Our self-addressed envelopes from the Préfecture des Pyrénées–Orientales in Perpignan arrived notifying us that our new Cartes de Séjour (Residency Permits) were ready for pickup. The letter advised us that our 2016-2017 Cartes de Séjour can be picked at the Préfecture on Monday afternoon or Wednesday or Friday mornings. We are required to bring our old Cartes de Séjour and €106 each in timber fiscaux (tax stamps.) It took just over two weeks from the day we dropped off our renewal application to receiving the “ready to pick up” letter.
The following Monday we took the €1 Bus to Perpignan and spent the morning shopping, having lunch, enjoying an obligatory coffee in Place de la République,and wandering around the historic town center before the Préfecture’s étranger bureau (immigrant office) opened at 1:30. We stopped by reception and were issued numbers and there were 14 people ahead of us.
Despite there being only one window open, the electronic display counted down quickly. Most people only required one or two minutes to complete their transaction. Most seemed to be doing exactly what we were doing, picking up a new Carte de Séjour. The waiting room looked like every other large doctor’s office/ DMV waiting room we have ever spent time in with individuals, couples, and families sitting, talking, and straightening out their documents in folders.
For this visit we were only required to bring our Cartes de Séjour and tax stamps for payment with our Passports for identification. But we brought our entire renewal dossier, “just in case.” We were called up for our turns in less than a 30 minute wait and it literally took less than one minute each for the immigration officer to issue our new Cartes de Séjour for 2016-2017. We’ve spent far more time waiting in DMV lines back in the US. As often as we have been warned about French bureaucracy and “red tape” in France, we have pleasantly been surprised how straight-forward and helpful government representatives have been. Perhaps it is a much different story in large Préfectures in major cities like Paris, Marseille, or Lyon, but in the Préfecture des Pyrénées–Orientales and the Préfecture de l’Aude in the Languedoc-Roussillon region we have always been well treated.
This year’s renewal process now complete, Tracy and I are legal residents of France for another year.
Tracy and my most recent micro-adventure was joining 10,000 other spectators at the 600th observance of the annual Procession de la Sanch (The March of the Penitents) in Perpignan on Good Friday, 2016. (La Sanch is pronounced “lah sank.”)
Outside of Spain, the Procession de la Sanch isn’t really performed any longer. In France, it is only held in the southern Catalan country. The largest and most famous of the French penance processions still performed during the Semaine Sainte (Easter Holy Week) is the Procession de la Sanch a Perpignan. Nearby Arles-sur-Tech and Collioure also still perform la Sanch ceremonies, though on a smaller scale. The event was originally brought to Perpignan in 1416 by Saint Vincent Ferrier, a Valencian Dominican. (Remember, Columbus reached the “New World” in 1492, 76 years after the first Procession de la Sanch.)The Pyrénées-Orientales département (which includes Perpignan, Arles-sur-Tech and Collioure, sometimes referred to as Catalunya Nord) has strong Spanish and Catalan roots that has helped this French department retain a traditional event that is typical of the Semana Santa (Spanish Holy Week). The strength of this French-Catalan-Spanish blend can be easily seen in the departments’ flag, gold and red stripes, the same colors as those used in Catalan and Spanish flags.
The somber, masked procession began centuries ago as a method to support condemned men on their final march to execution and ensure their Christian burial. La Sanch’s robes and the conical hoods (the hood is called a Caperutx — today the entire ensemble is referred to as Caperutx)were worn by the executioners and the prisoners to conceal their identities. Apparently early on in history the victims and families of the victims were a bit too happy to pull them out of the procession and just beat them violently to death in the streets.
The Caperutx worn during La Sanch are either black (worn by the penitents representing death) or red (worn by the leader, the Regidor, representing blood), only the children and priests in the procession (representing the innocents and the saved) wear white. A Regidor, in his red Caperutx is at the head of the procession and rings an iron bell to warn of the coming procession. The robes worn in la Sanch, while reminiscent to the costumes worn by the Ku Klux Klan, actually predate the Klan’s by 500 years and have a completely different origin and meaning.
About 700 members of local associations, Confrérie de la Sanch, organize, march, and carry the approximately 35 “misteris” in the procession. (“Misteris” mean mysteries in Catalan.) The misteris are litters with life-size portrayals of scenes from the Passion of Christ. Weighing between 60 and 100 pounds, the misteris may be carried by up to eight persons. Some of the penitents in Caperutx carried drums and beat a steady, slow tattoo for the procession. Penitents also may sing”goigs,” traditional songs dating back before the 15th century, that recount the sadness of Mary’s suffering in Calvary. We didn’t hear a “goig” being sung while we were watching the procession.
