The dominant climatic influence of the Eastern Pyrenees, excluding the misty Couserans region, is the Mediterranean; the climate is warmer, the days sunnier, the landscape more arid than elsewhere in the Pyrenees. Dry-weather plants like cistus, broom and thyme make their appearance, and the foothills are planted with vines. The proximity of Spain is evident, with much of the territory definitively incorporated into France in 1659 previously belonging to historical Catalonia. Like the rest of the Pyrenees, the countryside is spectacular, and densely networked with hiking trails. Historical sights, except the painted caves of the Ariège and the Cathar castles and medieval towns of the upper Aude, are concentrated towards the coast in French Catalonia and along the Tech and Tet valleys.
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The Cathar castles
The Cathar castles
Romantic and ruined, the medieval fortresses that pepper the hills between Quillan and Perpignan have become known as the Cathar castles, though many were built either before or after the Cathar era. Roussillon, Languedoc and the eastern Ariège were the twelfth-century sect’s power base. Their name derives from the Greek word for “pure” – katharon – as they abhorred the materialism and worldly power of the established Church, and they were initially pacifist, denying the validity of feudal vows or allegiances. While the Cathars probably never accounted for more than ten percent of the population, they included many members of the nobility and mercantile classes, which alarmed the ruling powers.
Once disputational persuasion by the ecclesiastical hierarchy proved fruitless, Pope Innocent III anathemized the Cathars as heretics in 1208 and persuaded the French king to mount the first of many “Albigensian” crusades, named after Albi, a Cathar stronghold. Predatory northern nobles, led for a decade by the notoriously cruel Simon de Montfort, descended on the area with their forces, besieging and sacking towns, massacring Cathar and Catholic civilians alike, laying waste or seizing the lands of local counts. The effect of this brutality was to unite both the Cathars and their Catholic neighbours in southern solidarity against the barbarous north. Though military defeat became inevitable with the capitulation of Toulouse in 1229 and the fall of Montségur in 1244, it took the informers and torturers of the Holy Inquisition another 180 years to root out Catharism completely.
The westernmost Cathar castle, Puilaurens, perches atop a hill at 700m, its fine crenelated walls sprouting organically from the rock outcrops. It sheltered many Cathars up to 1256, when Chabert de Barbera, the region’s de facto ruler, was captured and forced to hand over this citadelle and Quéribus further east to secure his release. The castle remained strategically important – being close to the Spanish border – until 1659, when France annexed Roussillon and the frontier was pushed south. Highlights of a visit are the west donjon and southeast postern gate, where you’re allowed briefly on the curtain wall for views, and the Tour de la Dame Blanche, with its rib-vaulted ceiling.
The history of Quéribus is similar to that of Puilaurens, and it too held holding out until 1255 or 1256; not reduced by siege, its role as a Cathar sanctuary ended with the capture of the luckless Chabert, though the garrison escaped to Spain. Spectacularly situated above the Grau de Maury pass 6km north of the Quillan–Perpignan road, the castle balances on a storm-battered rock pinnacle above sheer cliffs – access is forbidden in bad weather. Because of the cramped topography, the space within the walls is stepped in terraces, linked by a single stairway and dominated by the polygonal keep. The high point, in all senses, is the so-called Salle du Pilier, whose vaulted ceiling is supported by a graceful pillar sprouting a canopy of intersecting ribs. A spiral staircase leads to the roof terrace and fantastic views (best outside summer) in every direction, including Canigou, the Mediterranean and northwest to the next Cathar castle, Peyrepertuse.
If you only have time for one of the Cathar castles, make it the Château de Peyrepertuse, not only for the unbeatable site and stunning views, but also because it’s unusually well preserved. The castle was obtained by treaty with the Kingdom of Aragón in 1258, and most of the existing fortifications were built afterwards, staying in use until 1789. The 3.5-km access road starts in Duilhac village or, alternatively, you can walk up from Rouffiac des Corbières village to the north via the GR36 – a tough, hot climb of over an hour. Either way the effort is rewarded, for Peyrepertuse is among the most awe-inspiring castles anywhere, draped the length of a jagged rock-spine with sheer drops at most points. Access is banned during fierce summer thunderstorms, when (as at Quéribus) the ridge makes an ideal lightning target.
Overlooking the Côtes de Roussillon-Villages wine domaine is the isolated, thirteenth-century Château d’Aguilar; perched at the end of a steep, one-lane drive, its hexagonal curtain wall shelters a keep, with the chatelain’s lodge on the top floor.
Cucugnan, fifty kilometres east of Quillan, half way to the coast, is a popular base for visiting Quéribus (and Peyrepertuse) and there’s ample accommodation in chambres d’hôtes and hotels.
Sitting in the Vallée de Tech, Céret is a delightful place, with a wonderfully shady old town overhung by huge plane trees; the central streets are narrow and winding, opening onto small squares like Plaça de Nou Reigs (“Nine Spouts” in Catalan), named after its central fountain; on avenue d’Espagne, two remnants of the medieval walls, the Porte de France and Porte d’Espagne, are visible. Céret is also known for its cherries from the surrounding orchards (June festival), plus July corridas (bullfights) and Pamplona-style running of bulls. Céret’s main sight, however, is the remarkable Musée d’Art Moderne (wmusee-ceret.com). Between about 1910 and 1935, Céret’s charms – coupled with the residence here of the Catalan artist and sculptor Manolo – drew a number of avant-garde artists to the town, including Matisse and Picasso, who personally dedicated a number of pictures to the museum. The holdings are too extensive to mount everything at once, but there are works on show by Chagall, Miró, Pignon, Picasso and Dufy, among others.
