Pyrenees – Catalonia

Pyrenees - Catalonia

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Fillols, Canigou, St. Martin du Canigou: 42.561393, 2.410057
Roc Colom: 42.478900, 2.315300
Noufont: 42.480700, 2.180100
Madre: 42.687700, 2.250600
Puigmal d’Err: 42.394500, 2.079600
Pic d’Eyne: 42.469500, 2.082600

The East end of the Pyrenees mountains sits in the French province of Languedoc-Rousillon. This region is a part of Catalonia in fact. Catalonia was once an independent state but later was conquered and divided between Spain and France. The Spanish part is still called Catalonia (with Barcelona as a capital). Both in France and Spain the Catalans still honor their native language and Catalan standard. We decided to travel there mainly because of what we have read about Canigou mountain and about Cathars.

The Canigou is the highest summit in the East Pyrenees. Due to its sharp flanks and its location close to the coast, until the 18th century the Canigou was believed to be the highest mountain in the Pyrenees. This mountain has symbolical significance for Catalan nationalist  groups. On its summit there is a cross that is often decorated with the Catalan flag. Every year on the 23d June, the night before St. John’s day there is a ceremony called Flama del Canigó (Canigou Flame), where a fire is lit at the mountaintop. People keep a vigil during the night and take torches lit on that fire in a spectacular torch relay to light bonfires somewhere else. Some estimates conclude that about 30,000 bonfires are lit in this way all over Catalonia on that night. One could add to that that the tradition was started in the fifties of the last century by the local rugby fan group celebrating the victory of their beloved team.

Cambre d’Aze

is a Christian religious sect that started on 11th century and flourished in 12th and 13th century. The Catholic Church regarded the sect as dangerously heretycal. Faced with the rapid spread of the movement across the Languedoc region, the Church first sought peaceful attempts at conversion, undertaken by Dominicans. After the failure of those the Church called for a crusade, which was carried out by knights from France and Germany and was known as the Albigensian Crusade. The Crusade, and the inquisition which followed it, entirely eradicated the Cathars.

To defend themselves the Cathars have built a number of strongholds – mainly near the mountain summits. Nowadays the strongholds are of great interest for the tourists.

Photos Photos

Day 1. Carcassonne

We arrive in Carcassonne on Thursday 11th of June 2009. After settling down in Balladin hotel near the airport we set out to Cite (the old city) to look at the famous Carcassonne fortress. The stronghold is on the top of the hill. It is huge. The castle and the medieval town is surrounded by two impressive walls. We stroll through the stronghold and then go to the nearby pedestrian bridge over the Aude river to have the panoramic views on the fortress.

Day 2. Cathar castles

We drive southward to Limoux. After a short look at the city center and the marketplace we move further to the Cathar castles.

The first one – Arka is located on a grassy hilltop. The castle is closed therefore we decide to move to the next one –  Peyrepertuse castle. It is located near the top of the mountain – we could see it while driving a hour before the arrival. A car park is just below the castle – still there is a half an hour walk up the mountain path while we are there. It turns out that the castle is in fact the ruins of the partly renovated fortress. Close to the Peyrepertuse we find there another castle – that of St. George. Both the strongholds look impressive with double walls around them.

The next one is Queribus castle. We could see it already from the Peyrepertuse (on a top of the mountain as you might guess). The path to the Queribus is similar to that we had to the Peyrepertuse. The sights from above are gorgeous – summits of the Pyrenees inclusive.

We follow to the south – to the gorge of Galamus. There we take a stroll to the Hermitage of St. Anthony carved into stone cliffs. A narrow path (and a tunnel) takes us to the Hermitage.

Next we drive to the Fillols – a small village in the Tet valley that will be our home for the next two weeks. We see the Canigou summit all the time from the Galamus. Still we can not see the Canigou when we arrive in Fillols – the village is too close to the mountain and is screened out by other (lower) summits. This is sort of surprise. We leave a car near the cemetery and set out to search our house. It is tiny but still has 3 stores. The property has a tiny yard and a second house as well.

