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.