Dear fellow travellers
Many rail travellers heading through France towards Spain change trains at Perpignan. We have done just that. You too, perhaps? Sooner or later, everyone changes trains at Perpignan. Which is just as it should be, because the railway station at Perpignan is the very centre of the universe.
It was 50 years ago that Salvador Dalí completed his celebrated La Gare de Perpignan. It is a huge oil painting which now hangs in the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. The Ludwig has a particularly fine collection from the 1960s: Lichtenstein, Warhol, Oldenburg, Segal - and Dalí too of course.
"On 19 September 1963, standing in the railway station at Perpignan.... I had a precise vision of the constitution of the universe."
Salvador Dalí: Le journal d'un génie
Dalí's 1965 homage to Perpignan is a surrealist adventure, but it was not Dalí's first brush with the railway station at Perpignan. Two years earlier Dalí had an extraordinary vision that marked out Perpignan station as a place of genuine sanctity, a pivot of the cosmos which offered a unique perspective on the entire universe. Clairvoyance slips easily into paranoia in the world of Salvador Dalí, but his vision has certainly helped place Perpignan on the map.
Both before and after working on La Gare de Perpignan, Dalí paced the platforms of the station, taking photographs and measurements, concluding in 1966 that the measurements of the earth (and indeed the weight of God) are mirrored in the structure of Perpignan station.
Just as Shakespeare did his bit to promote Verona, so Dalí has turned out to be a great commercial asset in promoting Perpignan. Perhaps there are many travellers who, like us, make wholly unnecessary changes of train in Perpignan merely to savour the surreal moment of being at one with the cosmos.
In appreciation of Dalí's enthusiasm for Perpignan railway station, the city council renamed the square in front of the station. Place Salvador Dalí is a good spot to reflect on the railway station's cosmic claim to fame. The building itself is a handsome example of a style of station that was often built in southern France, but no other station in the region has a statue of Salvador Dalí balanced on the roof! There are Dalíesque references aplenty in the colour scheme, which evokes something of the spirit of Catalunya - for this portion of France is indeed part of historical Catalunya and there are some bilingual signs at the station reminding travellers that Perpignan is also Perpinyà.
The sign inside the station welcoming travellers to the "Gare de Perpignan: Centre du Monde" is a nice piece of understatement. It might more properly claim, à la Dalí, that it is the "centre cosmique de l'univers".
From the gare de Perpignan it is just 22 minutes on a fast train to Figueres, the Catalan town where Salvador Dalí was born in 1904 and died in 1989.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)