Day 3. Saint Martin de Canigou abbey

We do some shopping on the morning in Vernet les Bains, 5 litre volume of red wine inclusive (for Eur6.75). We take the purchases home and drive again to Vernet les Bains, then further to the neighbouring village of Casteil. There the path to Saint Martin de Canigou abbey starts. We ascend by the steep concrete jeep road. It is hot and it is hard to go. Still we reach the abbey and proceed up to have a views to the abbey from above. We climb two hours to the place named Cirerola. There from the top of the huge stone near the slope we have great sights on the Abbey far below. After the short break we go down to another viewpoint to have a closer look to the Abbey. The sights on the Abbey inspire as to take a look inside. The tour is guided by a nun. She speaks with passion – unfortunately in French. Ilze understands but not me :-(.
There are interesting columns in the Abbey featuring monks with large ears, animals that shield the mouth with their paws. The church has two stores, columns there as well. The Abbey celebrates it’s 1000 year anniversary.

Clouds accumulate gradually. We rapidly descend to Casteil and manage to jump in the car just before the heavy rain and hail of large grains starts. Beautiful (if you have a roof is over your head).


Day 4. Goa and the English waterfall

The path to the 1000 year old Goa tower starts in Vernet les Bains. In ancient times guards were on duty here to warn the citizens when enemy was approaching. A steep path caries us to the Col de la Pena pass (means mountain pass in Spanish). On the way to the pass we see a flock of 5 wild goats. From the pass we enjoy a gorgeous view to the Vernet les Bains.

Futher on the pass is flatter – we reach the Goa easily. The tower has no doors – only loop holes and a window. The latter is high enough to be used to enter the tower (a good protection from the tourists). We follow the bumpy mountain road to the Col de Jou pass, then to village of Casteil. When approaching the Casteil we find a zoo. The zoo is located on a mountain slope. As we see it standing on our path – to visit the zoo means to climb the mountain. Options are – 2,5km and 3,5km round paths. We decide to skip that. From Casteil we follow the path down to Vernet les Bains. It is one in the afternoon hence we decide we have time for one more trip today – to the English waterfall (Cascade d’Anglais). We have to drive by very narrow and steep road to the start of the path. The path follows the mountain stream. It has handrails and footbridges here and there. We are not alone – a group of more then 20 French seniors follow us. A very cheerful and noisy gang. We manage to win the race to the waterfall but the seniors are here in a minute and inflate all the place. Still this does not disturb us to enjoy the beautifull waterfall.

Day 5. Roc Colom

We wake up at 6am and drive to the Col de Mantet pass (1780m).  Below us are the clouds, but on the pass the sun shines on it’s full. We go through beautiful pine wood, then meadows full of flowers, till the Spanish border. We manage to miss the Roc Colom (2508m) summit initially. We discover that the summit is already behind us and turn round to ascend it. There is a strong wind and a little bit rains, we have a hail as well. We are lucky enough to find that there is a stone maid wall on the summit that shields us from the wind at least. After a short break we descend by the same path.


Day 6. Mont-Louis, Port Liberia, Villefranche de Conflent

First thing in the morning we drive to the beautiful Villefranche de Conflent. This medieval fortified town is one of the three (the other ones being the Canigou mountain and the Canigou St. Martins abbey) main tourist attractions in French East Pyrenees. We arrive at nine in the morning to find out that the Port Liberia stronghold above the town is open for tourists only from 10am. Instead of waiting we decide to go for another stronghold – Mont-Louis. While on the way to the car a pie (obviously the favorite of the tourists) vigorously asked our attention. It managed even to land on the top of my backpack. A moment later we witness the fight between our pie and a pigeon.

Mont-Louis is some 40km away on the road to Andorra. A tourist favored Train Jaune (a yellow train) route goes next to the road. The train route is closed temporally and should be opened any day. We have it in our plans.

Mont-Louis is an impressive stronghold with a thick walls. There is a French army base at the further end of the fortress. The walls are used to exercise the soldier in climbing. We stroll round the walls (this takes a time) and then drive back to Villefranche de Conflent. There we cross the bridge over the stream, then the route of the Traine Jaune and then ascend the path to the Port Liberia.

It is hot and we reach the stronghold exhausted and dripping with sweet. We purchase the ticket and go to look inside the fortress. The fortress is on the mountain slope and is designed to protect the defenders against the attack from above. To protect the walls from the canons that might be positioned high on the mountain slope, the fortress is shaped like a ship with it’s sharp bow towards the mountain. Vauban (the builder of this and a number of other fortresses in Pyrenees) suggested that the canon balls should thus do less damage to the walls. The walls as well were designed with the attack from the above in mind. There are 3 stories of galleries in the walls. All three have rows of loop holes and ventilation holes above them (to clear the gallery from the toxic powder. All three stories are covered by the thick stone ceiling.

