The area comprising the eastern fringe of the Pyrenees and the lowlands down to the Mediterranean is known as Roussillon, or French Catalonia. Catalan power first emerged in the tenth century under the independent counts of Barcelona, who then became kings of Aragón as well in 1163. The Catalan zenith was reached during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when the Franco–Catalan frontier traced the Corbières hills north of Perpignan. But Jaume I of Aragón and Valencia made the mistake of dividing his kingdom between his two sons at his death in 1276, thus ensuring continuous see-saw battles and annexations that ended only with the Treaty of the Pyrenees, negotiated by Louis XIV and the Spanish king in 1659.
Although there’s no real separatist impetus among French Catalans today, their sense of identity remains strong: the language is very much alive (not least in bilingual place-signage), and their red-and-yellow flag is ubiquitous. The Pic du Canigou, which completely dominates Roussillon despite its modest (2784m) elevation, shines as a powerful beacon of Catalan nationalism, attracting hordes of Catalans from across the border to celebrate St John’s Eve (June 23–24). At the feet of the Canigou the little town of Prades, place of exile from Franco’s Spain of cellist Pablo (Pau) Casals, served as a focus of Catalan resistance until 1975.
Most of the region’s attractions are easily reached by public transport from Roussillon’s capital, Perpignan. The coast and foothills between it and the Spanish frontier are beautiful, especially at Collioure, though predictably crowded and in most places overdeveloped. You’ll find the finest spots in the Tech and Têt valleys which slice southwest towards the high peaks, among them the Romanesque monasteries of Serrabona, St-Michel-de-Cuixà and St-Martin-du-Canigou, the world-class modern art museum at Céret, and Mont Canigou itself, lapped by foothill orchards of peaches and cherries.
This far south, climate and geography alone would ensure a palpable Spanish influence. Moreover, a good part of Perpignan’s population is of Spanish origin – refugees from the Civil War and their descendants. The southern influence is further augmented by a substantial contingent of North Africans, including both Arabs and white French settlers repatriated after Algerian independence in 1962. Given its relatively grubby appearance, few will want to stay here for more than a day or two; if you have your own transport, you may prefer to base yourself somewhere in the surrounding area.