A Part of France That Feels Like Spain
Sitting in the small French town of Ceret last week I could have been forgiven for thinking I was in Spain. The red and gold Catalan flags were fluttering, we were tucking into a delicious array of tapas washed down with a jug of sangria, and several small boys in Barca football shirts were kicking a ball around the square. Strange though it may seem, it was not a case of having had one glass too many, but rather that we were holidaying in the Pyrénées-Orientales department of Languedoc Roussillon.
Only a short drive from the Spanish border, it is often known as French Catalonia and has a rich history of being passed between the two neighbours, France and Spain. In 1276 Perpignan, current day capital of the department, became the capital of the Kings of Majorca and remained under Spanish control until 1463 when Louis XI regained it for France. Thirty years later it was back in Spanish hands and stayed there until 1642 when the Spanish were expelled by Louis XIII.
Tapas are not the only Spanish dish on the menu. Many restaurants serve pa amb tomaquets (bread with olive oil and tomatoes) as a starter and for the main course paella, fideu (a type of paella with noodles instead of rice) and zarzuela (a hearty stew made with whatever fish or shellfish has been caught that day). Even simple grilled fish is shown on the menu as a la planxa, a Catalan phrase for the metal griddle on which the fish is grilled. For dessert, crema catalana replaces the more familiar French crème brulee.
As for traditions the Catalan folk dance, the sardana, is often performed in town squares throughout the summer. Sadly (at least in the opinion of most British animal lovers) the bull-fight is also alive and kicking in the region with many towns having their own bull-rings.
According to my guide book, the Catalan language is spoken by a quarter of the population and understood by an even greater percentage. I can't say I heard anyone speak it but I did notice that many towns and villages have their Catalan name displayed alongside their French name.
If you want the best of both worlds the Pyrénées-Orientales is well worth exploring and Rentals France offers a good selection of properties as well as general information on the department.