Inside the stronghold there is a number of buildings. This includes the tank to collect the water and the prison. Te king of France have imprisoned here a couple of noble women. Two of the prisoners have spent here more than 30 years until their death. We descend to the Villefranche by the 700 marble stairs of the subterranean staircase. The tunnel is carved in the rocks to help the citizens of Villefranche escape to the fortress in case if the enemy invades the town.

Day 7. The summit of Noufont

The route to the Noufont starts near the village of Prets-Balager. The last 5km of the road are terrible – we drive mostly on the first gear. We leave the car near the small lake. The path follows the mountain stream. The meadows are full of rhododendrons and other flowers in full blossoms. Higher on the slope we find as well the gentians – a bright blue bell shaped flowers. The marmots are here as well. Here and there we have to cross the piles of snow. There is a lot of snow on the Spanish side of Col de Noufont pass. This appears to us strange because this is the south side. Perhaps the shadow from other mountains is the reason.

The last section of the path to Pic du Noufont follows a rather steep mountain ridge. We progress here slower but still manage to reach the top. The stunning views from the summit are a reward. The Canigou is one of the summits we see around.

The way down looks longer. The clouds accumulate high in the mountaints but the sun still brightly shines on out path. The rain starts only when we are already in the car.

Near town of Font-Pedroso we remark the Train Jaune passing by. We stop by the bridge to make some shots. We are not the only ones in that.


Day 8. Andorra

We decide to have a rest and to visit La Vella – the capital of Andorra. To get there we drive the road to Mont-Louis and further to Bourg-Madam and Puymorens pass. We select to drive the pass instead of the tunnel (to save the money). The mountain road ascends to 2400m above see level and then down to La Vella. La Vella is a little bit disappointment to us – everything here looks too commercialized – we even did not manage to find something like old part of the town. After a couple of hours spent here we go back.

Day 9. Cambre d’Aze

The destination for today is a 2750m high Cambre d’Aze (Donkey ridge). We drive to Mont-Louis again, then to village of Eyne and furher on to Eine 2600 (ski resort). We leave the car in an empty parking place (the ski season has not started yet). There are no signs to the start of the track so we go ahead according to our map. After some effort we find the path that goes stright up the ski track. It is warm initially but as we ascend the cold wind starts to blow and dark clouds appear. We ascend the summit bu the mountain ridge. There is a gorgeous view from the top to Mont-Louis at the opposite side of the valley. We see a couple of large and beautiful lakes as well, Canigou and other summits. Some of the summits are in bright sunshine, others are covered with dark clouds.

We select other path for the descent. It goes initially by the stony slope. It is hard to see the path itself – fortunately it is well marked with stone piles. Some of the piles are more than 2m high.

While driving back the rain falls cat and dogs. Still when we reach Vernet les Bains the rain has gone and the sun shines brightly again. We drop in at Internet cafe to check-in for the backward flight. Something goes wrong when we print the boarding passes. The attentive owner suggests not to move the mouse while printing. We follow the advice 🙂


Day 10. Port Liberia path

We have planned to climb the summit of Madre. Still while driving we notice that the mountains near Madre are covered with black tempest clouds. We stop in village of Mosset to take a decision. It looks like is getting from bad to worst therefore we decide to change the plans. We stroll around in Mosset – it is small village with narrow and steep concrete streets and charming small houses.

Then we drive back to Villefranche de Conflent. Although we have no suitable map at  hand, we decide to explore the path in mountains above the Villefranche and Port Liberia. It turns out that the maps are useful – we get lost a couple of times. Still this does not make the views around less beautiful. We see Port Liberia, Villefranche de Conflent, Prades, other towns and villages (our sweet Fillols inclusive). Perpignan and the Mediterranean is there as well further near the horizon.

The route takes 5 hours instead of anticipated 3. Exhausting! Still we decide to explore the walls of the Villefranche. There walls go round the town and have 3 stories of passages. Means – one have to go round the town 3 times to see all of it. An there are a lot of things to see – the huge hammer run by mill wheel as an example. That takes one more hour and the rest of our endurance.

