Perpignan & The Palace of the Kings of Majorca

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Watching the weather forecasts, we selected a sunny Wednesday for a ride on the touristic Train Rouge from Perpignan into the mountains. Perpignan is about a 90-minute drive from home. For a relaxing start of the train-ride day and a little diversion, we drove to Perpignan the day before, and explored a little. And ate a little, of course.

Today’s post is about our half-day in Perpignan. The next post will be about the Train Rouge.

Simple start of the afternoon: pizzas in an outdoor restaurant. Not every meal needs to be fancy!

Then a short stroll around the historic center. Perpignan is a city of about 120,000 people. Like in centuries past, it is a city that connects many cultures. Today its character and residents are French, Catalan and North African.

The most famous cultural monument is the Palace of the Kings of Majorca. We didn’t know anything about any Kings of Majorca, especially here in Catalan France. Here come some historical notes as you join us on a walk around the palace.

This is a region over which every power you can think of has fought, gained and lost. Jaume I (1208-1276) was the King of Aragon, Count of Barcelona, and Lord of Montpelier. He made his name by taking Majorca and Valencia back from the Muslims; the Muslims had controlled the Balearic Islands, of which Majorca is the principal, since 903. 

Jaume I split his territories between two of his sons. The older son Pere received the kingdoms of Aragon and Valencia, and the principality of Catalonia; Jaume I made the younger son Jaume the King of Majorca, the Count of the Roussillon and the Cerdagne (where Perpignan sits), the Lord of Montpellier, the Baron of Aumelas, and the Viscount of Carlat. Seems generous all around. Alas, Pere and Jaume II didn’t agree. For 80 years, they and their successors fought over all these territories. They pulled in all sorts of allies from Europe and the Mediterranean, including France, Naples and Sicily. Hence the need for a fortified palace, and Perpignan was a perfect spot.

In the Middle Ages, power didn’t mean anything unless you could see it. Lords constantly moved around their realms and among their residences. To dominate the landscape, they built their palaces and forts and towers on hills and in the center of cities. These constructions were rock-solid symbols of power and legitimacy. It seems that this was the motivation to build a palace on this hill in Perpignan.

The new construction needed to fulfill three objectives: house the royal family, protect the sovereign, and provide him a place from which to govern; it needed to be large enough for all the court functions and impressive to his subjects and rivals. Jaume II chose the Puig del Rey, a hill that dominates the surrounding plain and lay within the recently constructed city walls.

Despite the dynastic conflicts, this period of was the highpoint for the region and kingdoms. The city experienced an unequaled political, commercial, religious and artistic flourishing. The textile, skins and leather industries were strong. The location on the Mediterranean coast made Perpignan an impressive trading center, connecting Languedoc, Provence, France, Italy, Sicily, the Middle East and North Africa.

The palace was built between 1285 and 1309. Its plan is large, fitting in a square that is 60 meters (200 feet) per side.

During the 13th and 14th centuries, a wooden draw-bridge spanned the large dry moat around the palace. The outer walls of the compound were crenelated, replete with archer’s positions. The access route turned on itself, which made aggressors easy targets for more archers. Nonetheless, these defensive constructions seem to have been more dissuasive than effective, especially against war equipment like catapults. Administrative and residential functions, and ostentatious display of power were more important to the sovereign. 

Red and green colors were important to the dynasty. These colors were everywhere: in major public rooms, the royal loggia, and in the two chapels. Still visible today is a portion of a painted red and green faux frieze that spells out the name of Allah in the Andalousian style. And the impressive ceiling of the queen’s loggia. Tapestries covered the walls of the royal rooms and halls. The court changed the tapestries twice a year. They were green from Easter to All Saints’ Day, red the rest of the year.

The region around Perpignan is relatively temperate. (Many of the fruits and vegetables available in Carcassonne’s Saturday market come from this region.) However, impressive winds often blow down from the Pyrénées to the Mediterranean. In the 14th century, some of the windows of the palace were glass. But waxed cloth protected many other windows. Even though the initial cost of glass windows was much higher than that of waxed cloth, maintaining the waxed cloth was more expensive; the textiles had to be re-waxed regularly to maintain their wind resistance.

In 1344, the dynastic rivalries came to an end. Perpignan returned solidly to the Kingdom of Aragon. The last Spanish royal visit took place in 1493. King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile — of Christopher Columbus fame — came to Perpignan to recognize the return of Perpignan to their crowns after a French occupation. They found an outmoded palace; Ferdinand turned it into an arms warehouse.

The imposing brick fortress walls that we encounter today were built between 1550 and 1577 at the order of King Philip II of Spain. His engineers constructed protective walls in the form of a six-sided star. The points of the stars allow defenders clear side access along all the fortress faces. In the 17th century, Vauban, Louis IX’s famous military engineer, known for many such star-shaped fortresses, inspected this fortress; no improvements needed.

Source of historical notes: Palais des Rois de Mallorca: le royaume, le château, la citadelle, by Jean-Philippe Alazet and Michel Castillo

PS: A dinner diversion. It was a cool drizzly evening. With the covid atmosphere, we chose to eat outside, under an awning, along a little pedestrian street. Alas, the interior diners used the outside seating for their smoke breaks. But mostly it was nice to be out in the fresh air, when it was fresh. The menu choices were curiously complex; every dish was full to overflowing with unexpected flavors, like pickled cauliflower, popcorn, turmeric ice cream. Perhaps the chef needs a bit of an editor, but we had fun anyway.

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