It is mid-morning and I am sitting in bright sunshine, sipping my café and munching my croque monsieur alongside a tree-lined canal. Life in France in doesn’t get any better than this.
I am in Perpignan, mainland France’s southernmost city.
This is the place to be if you can’t decide whether you want to live in France or in Spain. Wide Mediterranean beaches are only a few miles off to the east, while the snow-capped Pyrenees lie to the west, with plenty of ski resorts only a two-hour drive away. Spain lies just to the south. The Costa Brava is within a 90-minute drive, and the chaotic joy of Barcelona less than two hours’ journey. With a population of 300,000, Perpignan offers everything a retiree could want.
A fabulous location; a mild and pleasant Mediterranean climate; efficient transport; health and medical services; and, most importantly, affordable real estate, regardless of your requirements. Because Perpignan hasn’t had the publicity of trendy destinations like Provence, Cannes, Paris, and the Dordogne, plenty of bargains are still available. There are no restrictions on foreign ownership in France and the French love haggling, so the price you pay will be lower than the asking price.
One of the best markets in France I have ever visited.
You can opt for a renovated, two-bedroom condo at around $150,000. But my eye was caught by a one-bedroom place in a 19th-century building at Place Rigaud, right in the heart of the city. It has an open-plan living and dining room with a small step that separates the two spaces, a separate fitted kitchen, a bathroom, and a bedroom with a built-in closet. You also get a small cellar room, a laundry area, and an attic storage area. It’s a charming property with high ceilings, windows on three sides, and a fireplace for cozy evenings in winter. You can get this cute pied-à-terre for an asking price of only $73,000.
If you fancy a house, what about a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home with a swimming pool and off-street parking, on the edge of the city, for an asking price of $318,000?
If you want to live closer to the beach, with maybe a Mediterranean view, be prepared to spend a little more, as these are vacation destinations. You can get a two-bedroom, one-bathroom condo at the closest beach town to Perpignan, in Sainte- Marie, for around $200,000 to $250,000.
As far as long-term rentals go, you can find a decent two-bedroom apartment for as little as $450 a month. But a comfortable two-bedroom, one-bathroom condo can be yours for a slightly higher budget of around $600 to $700 a month. Most condos come unfurnished, so you need to take this into account when renting.
U.S. citizens can live in France for up to 90 days each year without a visa. If you want to stay longer, you need to apply for a residence visa at least three months before you leave the United States. There is a pile of paperwork, and you will need to have an interview at a French consulate and prove you have the funds to support yourself for a year. You can get all the information you need from the French government website Franceintheus.org. Canadians should consult Canadainternational.gc.ca/france.
Once you’ve settled into your new Perpignan retirement adventure, you’ll need to know where to find the best fresh fruits and vegetables and how to access health and medical services.
Perpignan has plenty of supermarkets and specialty shops similar to those in any other medium-sized city.
One of the best markets in France I have ever visited is the Marché Cassanyes, a Perpignan institution, open every day at Place des Cassanyes from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. With up to 140 different vendors, it is a colorful mixture of food, clothing, cosmetics, jewelry, and seemingly everything else.
Also worth checking out is the Marché République, from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday. You’ll find it on the central Place de la République. It is a food lovers’ market, and on Saturdays it’s reserved for farmers and producers of organic food.
Prices for groceries are about the same across France, and Perpignan is no different. (The LIDL supermarket chain guarantees that its prices are the same everywhere in the country—useful to know if you ever find yourself in need of budget bites in central Paris, Nice, or other expensive locations.) You’ll pay about $1.20 for a baguette and you can get a decent bottle of wine for $5. Overall, the cost of living is very similar to that of the United States, especially for utilities, phones, and the internet. Broadband is very good in the Perpignan area for those of you who work online.
If you’re going to be a regular visitor to Spain, fill the car up once you cross the border. Fuel prices in Spain are often a lot cheaper than what you’ll pay in France.
If you plan to move for a significant length of time, you can enter the French health system after three months. This entitles you to a reimbursement of doctors’ charges and pharmacy medicines. A visit to a general practitioner will cost you $29; you then get 70% of that cost back, so it is very affordable. Perpignan has a large hospital with terrific emergency facilities, so if you have an accident you’ll be well looked after.