Day 11. Canigou

We have decided to go for Canigou summit today. The height difference is 2km – rather tough for a day (we have managed 1.4km so far in one go). Fortunately the track starts right near our doorstep and we can start early enough – at 6.45am.

It is cloudy when we begin to go. Still it is clear already that there will be a hot and sunny day. The path starts on the right bank of the Fillols stream on one of the streets of the village. It ascends through the woods to the 1838m high Col des Voltes pass. When on the pass we have already climbed more than half of he height difference (1100m). Further on we go along the mountain road to the Cortalets refuge. The road has considerable traffic – the jeep taxis take tourists from the villages below to the Cortalets refuge. There are 6-8 passengers in a taxi. Means – there should be a lot of people up on the summit. Cortalets is situated 2060m above sea level. We have managed to get there in 4 hours. On can see from the distance that the path above is full of hikers. We join the others to ascend the summit. The path is rather easy to go. The abundant sunshine is balanced somehow with the strong and cold wind. In less then 2 hours we are on the summit. Some 50 men are already there. Most of them Catalans, perhaps. The famous Canigou cross is ready for the feast – Catalan standards unfolded, bonfire prepared. Everybody adds to the bonfire faggots they have brought to the summit and takes shots in front of the bonfire.

The view around is stunning – summits, mountain villages. We see Prades, behind it is Perpignan and the Mediterranean. Having had enough views we find the unoccupied shelter from the cold wind and have some rest. Then we head off in a long way down to Fillols. The sun still shines without mercy. After we pass the Cortalets the cold wind is gone and it gets hotter and hotter. We are totally exhausted when we reach Fillols. We have managed 2km height difference upwards in less then 6 hours and downwards in 4.5 hours.


Day 12. Train Jaune

We decide to take a rest after the exhausting Canigou adventure yesterday. The perfect time for the Traine Jaune. We go from Villefranche de Conflent to Font-Romeu. This is more than half of the total route. Takes about two hours in one direction.The train passes a number of beautiful mountain villages (i.e. Olette).

We leave Villefranche de Conflent at 9.05am. The train has 4 carriages, one of them open-air. We take the open one – to enjoy the views. The views come with a lot of freezing though. I get a  fellow-traveler – a grasshopper, it drives on my hat for about an hour! Perhaps to see his family 🙂 The train runs through 16 tunnels and a number of beautiful bridges. It goes upwards all the road – from 400m in Villefranche de Conflent to about 1600m. It gets colder as we move upwards. This does not ruin the good humor of the travelers though. At one of the stops the group of 5 Germans join us in our section. Everybody takes shots, greets the drivers passing by. The drivers honk, the trains conductor answers. Everybody enjoys. On a way back our neighbors are a group of french seniors. When entering the tunnel they yell. While in the dark somebody makes a posture (like lies down on a bench with legs up in air). When the light comes back others take shots and everybody has fun.

Font-Romeu train station is an hour walk from the town. An hour walk upwards the steep road. Before to do this we visit the world’s largest and most powerful (as the tourist prospects say)  solar furnace. The wall of the main building forms the main mirror. In front of it on the mountain slope stands more than 60 mirrors – heliostats. that tracks the sun light and reflect it to the main mirror. The main mirror accumulates all the sun light into one point. They say that the temperature there reaches about 3000 celsius. The furnace is used for the scientific research, in particular for NASA.

We take a guided tour inside the main building and then proceed to nearby Odeilo. Odeilo is a typical for Pyrenees village with an old church, steep narrow streets. In the very center of the village stands large bonfire for the St. Johns feast. Next we go through the village to Font-Romeu that turns out to be a contemporary tourism and ski center. We even did not manage to find something like the old center. We spend here a hour, then move back down to the train stop and go to Villefranche de Conflent. We are back in Villefranche in around one and half hour – obviously it is easier to drive downhill. There is a bonfire near the walls of Villefranche as well. Looks like everybody has get ready for the feast. We stop for a while in Vernet-les-Bains to take a shots of the castle and then drive home.

