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904km (562 miles) SW of Paris; 369km (229 miles) NW of Marseille; 64km (40 miles) S of Narbonne

At Perpignan you might think you've crossed the border into Spain, for it was once Catalonia's second city after Barcelona. Even earlier it was the capital of the kingdom of Majorca. But when the Roussillon -- the French part of Catalonia -- was finally partitioned off, Perpignan became permanently French by the Treaty of the Pyrénées in 1659. A large portion of its population descends from Catalan refugees who fled Francoist Spain during its civil war in the 1930s. You'll still find some Catalan spoken here today.

Legend has it that Perpignan derives its name from Père Pinya, a plowman who followed the Têt River down the Pyrénées mountains to the site of the town today, where he cultivated the fertile soil while the river kept its promise to water the fields.

Today Perpignan is content to rest on its former glory. Its 120,000 residents enjoy the closeness of the Côte Catalane (the coastline of Catalonia, in neighboring Spain) and the mountains to the west. The pace is relaxed in the streets of the old town, where people gather in the cafes along the riverside place Arago.