by Simon Newman
An oasis of calm ……. not to mention the wicked delights of date and pistachio baclava steeped in honey and rose-water.
Sometimes when you’re in a city centre you just need to take time out from the bustle for ten minutes to recharge for the next foray. Parks and squares are the obvious places but here’s my tip for a little downtime in the centre of Perpignan.
Just a couple of hundred metres from the Palais de Justice lies Notre-Dame des Anges, the 13th century Franciscan convent built by those seemingly ever-busy bees, the Majorcan Kings. It spent some time as a military hospital too and of its type the site is interesting enough but what the tourist guide makes little mention of is something that I think gives it its greatest appeal – its serene courtyard.
You don’t have to pay to enter this part, just walk through the gates and immediately to your right is the free exhibition area where you’re confronted with, well, you could say it’s just a load of old masonry in transparent containers. But for me what makes it work is the sharp contrast in form and texture between the glass pyramids and the crumbling stonework housed within. In fact there’s more than a touch of the Louvre museum concourse in Paris about this juxtaposition of the classic and the contemporary.
Soak up the atmosphere, read the storyboards and enjoy the frescos before moving across to the other side of the courtyard where you’ll find a shaded rest area amongst lemon trees and what must surely be one of the oldest olive trees in France.
And so tactile you just want to run your hands over its deeply fissured bark knowing that this living, breathing entity could easily have given witness to Napoleon. There are some benches overlooking this beautiful tree but before you take the weight off your feet there’s a little treat on offer nearby that just might complete the moment.
Over the road from the convent (about 50 metres down) is what looks like a pretty ordinary, and if I’m honest not especially appealing, sandwich/pizza/café called Le Soleil de Tunis. Ignore the fast-food ambience and feast your eyes on the seductively scrummy baclava on display. The north African variant of this traditional Greek/Turkish delicacy variously combines pistachios, dates, orange and lemon zest, cinnamon, sesame seeds and almonds all wrapped in melt-in-your-mouth-wafer-thin filo pastry steeped in honey and rose-water. The surroundings are not Michelin three star that’s for sure, but I can personally vouch for the fact that these delights are to die for, not to die from.
Yield to your deepest desires and buy at least a couple of slices (one date and one pistachio variety would be my serving suggestion) grabbing a bottle of water and a couple of paper napkins while you’re about it – essential for dealing with the aftermath of the yummiest but stickiest things in creation.
Now go back to enjoy your forbidden fruit on one of the benches in the pyramid and olive-tree tranquility that is the courtyard of Notre-Dame des Anges. And should you feel any twang of guilt at your small indulgence, consider that in less enlightened times those long-suffering, hair-shirted Franciscans had to exist on a diet of gruel and twigs so really all you’re doing is realigning the karma of the place. Having carried out this self-sacrificing task you can return to your city-centre agenda with a spring in your step and your head held high.
One thing to note. This being a French tourist attraction it is of course closed lunchtime but to be fair, only from 12.30 to 13.15 – which in France barely qualifies as a ciggie break.