Prieuré de Serrabona
Prieuré de Serrabona
On the D84 between the Tech and Têt valleys (just past Boule d’Amont), you’ll come across one of the finest examples – arguably the finest – of Roussillon Romanesque. The interior of the Prieuré de Serrabona (consecrated 1151) is starkly plain, making the beautifully carved column capitals of its rib-vaulted tribune even more striking: lions, centaurs, griffins and human figures with Asiatic faces and hairstyles – motifs brought back from the Crusades – executed in pink marble from Villefranche-de-Conflent, by students of the Maître d’Cabestany, if not himself.
The Têt valley
The Têt valley
The upper Têt valley, known as the Pays de Conflent, is utterly dominated by the Pic du Canigou. The valley bottoms are lush with fields and orchards, but the vast and uncompromising mountain presides over all. As you continue upstream, the valley steepens and buckles as magnificent gorges carve in from the surrounding mountains and scalding water bleeds from the valley’s northern flank. Ancient shepherd’s villages, basking in Mediterranean glow, peer down on the road below. Crisscrossing the Têt, the vintage Train Jaune groans its way towards the Cerdagne plateau.
The chief valley town is Prades, and just three kilometres south stands one of the loveliest abbeys in France, the eleventh-century St-Michel-de-Cuxà. Although mutilated after the Revolution it is still beautiful, with its crenelated tower silhouetted against the wooded – sometimes snowy – slopes of Canigou. You enter via the labyrinthine, vaulted crypt, with its round central chamber, before proceeding to the church with its strange Visigothic-style “keyhole” arches. But the glory of the place is the cloister and its twelfth-century column capitals.
Some six kilometres up the Têt from Prades, the medieval garrison town of Villefranche-de-Conflent is dwarfed by sheer limestone escarpments, and is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful in France. Founded in 1092 by the counts of Cerdagne to block incursions from rivals in Roussillon, then remodelled by Vauban in the seventeenth century after annexation by France, its streets and fortifications have remained untouched by subsequent events.
Another beautiful religious building in the Têt valley near Prades is the stunning abbey of St-Martin-du-Canigou, founded in 1001, resurrected from ruins between 1902 and 1982, and now inhabited by a working religious community, occupies a narrow promontory of rock surrounded by chestnut and oak woods, while above it rises the precipitous slopes of the Pic du Canigou. Below, the ground drops vertically into the ravine of the Cady stream rushing down from the Col de Jou. What you see is a beautiful little garden and cloister overlooking the ravine, a low-ceiling, atmospheric chapel beneath the church, and the main church itself.
The following are a selection of the best prehistoric sights in the Pyrenees:
Grotte de Niaux 22km south of Foix. A huge cave complex under an enormous rock overhang 2km north of the hamlet of Niaux. There are 4km of galleries in all, with paintings of the Magdalenian period scattered throughout, although tours see just a fraction of the complex. No colour is used to render the subjects – horses, ibex, stags and bison – just a dark outline and shading to give body to the drawings, executed with a “crayon” made of bison fat and manganese oxide.
Grotte de la Vache Alliat, 2km across the valley west from Niaux (wgrotte-de-la-vache.org). A relatively rare example of an inhabited cave where you can observe hearths, embossed bones, tools and other remnants in situ that date back 14,000 years.
Grotte de Bédeilhac Above Bédeilhac village; take the D618 from Tarascon towards Saurat; after 5km, the cave entrance yawns in the Soudour ridge (wgrotte-de-bedeilhac.org). Inside are examples of every known technique of Paleolithic art; while not as immediately powerful as at Niaux, its diversity – including modelled stalagmites and mud reliefs of beasts – compensates.
Parc de la Prehistoire 2km west of Tarascon on the D23. This museum presents a circuit of discovery that shows the life and art of people from the Magdalenian period who lived in this area 14,000 years ago. Outdoor exhibits here feature engaging workshop demonstrations on archeology, prehistoric hunting, fire-making and art techniques; as well as a recreated encampment.
- The fall of Montségur
Characterized by the wide variety of ingredients that grow throughout the different climates between the mountains and the sea, Catalonia’s distinctive food depends on its use of contrasting (sweet, savoury & sour) flavours within the five fundamental sauces of Catalan cuisine. The most important of these is sofregit, a tomato-based sauce with caramelized onion that’s used ubiquitously. The most popular traditional dishes include ollada (pork stew), bullinada (similar to paella but with potatoes instead of rice) and regional favourite, Boles de Picolat (meatballs). Catalans have a sweet tooth too and produce a variety of custardy desserts like Pa d’ous (flan) and crema catalane as well as the wonderful sweet wines of Banyuls and Rivesaltes.
Petit Train Jaune
Petit Train Jaune
One of the most spectacular train rides in the world, the Petit Train Jaune runs between Villefranche-de-Conflent and La Tour-de-Carol (with onward links towards Toulouse or Barcelona) in the upper Cerdagne and is a wonder of early twentieth-century engineering. Built to link up the villages of the high Pyrenees with Perpignan, the antique narrow-gauge carriages now mostly carry tourists, cyclists and skiers. The most spectacular section of the route is in the upper Têt between Olette and Mont Louis where you’ll trundle over gorges and massive viaducts. The summertime frequency of the trains makes it practical to hop off and on, allowing you to explore the areas around smaller, isolated stations, many of them haltes facultatifs (ask to be set down). Outside summer, the timetable is somewhat unreliable, as the aging train system needs regular maintenance.