IN 1700 Louis XIV, the Sun King, had a bit of a windfall: the throne of Spain and all the Spanish overseas possessions fell into his lap, a tidy little legacy from the childless King of Spain. To be exact, it was all left to Louis' grandson, but i
IN 1700 Louis XIV, the Sun King, had a bit of a windfall: the throne of Spain and all the Spanish overseas possessions fell into his lap, a tidy little legacy from the childless King of Spain. To be exact, it was all left to Louis' grandson, but it came to the same thing: apart from Brazil, which was Portuguese, most of the New World would now come under French control, and the frontiers would be down between France and Spain, now a single political unit. Les Pyrénées n'existent plus, Louis said, rubbing his hands together at the thought of France about to become the mightiest power on earth: the Pyrenees have ceased to exist.
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Well, Louis XIV was wrong. I'm happy to confirm that the Pyrenees are still there, snow-capped and majestic, a magnificent range of noble peaks disappearing into the far horizon. We crossed them only last week. One of the advantages of living in the Deep South of France is the easy accessibility of other Mediterranean countries. Six hours will see us on the Italian Riviera. Having breakfasted at home, we can lunch in Barcelona. But inertia sets in all too easily, and it's sometimes quite hard to gee ourselves up to poke our noses over the hills that flank our valley and see what lies beyond them.
So we used the excuse of a birthday to set out for Catalonia, the north-east corner of Spain, heading south over the hills and far away down to Narbonne and the coastal plain to pick up the autoroute A9, which is called La Catalane. After Perpignan, metropolitan France's most southerly city, the road starts to climb over the outliers of Canigou, a vast and impressive massif which really marks the Mediterranean end of the Pyrenees like a gigantic book-end, and presently you reach the frontier at the top of a pass near a place called Le Perthus. The wide array of customs sheds and border police buildings, bureaux de change and so on reflects ghostly pre-EU days, before the customs barriers came down and the euro became the single currency. A few knots of uniformed officers stand about, not doing anything much, it seems. We hold up our passports inside the windscreen, but as usual there's nobody to even look in our direction, so we sail down the other side and into Spain. Two thousand years ago and more we might have met Hannibal and his elephants toiling up to the pass, intent on cutting the power of Rome down to size.
A few kilometres down the hill into Spain there's one of the strangest and most unlovely places in this part of the world, a village called La Junquera. I hope I can be forgiven for writing about this place in a column about living in France, because much of La Junquera is owned, apparently, by a group of powerful French business barons from Perpignan, some 20 minutes away, and you rarely hear anything but French spoken.
The French side of the pass is a green and pleasant land, opulent, well watered and well organised: the Spanish side, in the Pyrenean rain shadow, is drier and wilder and not without a certain savage beauty. Suddenly, cradled in these forsaken hills, you find yourself in a totally unexpected settlement. It's as though a passing space juggernaut had fly-tipped on to one of the earth's solitary places as many supermarkets, filling stations, cheap hotels, lorry parking lots, seedy bars, night clubs and beaten-up road systems as it could fit in its hold. La Junquera is one giant supermarket, one vast temple of Mammon, owing its existence to its position on one of Europe's great highways and to the advantageous difference between French and Spanish VAT and other taxes. For the French, everything from almonds to zips is cheaper here. The place is packed out, swarming with French people whose number plates tell you how far some have travelled, very often for the weekly shop and to fill up with petrol: 66 for Pyrénées Orientales, so just over the border, but 11 for Aude, the next département going north, 34 for Hérault (like ourselves), 81 for Tarn, 31 for Tarn et Garonne and Toulouse. Buses make regular excursions here. There are too few locals to man all the checkouts, so they're mostly staffed by immigrants. Little of the vast profits made here seem to be ploughed back into the infrastructure. The vast lorry parks stink of urine.
La Junquera knows another existence at night, when the supermarkets close and the bars open. The youth of Perpignan and maybe the myriad lorry drivers who have holed up here for the night gather to take advantage of laxer regulations and cheaper booze in the fleshpots, the bars, boîtes de nuit (night boxes, i.e. night clubs) and - a curious French phenomenon - the afters, clubs that open at 4 or 5 in the morning, after everywhere else has shut. (The thought suddenly comes to me that I shall probably end my days never having been to an after. What have I missed out?)
On our way back from a few idyllic days in one of the Costa Brava's most secret places we too were sucked into La Junquera, for fruit, sausage, almonds and a few bottles of Rioja, an agreeable change after the sometimes rather mean wines of the Languedoc. My photo, taken outside one of the ipermercados (Catalan for hypermarket, but I expect you guessed that) doesn't do the place justice, but the photo of the sausage stall, apart from its statement of overflowing, copious plenty, can be taken as a metaphor for the extraordinary overcrowding of this desperate but immensely popular place. The quality of the produce we bought, incidentally, was excellent.
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When Louis XIV's legacy became known there was uproar among the other nations. It was as though Queen Victoria had left her throne and the British Empire to the Kaiser. England, Holland and Austria formed a Grand Alliance to counter France, and war followed. The Duke of Marlborough hammered the French 4-0 in a series of battles that history teachers used (maybe they still do?) to call the BROM war: B for Blenheim, R for Ramillies, O for Oudenarde and M for Malplaquet. After several years of continuous defeat the French sued for peace 'as a sick man wishes to recover', according to the French ambassador of the time.
In the post-war carve-up England got Gibraltar and Menorca, among other places. Although an English force captured Barcelona during the war, I don't expect they made any claim for La Junquera. And despite Louis XIV's assertion the Pyrenees are still there.