The Procession de la Sanch takes three hours (from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m.) to circle the historic downtown of Perpignan and passing other parishes, starting and ending at Église Saint-Jacques(Saint James’ Church) which dates back to 1245.
Prior to the procession start, we visited Église Saint-Jacques. We found a beautiful 13th century church with a unique bell tower that was built in the southern Gothic style. Its most unusual feature is that there are two Catalan-styled altarpieces at opposite ends of the single nave with the organ at the center. Inside the church were many of the Misteris with their fresh flowers being displayed before the procession. We had a wonderful opportunity to see the Misteris up close and appreciate their size and weight. We spoke with another visitor to the church who was admiring the Misteris. He was French, but had completed his doctorate at the University of Minnesota. He recounted the history of the event with us and told us we were very welcome there and encouraged us to have a look around the church. Since Tracy and I share an appreciation of sacred architecture, his invitation was quite welcome.
We choose a location to watch the procession in Place Puig (Puig Square)in the Quartier Saint-Jacques which is also referred to as the Quartier Gitan because of its significant Gitan (Roma people, often called Gypsies or Gitanos in Spain) community. While waiting for the event to start we visited with a local Gitan man who explained the Gypsy history of the area and how the former military barracks adjacent to Place Puig were converted to public housing and was now home to primarily Gitan peoples.
The procession was preceded with a loudspeaker explanation about the history and meaning of the event. After the announcement we heard the tattoo of drums and the procession became a solemn, slow-moving parade. Approximately 700 men, women, and children participated in the procession. Although it is easy to fixate on the penitents wearing the Caperutx hoods and robes, there are a surprising number of women dressed in black marching in the procession. The misteris on their litters looked impressively heavy as their were carried on the procession. Both the men and the women carried misteris. The carriers had an unusual technique of using a forked walking stick under the carrying poles to support the weight of the misteris when the procession stopped and to trade carriers. The use of the forked sticks was performed without verbal direction with orders by tapped by the team leaders with their stick on the ground to alert the other carriers. Tracy noticed that several women were wearing heels up to 4 inches to allow all the women carriers to be the same height. Several of the hooded penitents wearing the Caperutx elected to walk the entire route and to carry the misteris in their bare feet.
I spoke with one of the marchers who was collecting charity contributions from the crowd. He attempted to chat with us in French, Spanish, Catalan, and, I think, Caló (Gitano-Roma) before I explained that our French and Spanish was very poor and that we were Americans. While saying he didn’t speak English, he spoke enough English welcome us, thank us for a supporting the procession,and gave us a prayer card with the “Our Father,” . . . in Catalan, of course. It is always amazing to us the number of multilingual people we meet in the Pyrénées-Orientales département, even though English is seldom one of those second languages, usually the French people in this area of the south will most often also speak Catalan, Spanish, or Maghrebi (Moroccan Arabic – Darija.)
At the end of the official procession pasted, members of the public joined at the end of the parade and followed the official participants.
In all, it was a unique opportunity to watch the 600 year old Procession de la Sanch in person. A chance to observe a traditional Catalan and Spanish religious ceremony performed in a very secular modern France. To be involved in the conclusion to the penance and atonement of the Lenten season in a historic ritual dating back to 1416. It was an extremely powerful experience.
Last Saturday I was house shopping for 2016-2017 at AirBnB online (again). We found a place in Perpignan that looked like it would be great, but I still wasn’t sure it was the best option so I was still searching. I found a small house with nice big yard for Sami and a three room loft. I put in an inquiry and almost immediately heard back. It was available for the entire year. So we decided we should go and check out town where this cute little cottage lives in St. Cyprien Plage.
The house is at the north end of the plage, but having never been there we weren’t sure exactly where to get off on the bus and decided that the second exit near the port seemed about right. Well wrong. As we walked to the center town we realized that the port has almost two kilometers of waterfront. Built in the 1960s as a way to encourage tourism, this harbor has dozens of turns and branches out much like a palm tree. It is the second largest pleasure port in France and the third largest in Europe.
Needless to say we were quite done looking at the houses at the harbor by the time we reached the central plage.
This was a Sunday and apparently market day in St. Cyprien. We normally would have spent an hour or so wandering through, but Sami was with us and she gets terrified in a large crowd. The best option was to sit and have lunch and wait for the crowds to thin out.
We found a Vietnamese restaurant and were so excited to see that they had Pho. One of our all time favorite things and we couldn’t get seated fast enough!
