Salvador Dali's claim to have seen "the Centre of the Universe" at Perpignan station remains one of the surrealist artist's more bizarre statements, but now it looks like he might have been on to something.
This hot, dusty, southern city, never known for its dynamism, is on the cusp of a shining future – and the train station is where it all begins. By 2014 the new cross-border TGV line currently being built will have cut the journey from Perpignan to Barcelona down from three hours to just 45 minutes, cementing the relationship between the two proudly Catalan cities.
The city is being transformed – a new TGV station to open in 2012, the renovation of the quarter around it, and a second new district beside the River Têt, where the Jean Nouvel-designed Théâtre de l'Archipel promises to be a cultural linchpin.
Perpignan has already seen a massive renovation programme for its religious and military heritage, much of which dates back to the 13th and 14th centuries when it was the continental seat of the kings of Mallorca. Ridding the old city centre of much of its traffic has made it a pleasant place to wander on foot.
Perpignan has pledged to become a 100 per cent renewable energy city by 2015, overshooting national targets. It makes sense: the city gets 220 days of sunshine a year and photovoltaic panels on large industrial entities, such as the St Charles market (Europe's largest wholesale fruit and veg market), mean it will produce a large chunk of the energy it consumes.
You can add to all this a unique and intoxicating mix of Catalan and Romany culture, a Spanish-style late-night scene, and a party-loving population that would rather not think too hard about tomorrow – at least while the bars are still open.
*People-watching from a café terrace on Place de la République. Its car park is now underground and the pastel-coloured façades of this spacious square have been spruced up. Follow the sun through the day by moving from terrace to terrace. It also hosts a morning produce market.
*The cloisters of St Jean funerary ensemble in the Campo Santo, the oldest and biggest in Europe. The modern stained glass by Shirley Jaffe bathes the chapel in colour.
*The view over the Roussillon plain from Castillet keep, the main gate in the 14th-century walls. This keep was extended by Louis XI of France, but remains a symbol of Catalonia. It houses the Casa Pairal museum of Catalan arts.
*Shopping at Marché Cassanyes, at Place Cassanyes, (daily, 7.30am to 1.30pm). The city's most colourful market is typical of the ethnic mix of a place that has always welcomed refugees and immigrants.
*Dufys, Picassos and the Fauves at the Musée Hyacinthe Rigaud, a fine-art museum in an elegant townhouse. Most of the artists drawn to the area by its light and colours are represented here.
*Paradis Foullis, a restaurant in an antique shop, at 17 rue de l'Ange, serving homemade savoury tartes with luxurious ingredients (such as foie gras). Enjoy a glass of chilled wine and extravagant desserts under a forest of Art Deco lights.
Théâtre de l'Archipel
Jean Nouvel's modular arts complex, made up of several cubes and a giant representation of one of the garnet pebbles that lie on the bed of the River Têt, is to open next year. The "tower", in metallic gold, will have views over the river to Mount Canigou. A new bridge and landscaped, olive-filled gardens complete this project in the new Espace Méditerranée quarter.
The Suitehotel is so new that its surroundings are still a building site – that of the Théâtre de l'Archipel right next door. But this complex of 50 studio apartments offers everything an urban nomad could want: spacious suites with both a bath and a shower, free Wi-Fi through the "Suitebox", which also offers free calls to national landlines, music and video, a gym, an ironing room and bar. There is also a boutique gourmande, where you can buy ready-meals to pop into your own microwave or luxurious snacks such as mini-boxes of foie gras. There are also free massages on offer from 7.30pm to 9.30pm on Thursday nights. The contemporary decor, with rooms in soothing slate tones, strikes the right Elle Deco note to feel like a hip bachelor pad rather than a business hotel. Introductory rates from €69 (normally €102).
Details: Suitehotel, 23 Espace Méditerranée (00 33 4 68 92 72 72; suitehotel.com)
A new name and a new look to allow Perpignan's most gastronomic restaurant – the former Chapon Fin – to celebrate a Michelin star for its chef Alexandre Klimenko. All is cool and contemporary here, with the temperature-controlled wine cellar on view and screens diffusing landscape scenes behind the coffee-coloured banquettes. The €55 four-course menu is a great way to discover Klimenko's cuisine, often referred to as "zen" though distinctly Mediterranean. An extra €20 brings you a different wine with each course.
Details: Park Hotel, 18 bd Jean Bourrat (00 33 4 68 35 14 14; parkhotel-fr.com)
Perpignan's recently introduced bike hire system is easier to use than the Paris one and much cheaper, if you want to keep the bike for a few hours, though the website is only in French or Catalan. You can get a Formule Liberté for seven days by internet or mobile phone and see the availability of bikes in real time on the site, as well as a map of cycle paths. A Formule Liberté costs €1 and it's 50c for the first three half-hours, then €1 per half-hour thereafter, which would allow you to get out of the centre of town on the riverside path to Bompas.
Details: bip-perpignan.fr, Formule Liberté by phone: wap.bip-perpignan.
Olivia Mailhes, communications director
"Behind an old black shopfront with gold lettering is Les Frères Mossé – in the heart of the old town and definitely the 'canteen' of the moment. Delicious southern cuisine is served with a good list of local wines from Collioure to the Vallée de l'Agly. In the evenings, under the little starry lights that give it an air of magic, you lose track of time eating, singing, dancing. Frédéric Espilondo, who runs it, is passionate about music and features a jazz group once a month. He'll often run around the corner to the Cosy Club after he closes to jam on the piano with clients and friends."
Details: Les Frères Mossé, 14 rue de la Fusterie (00 33 4 68 80 63 31)
How to get there
BMI baby (bmibaby.com), Ryanair (ryanair.com) and Flybe (flybe.com) all fly from the UK to Perpignan. Or take the Eurostar (eurostar.com) and connect on to the TGV (sncf.fr).
Perpignan Tourist Office (perpignan tourisme.com).Reuse content