Before the French Revolution, France wasn’t centralised as it is now. Though ruled by the French King, regions were effectively governed by local aristocracy and the church. They were the main landowners, the holders of political and economic power. Regions often did their own thing administratively and language. It’s estimated that only around half of France spoke French at the time of the Revolution. The rest spoke different dialects – Breton, Occitan, Basque, Flemish and more. Over time, French replaced the local languages and local cultures became diminished.
After the French Revolution, government, systems and rules were centralised. And so was the language. But in some regions, such as the Pyrénées-Orientales, the cultural identity of the past remains strong and is revered and celebrated by the locals…
Culture of the Pyrénées-Orientales department
The Pyrénées-Orientales in the far south of France borders Spain and is lapped by the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a department that boasts a variety of landscapes, golden sandy beaches, rocky coast, a large rural area and agricultural plains, mountains and valleys. Despite the diversity in landscapes, the people are united by their Catalan heritage and the department is also known as the “Catalan Pyrenees” or “Le Pays Catalan”, the Catalan Country.
Catalan is a Romance language, spoken for at least 1000 years and originating in Catalonia on the Spanish side. Catalonia was once a larger area which in the middle ages encompassed part of France – now the Pyrénées-Orientales. A roughly triangular region in Spain’s far north-east corner, Catalonia is separated from southern France by the snow-peaked Pyrenean mountains. After the French beat Spain at the Battle of Dunkirk in 1658, a treaty ceded the northern parts of Catalonia to the French crown, and the area has remained French ever since. But many communities in the Pyrénées-Orientales have never forgotten their heritage.
The Catalan language has never died, even though for a period it was illegal. You’ll see street signs with text in bright red, set against a rich yellow background, the colours of Catalonia. Many houses display the Catalan flag and Perpignan, the department capital is the biggest Catalan city after Barcelona.
Catalan specialities are proudly served in restaurants and traditions such as folk songs and dances, especially the Sardana, a community dance, are performed with enthusiasm.
Top places to visit in the Pyrénées-Orientales
This is a land of contrasts where it is possible to lie in the sun on a Mediterranean beach in the morning and ski in the mountains in the afternoon. There are glorious vineyards, olive groves and hiking through forests and up mountains and through enchanting villages. The enormous Corbières and Fenouillèdes National Park is home to outstanding natural beautify and forty classified sites, plus numerous castles and monuments.
The main city of Perpignan is a recognised ‘Art Deco Town’ and it’s also where you will find the 13th century Palace of the Kings of Majorca. Palm tree lined streets, colourful markets, elegant shaded squares and beautiful mansions make Perpignan a fabulous place to visit. There are charming towns like Ceret, with its cobbled streets and quirky cafes plus beautiful and Collioure on the coast.
In this most beautiful and unspoiled part of France you’ll discover a land rich in history and a warm welcome…