We ordered to bowls of Pho with pork and shrimp and a side order of the chilled spring rolls also with shrimp. It has been years since we have had Pho and every bite was a reminder of home. Amazing food. Kim Long’s Restaurant, if you’re in the area . . . definitely do not miss!!
After lunch we toured through the central plage area, taking in the nice wide sidewalks and bike lanes. This town is definitely dog and bike friendly. Argeles-sur-Mer is also very bike friendly, but only in sections does it have wide, shaded lanes for both pedestrians and cyclists. In St. Cyprien, every street we walk on had wide sidewalks, most of them shaded by big trees and with nice lighting as well for evening strolls.
My first impression was the harbor and while nice I had been thinking that maybe it was a mistake to be looking for a rental property in this city. By the time we made it to the central plage and found where people really hang out the city had a much better feel to it. North of the harbor is the more laid-back section of town. Not quite as northern California “beach bum chic” as Argeles — which my soul does back flips over — more like yuppie surfer-dude feel of say a southern California beach like Santa Monica. Minus the ferris wheel.
After spending the day and getting oriented a bit, we decided that we definitely wouldn’t mind spending a year, or two, in St. Cyprien.
We’re sure Sami would agree. Her most favorite thing in the whole world is to get sand in her paws!
Have you ever noticed that sometimes distances on a map can be very deceiving? This happened to Alan and I on Wednesday when we headed out for Salses-le-Chateau north of Perpignan to visit the Forteresse de Salses, a fort built by the King of Aragon, Ferdinand II.
Yea, that guy. You know the one who married Isabella, became the King of Spain, and then hired Columbus to find a faster route for the spice trade in India but and he found North America instead. Cool, huh!?!
We looked at the city on Google maps as we often do to get an idea of the city layout to best strategize which bus stop to jump off at to find the tourist office. In Google maps, I swear it seemed like it was a fair distance outside of the city and after all our time with forts and fortified cities we learned that they are always at the top of hill. There was also a set of train tracks showing between the fort and the city but I did not seeing an overpass, not so good.
So planning for a slightly more strenuous day than Monday, we got up early packed a lunch, loaded up our day packs, fed the dog and headed out for our adventure fully expecting a long day of climbing.
We completely lucked into the perfect timing. The 404 bus from Argeles-sur-Mer to Perpignan arrived at 7:25 and the bus for Salses-le-Chateau left at 7:40, so no coffee in Perpignan but no waiting around either. Almost a win-win. Thank goodness I had coffee before we left!
The 135 bus got us to Salses-le-Chateau by 8:30 and we had seen the directional signs for the fort on the way into town. Not wanting to walk along a major highway we were hoping to find a pedestrian option at the tourist office.
It was market day in Salses-le-Chateau, so we stopped for coffee at a little street cafe (yeah!). Alan walked around the corner and picked up a couple of chocolate croissants. When we finished Alan asked the owner of the cafe for directions to the fort. The guy pointed up the street and said, “not far.”
Still hoping to find the tourist office we wandered through the square across from the bakery where Alan picked up breakfast. The square was where the market was being held and we skirted the outer edges looking for a sign pointing to the tourist office. We found the Mairie and a museum, but both were closed. The readerboard outside the Mairie entrance had a listing for a recent divorce. Small town information!
We wandered over to the market, after browsing all 12 vendors at the market (small town), we stopped to take pictures of a cool fountain behind the wine coop vendor. It was red and had a huge lever to pump the water.
Still not seeing the tourist office we walked up a little side alley and found the church. it was closed and it appeared there was some property restoration going on. Part of the front wall was knocked out showing the back side of the arched chapels inside. Oh, and another of those cool fountains, a green one.
Walking back toward the market we decided that if we didn’t see the tourist office we would just start hiking out to the fort. I know I was procrastinating a bit because it was hot and only about 9:30 am.
Another trip through the market and as we approached the red fountain again Alan pointed out the “i” logo used for some of the tourist offices. We knew we were close, but just couldn’t see it. Walking along the backside of the wine coop vendor to reach a walkway to the main street, I turned around to say something to Alan and noticed the “tourist office” sign in the window. We had walked past it twice while looking for it and never realized it was just behind the wine coop vendor.
Some days are challenging even fully caffeinated.
It was closed, so at least we didn’t feel too foolish. Verbally we decided to just hope for the best, and both silently hoping we wouldn’t have to dash between trains to cross the tracks, we headed up the street.
