tombs in Cambodia (he got caught; another story), to a firebrand journalist writing for newspapers in both Cambodia and France, denouncing the evils of the colonial administration.
He was not always so admirable, as we know. During WW2 he sat out most of the conflict in comparative comfort and wealth (read for example Herbert Lottman “The Left Bank”). During his years as the Minister of Culture in the government of Charles DeGaulle he quietly dropped his anti-imperialist rhetoric and activities.
André Malraux suffered from a serious addiction to the cult of personality, in his case Charles De Gaulle. In the final decades of his career this effectively stifled the Voltaire in him.
On the morning of my arrival in Perpignan from Cannes I set out to hitch-hike along the Pyrenees through all the towns connecting Perpignan with Narbonne: Eus, Millas, Vinca, Prades, Mont Louis, Villefranche, Quillan. Ostensibly I was looking for the best town to spend the summer, although I was fairly convinced that Prades was the best choice. It is close to Perpignan, at the foot of Mount Canigou, and was the home to Casals and other refugees from the Spanish Civil War.
Drivers picked me up on the twisting mountain road and took me as far as Villefranche, high up in the Pyrenees. There I waited alongside the road 3 hours, until 4 o’clock before someone picked me up again . He told me he'd become disgusted at the way I was being shunned by the small-minded natives! The countryside through which we drove abounds in caves. The highway has been cut through a gallery of stone arches, giving one the sensation of passing under waterfalls. Around 6 PM he left me off in Narbonne where I checked into a hotel room.
After visiting Carcassone (a medieval reconstruction, vintage Cathar/Disneyland!), I took the train back to Perpignan. From there I took a bus to Prades. Inquiries in a café led me to the owner of a small cottage facing Mt. Canigou, which I rented for the rest of the summer. The rent was low, I had my check from the “Magazine du Show Business”; I’d brought my portable typewriter along and rented a motorbike from an agency in town. The rest of the summer was spent editing and revising an early novel. This activity was combined with lots of hiking around Mt. Canigou, and even one concert of the tiny, yet still active Prades Festival.
Leonie, Toby and the children got into the van. Helen, Meredith and I continued down the hill towards the downtown.
Helen and her family came from Lancaster. Through various connections they'd been given a cottage to live in for the summer. While Helen, Meredith and I waited on the restaurant terrace the rest of the family was driving up to the cottage to unload their gear and look it over. Guided by instructions on Helen’s cell phone they drove back to the restaurant. The whole family was assembled again and I was invited to join them for lunch. Helen ordered mussels. There were so many in the dish that the waitress brought us that I ended up eating half of them. Here are photos of other streets in Prades:
The principal church.
Pablo Casals in honored here in numerous ways.
This is the rue de San Juan de Puerto Rico .
Thus animal conservation park is named the "El Pessebre" in memory of the poem of Joan Alavedra and the Oratorio of Pablo Casals.
These are pictures of the road to Mount Canigou and the Monastery. I wasn't so much interested in visiting the monastery per se, which I'd visited many times back in the 70's, but I wanted to familiarize myself again with the road into the mountains.