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Le Perthus (Municipality, Pyrénées-Orientales, France)

El Pertus

Last modified: 2017-09-09 by ivan sache
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Flag of Le Perthus - Image by Arnaud Leroy, 7 February 2005

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Presentation of Le Perthus

The municipality of Le Perthus (626 inhabitants in 1999; 427 ha) is located on the border with Spain, 30 km of Perpignan. Le Perthus is indeed the French part of a single village divided by the border; the Spanish part, called Els Limits, belongs to the municipality of La Jonquera (Province of Girona, Catalonia). This odd border dates back to the Treaty of the Pyrenees, signed in 1659.
The municipality of Le Perthus was formed in 1836 by merging the two former municipalities of Les Cluses and L'Albère. The two merged municipalities did not agree with the merging and new administrations were proposed in 1848 and adopted in 1851, with three distinct municipalities. Le Perthus as a municipality dates therefore from 1851.

The pass of Le Perthus is a main point of passage between France and Spain, and is used by both National Road N11 and the highway A9-E15. The customs post is dominated by a pyramidal monument designed by Ricardo Bofill, dedicated to Catalonia. The Spanish part of Le Perthus is a huge shopping center, equipped with 3,500 parking slots, 75 duty-free shops and 15 restaurants opened all the year round and spreading over 60,000 m2.

The early Catalan name of Le Perthus was El Pertus. El Pertus comes from pertusus, the past participle of the Latin verb pertundere or pertusiare, "to pierce", "to drill". Toponyms made on this root are commonly used to designate a narrow passage or a gap. It is also claimed that the early name of Le Perthus was El Portus, "the pass", but there is no evidence that such a name ever existed. A text from 881 mentions a place called villare Portus, but its location is unknown. Conversely, Le Perthus was known in 1306 as Pertusium de parrochia Santa Maria de Clusa.
The Latin name pertusium gave the French toponym Pertuis. As a common name, pertuis is an ancient word for an opening or a hole; it is also used as a technical word for openings in locks and dams. In geography, a pertuis is a neck in a river (for instance the Seine), or, specially in the west of France, a narrow strait; the strait between the islands of Ré and Oléron is known as pertuis d'Antioche.

The pass of Perthus was an important passage through the Pyrénées in the Roman times. The Via Domitia had two branches, one going through the pass of Perthus, the other one through the pass of Panissars, both passes being located today on the municipal territory of Le Perthus. It seems that Pompeius' trophy, often mentioned in ancient texts, was built on the pass of Panissars.
The small village of Panissars belonged in the Middle Ages to the monastery of Arles. A church and a monastery were built there; the monastery was later transformed into a priory ruled by the monastery of Ripoll. In the 13th century, there was a fighting in the pass of Panissars between the troops of Peter II of Aragon and Philip III the Bold of France, who supported the King of Mallorca. In 1298, the negotiations preparing the treaty of Anagni between Aragon and Mallorca took place in the church of Panissars. In spite of their unsafe location, the church and priory of Panissars remained a popular place of cult and pilgrimage until the middle of the 17th century, when Vauban decided their destruction in order to build the fort of Bellegarde.

A watch tower (height, 20 m, wall thickness, 1.5 m) was built in Bellegarde in 1285 by James II of Mallorca in order to watch Aragon. In the 14th century, Aragon absorbed Mallorca and the tower was ceded to the local lord, who used it as a customs post.
Vauban decided to suppress it and replace it with a big fortress aimed at the watch of the border with Spain established by the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659. The building of the fort lasted from 1668 to 1688, with a short occupation by the Spanish troops in 1674-1675; the fort is pentagonal, has 8,000 m2 of buildings spreading over 14 ha, and was served by 1,000 men. The main wall is protected by five bastions, and there are three level of defense walls (bastions, rampart, protection walls). The contreforts of Panissars and Le Perthus were built in 1691 in order to protect the main fort.
The fort of Bellegarde, today decommissioned, was strongly disputed during the French-Spanish war of 1793-1794; after its seizure on 25 June 1793 by General Ricardos, the fort was besieged by the French Army commanded by General Dugommier (1736/8-1794) and taken 134 days later on 17 September 1794. The fort never capitulated but had to surrender because of the lack of food; there was never water shortage since a huge well (diameter, 6 m; depth, 62 m) was dug in 1698. Dugommier, severely injured during the siege, died a few days later in Figueras and was buried in the fort. The fort of Bellegarde was then used as barracks until the middle of the 20th century.
The population census of Le Perthus was often exaggerated because of the garrison stationed in Bellegarde; in 1836, Les Cluses and Le Perthus together had less than 300 inhabitants, whereas the 1851 census yielded 846 inhabitants for Le Perthus alone.
[Pyrénées Catalanes (Le Perthus); Pyrénées Catalanes website (Fort de Bellegarde); Le Roussillon, passé et présent by Jean Tosti]

Ivan Sache, 7 February 2005

Flag of Le Perthus

The flag of Le Perthus, as seen in July 2004, is white with the municipal coat of arms in the middle.

Olivier Touzeau & Ivan Sache, 7 February 2005