Along the way we saw a couple of interesting buildings. One reminded us both of an old firehouse. One had a unique mosaic welcome mat in the concrete in front of the door. Another had metal gargoyles above the garage.
As we approached the area where we saw the directional sign from the bus, I spotted this:
Yep, a dedicated pedestrian path. Some days I’m just grateful that there isn’t anyone around who can tell how foolish I feel.
We walked up the street about 100 meters and saw the wine coop building, pretty little setting. Parking lot was empty because everyone was over at the market!
Less than 5 feet past the back corner of the wine coop building was an under pass for the train tracks. Honestly those train tracks looked much further away in Google maps. Good for us!
On the other side of the train tracks we took a right and realized that we were about 10 yards from the parking lot of the fort. Good thing I packed that lunch in case we spent half the day climbing a hill! That was an exhausting walk all 300 feet of it!
Some days there is just no way to make yourself look smart. Today was that day.
I know I studied at that map. I know that I’m cartographically challenged, but good Lord I just couldn’t help feeling like a complete idiot. Not only was the Forteresse de Salses not far at all from the center of town, the silly thing wasn’t even on a hill . . . it was sunk into the ground!
We arrived early to the Forteresse de Salses and had about 35 minutes before they opened for tourists. We took our time walking around this magnificent structure to photograph it from every angle. As forts go it is rather large and for many tourists it would seem enormous. But, having lived in the shadow of La Cite de Carcassonne it did seem a wee bit smaller!
After they opened the doors we purchased our tickets and were rather surprised to be handed an informational pamphlet in English. This doesn’t happen often and we are so grateful when it does. Our French is still rather poor, we can puzzle out most things but having the information in English is just a special bonus.
The south and north wings had an audio-visual art installation on lightning in the basement levels where the horses were stabled back in the heyday of the fort. There are ramps leading down to an hard packed earthen floor and the lighting was kept low for the art installation.
The central courtyard had another piece of art but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what it was supposed to be. Looked like a half-circle bench, but too tall to sit on. No clue what it was supposed to represent. Nearby was the original well for the fort.
We took a look through the accessible areas of the south, east and north wings. They included stables in the basements of all three wings — two of which had the art installation; — barracks in the south and north wings — at one time there were three floors of barracks in each wing but time had reduced them to just one with a really high roof; — there was a museum in the southeast tower filled with models, a wood boat, information panels, about 7 window displays showing artifacts recovered at the site; and a children’s classroom that was full of kids.
The northeast tower housed the chapel with a huge altar facade behind which was a staircase leading down to three small chapels and a well.
All three wings had arcaded porticos which offered plenty of shade and a few places to sit down. Above the south wing via a set of stairs was access to the ramparts for all three wings, but it isn’t accessible to tourists. From the landing at the top of the stairs there is a fantastic view of the courtyard, the inner moat and the interior rampart that was never completed.
When we finished touring the first three wings we grabbed a seat at one of the picnic tables outside of the south wing and ate lunch. A couple of wraps with ham, mimoulette cheese, and lettuce on corn tortillas, chips, and green grapes the size of small plums.
Saving the best for last, we headed to the inner keep area between the unfinished rampart and the entire west wing that also included part of the north wing, south wing and both the northwest and southwest towers. The southwest tower was specifically placed to provide access to the artesian well which provided water for the entire fort, including the kitchen, the boulangerie (bakery) and what looked to be a bathing room with two stone tubs. The area in front of the Chamber des Vannes was so cool and ventilated that it was like standing in front of an air conditioner!
In the center of the west wing was the keep, a seven story building that housed the dungeon, food stores, kitchen staff, and artillery with access to the roof for guard duty. To the left of the keep was the shop, to the right a huge boulangerie (bakery) with hundreds of hand-sized terra cotta balls used to bake bread on. There were six fireplaces, three of which were along the north side of the room above a huge stone table.
Built into the ground level of the interior rampart was the kitchen — with running water and a stone sink and the largest fireplace I’ve ever seen, you could roast an entire cow inside and still have room. Next to that was the barn for horses and dairy cows.
The western side of the south wing that was part of the inner keep had a small residence for the governor and his family. These were the only windows with glass. Diamond shaped stained glass windows covered the first two floors of the residence.
The western side of the north wing that was part of the inner keep was one large room with a small room at the west wall with a small door and a small pass-through window, originally I thought it might be a jail cell but we read in the history pamphlet that the dungeon was in the keep. So we are still clueless as to what was kept in there. The only thing of interest other than the weird tiny room was the remnants of a decorative piece in the center of the wall facing the inner keep.