The artist Salvador Dalí described Perpignan railway station as the “center of the universe,” after experiencing what he called a vision of “cosmogonic ecstasy” while in the waiting room in 1963. Having stood on the platform, I think he was wrong. In fact, it isn’t even the center of Perpignan (though it’s only a 15-minute walk away). You can make up your own mind. Dalí was probably out of his. Regardless, the city is astride the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse—France’s highspeed trains) line between Paris and Barcelona, and all places in between.
Talking of Salvador Dalí, his mind-bending and visually arresting personal museum is only an hour’s drive away, in the Spanish town of Figueres, just over the border. You can take the train there, and it is a most rewarding place to visit. I was stunned before I even made it through the front door. The museum is a treasure trove of his work and other artworks he collected over his lifetime.
Perpignan has a small airport with flights around Europe. But if you are very cost conscious, flights out of Barcelona are often cheaper, more frequent, and have some very useful direct connections with U.S. cities. I spotted some round-trip flights to New York for $300.
As both France and Spain are part of the Schengen free trade and movement area, the countries do not have a physical border, so don’t worry about going back and forth. It’s best to bring a passport for identification, but it’s unusual to be asked to produce it.
Most of Perpignan’s population identifies as Catalan, and the architecture and cuisine here are a fusion of both French and Catalan cultures. You will see the orange and red Catalan flag flying more often than the French tricolore, and street names are in both languages. But the residents of Perpignan are happy enough with being French, too, so you don’t get the nationalist fervor found south of the border.
I stopped for lunch at a restaurant near the beach at Sainte-Maire, where the two cuisines collide in the best possible way. The menu was a mixture of French and Spanish. I ordered high-end tapas that included patatas, not pommes de terre (potatoes, to us). For dessert I had the quintessential French café gourmand—a tasting plate of the house desserts, including an espresso coffee. A very filling gourmet lunch with a glass of fine red wine cost me only $42.
I spotted round-trip flights to New York for $300.
The Catalan influence dominates the history of the region around Perpignan. And while the area was settled in Roman times, it grew in the 12th and 13th centuries when it was the capital of the Kingdom of Majorca.
The old palace of the king still dominates the city. For old folks like me, it only costs €2 ($2.25) for a look around. You get a map to follow, so it is easy to navigate and there is plenty to see, including upper and lower chapels built on top of each other. If you don’t mind climbing a few stairs, you can reach the lookout on top of the palace tower. The final climb is up a modern spiral staircase—and, as there are no signs on it, it’s easy to miss the best view in the whole of Perpignan.
From the top you can see the Mediterranean to the east, the Pyrenees to the west, the foothills to the south guarding the Spanish border, and the coastal plain to the north. Perpignan does not have many very tall buildings, so the tower provides 360 degrees of uninterrupted views.
You get a similar view from the tower in the only remaining city-center feature of medieval Perpignan—the Castillet—a small fortress built in the 14th century. It is now a museum and also costs €2 ($2.25). Its winding stairs take you up to a small lookout on top of the tower. It’s probably not a good spot for those who don’t like heights, and there are 142 steps to climb. But the view from here, over the main business district, is well worth the exertion.
From the tower, you can see the spire of St. John the Baptist’s cathedral, which is a short walk away. Set in a square surrounded by narrow medieval streets now packed with shops and restaurants, the 14th-century cathedral is beautifully preserved. I was lucky enough to visit when the organist was practicing: a real treat.
Even if you are only visiting Perpignan, make sure you do what expats who live in the area do, and visit Collioure. It’s about a half-hour’s drive (or a little longer by train) to the south and less than 15 miles from Spain. Collioure is a picture-postcard seaside village, with narrow streets packed with restaurants.
I spent hours walking around the old royal castle of the Kingdom of Majorca and the remarkable waterfront church of Notre- Dame-des-Anges, which has a one-ofa- kind lighthouse bell-tower and ornate altar. If history and churches aren’t your thing, Perpignan offers everything for the modern city dweller, including theaters, cinemas, and nightclubs. The city also has sports facilities, including gymnasiums, tennis courts, several golf courses, and two Olympic-size swimming pools.
Soccer is fairly popular in the area, but the big draw is Rugby Union, and Perpignan fields a world-class team. It is also home to the Catalan Dragons Rugby League team. Both clubs attract expats from Australia and New Zealand, which means that there are plenty of people around who speak English.
Finally, if you come from Lake Charles in Louisiana or Sarasota in Florida, you will be in your sister city, the jewel that is Perpignan.