Entrance into the inner keep was made through another huge gate in the wall of the unfinished rampart. I read later that this was the last line of defense if the fort were ever taken. All of the food and cooking areas are included inside as well as that hidden well in the southwest tower. So if the fort was taken by enemies the soldiers and others could barricade themselves in the inner keep where they might be able to hold off invaders. There was also an underground tunnel from the northwest tower to the northwest bastion, so I assume there may have been an escape route planned from there as well.
Once we finished touring around, we headed back to the gift shop where I picked up a bottle of lavender syrup. The restrooms were in the basement and were added into an existing area so it did seem a bit weird to see huge rocks behind you while washing your hands!
As we have been traveling to nearby cities via the 1 Euro bus system, we try to make our first stop the Office de Tourisme or rather coffee then the tourist office. Picking up a town map and browsing through the collection of brochures for other places of interest. Alan usually handles getting a copy of the map, I do the browsing. After returning home we look through all the new offerings and select a Top 5 list. Les Orgues d’Ille-sur-Têt was #1 on our Top 5. It is a natural geological sight, very reminiscent of Bryce Canyon, just much smaller.
So Monday morning arrives way too early, our day was meant to start early but a dying battery in the smoke alarm decided to go off at 4 am. Then Sami decided that she was done sleeping and we all needed to be up and someone should take her for a walk. I let Alan take her while I stayed home with a cup of coffee,. Shameful I know, but I drink coffee everyday and he doesn’t. So the alarm for 5:30 got shut off and we started the day a bit earlier than planned. Why is it that batteries in smoke alarms only run out in the middle of the night? Have you ever had one signal a replacement during the day? Neither of us has, it seems that only in the wee hours of the morning do smoke alarms need new batteries . . . hmmm, like their little, plastic lives have no meaning unless something has been tested . . . like your heart rate recovery time.
Well, we weren’t late for the bus. After arriving in Perpignan we talked to the gentleman at the bus kiosk, asking him for the route maps for the lines that went to Ille-sur-Têt. He handed us brochures for all the buses that service that area. We walked over to our favorite coffee shop across from the train station and while waiting for our coffee and chocolate croissant, we found that the 200 bus would be the first to head towards our destination. It gave us about 40 minutes to enjoy our breakfast. Perfect! If you transfer within two hours of your first ticket purchase you do not have to pay a second time.
Ille-sur-Têt was reachable via the 200 bus but is also serviced by the 220, 240 and 260 lines. We had the brochure for Les Orgues in hand and showed it to the driver. 25 minutes later, when we reached the correct stop, he gave us the thumbs-up and we were on our way. Ever so helpful, he even explained how to get to Les Orgues, but our French isn’t quite good enough to understand all the directions. We found the Office de Tourisme instead and asked for directions. The lady there was very helpful and in a matter of minutes we were on the right track.
On our return from Les Orgues, we found a little side street that led to St. Etienne’s, the Mairie (town hall) and a few interesting corner gardens, one named for Jean of Arc and another for St. James. When we found our way back to the main street we stopped at the Bar Le Nationale Brasserie for lunch. We ordered beer. When we finished those we ordered burgers. A “carafe d’eau” (bottle of tap water), which is normally refrigerated and refreshingly cool without having to pay bottled water prices, still wasn’t quite enough to quench our thirst. It was 36 degrees Celsius, approx. 98 degrees Farenheit. A very warm day.
After lunch, we wandered about town until we found the Hospice d’Illa. Wandering through and seeing some of the very nice pieces in their permanent collection as well as some very nice Baroque works of art. They also had a display in the lower chapel galleries of some of the interesting stained glass windows from around the area.
When we finished all our “must see” items, we wandered through town a bit more and spotted some beautiful old buildings, interesting alleys and walkways. We both really enjoy wandering through a former walled city that has been around for centuries. Though the town updates and changes, you often find little pockets here and there of original cobblestone, or gallery overhangs, or covered entrances that still bear the original wood beams or remnants of the original paint, sometimes an old sign or an entire side of a building that has old advertising.
It’s the little things that make our micro-adventures so enjoyable. We both love architecture, sacred or otherwise. We both have a sense of wonder at the way people in Europe live with their history. If you just take the time to wander without a destination in mind, you find the most amazing, little surprises!
After we wandered back to the main street and checked the schedule on the bus stop, we had about 40 minutes to kill before the next bus. We headed over to a different cafe and had another cold drink. While we were sitting there, we saw four different tractors go by. Life in a small town! Ille-sur-Têt is a small town of around 5,000 people but they sure do have a lot of lovely history.