Day 13. Madre and St. Johns feast

We drive to Col de Jau pass for the second time. No clouds today. The pass is some 14km drive from Mosset. We start to walk at 8am to Caillou refuge. The track follows the country road to and a little bit after the Caillou. Further the path goes through woody terrain full of rhododendrons and other beautiful flowers. When the path leaves the wood, the cold wind gets more power and we have to take on the windbreakers.

We are not alone on the path – we count some 20 other hikers and 5 wild goats. Madre summit is 2461m high. A gorgeous view to the neighboring summits from the top. The next one is Roc Negre (the Black Cliff). We conquer this one as well. Then descend to the car and drive home.

We reach home at early afternoon. Take bath and have lunch and then off to Villefranche for the St. Johns feast. The feast begins at 8pm when one lights the main torch. Then children come with the smaller torches and light them from this main one. The children then go with the burning torches in a march around the town. This does not look safe at all. The fire drops down from the torches and an old lady just shakes the hand and says “dangerous”. Time passes when the torch procession is back. Then the bonfire is lit and the feast proceeds.

We drive to look what happens in Vernet les Bains. When we get there we see that in the main square the bonfire is already burning and the children with torches march around the bonfire. The dance band is playing, the host sings and talks. The songs are in French and English, people dance. We watch and listen for a while and then proceed to our village. There are two bonfires in Fillols. Children are jumping over the smaller one. Near the bonfires tables are served. Food and drinks in abundance. About 30-40 villagers are there – a lot of people for the small village.


Day 14. Gorge Caranca

We drive to Gorge Caranca the well familiar road to Mont-Louis and leave the car in parking place near the very start of the gorge. We take the path that goes by the left side of the gorge. It is early in the morning and our side is in the shadow – hence it is rather chilly. The gorge is very narrow with vertical cliffs at both sides of the Caranca stream. The path goes steep uphill. We notice that the path at the opposite side is a groove carved in a vertical
cliff. This looks rather dangerous. Then it gets interesting at our side as well – metallic plank-ways fastened to the cliff, wire bridges and so on.

Gradually the gorge gets wider. We continue to follow the path uphill for an hour or so while the gorge gradually transforms into valley. Then we decide to turn back which we do after having some rest.

We go back by the opposite side – by the groove we noticed earlier. The path is wide about a meter. It looks much if you forget that you are close to an abyss hundred meters or so high. Still not so scary as it looked from the opposite side. The track follows the groove for a kilometer or so.

We spend in the gorge about 8 hours. Height difference – 900m.

Day 15. Orgues

Our destination is Orgues – sandstone cliffs near Ille sur Tet. Ille sur Tet is a town by the higway to Perpignan. On the way we drop in to take a look at two other towns – Marquixanes and Vinca.

Orgues are sandstone cliffs some twenty or so meters high carved by the rain water. The tour to Orgues includes a path of some 800 meters where one has a diversity of plants, animal sculptures (mammoth inclusive) etc. Obviously the kids are frequent visitors there. The path is followed by a narrow and dry ditch. We find out later that 5 tons of water per second runs through it during a rainfall…

The path takes us to the cliffs after all. One can find there cliffs of different shapes – including ones that resemble an organ (Orgues means organ in French). One can walk around the cliffs and watch them from every side.

We notice similar cliffs at the distance and decide to look at them as well. We drive a couple of kilometers and then climb the thorny path up to the nearby hill to have a panoramic view. It is very hot but the sights from the top compensate this.

Next we drive back to explore Ille sur Tet and Eus. Eus is charming little village with an old church on top of a hill and old little houses around. The church looks like a stronghold a little bit with thick walls around. The streets are narrow and steep. The village has about 300 residents, most of them, perhaps, artisans. The painters are doing their job on the street. They say in our tourist guide that Eus is the sunniest village in France (we wonder – is this the only one sunniest??).

On a way home we make another one stop in Catllar .

Day 16. Puigmal d’Err

We get up early – today’s destination is the 2910m high Puigmal d’Err summit.

The path starts at the parking place of Planes ski resort. We arrive there by the Mont-Luis road. We pass by the turn-off to Err and then take a road to ski resort Puigmal. The road goes up the hill but is wide and straight enough do drive on 80 km per hour.

We park the car near the road and follow the road on foot. In a couple of km road turns right and we follow the path straight ahead. It is sunny but no hot (we are 2km above the sea level). We ascend by the stream, then cross it and follow stright up the slope. We can see the summit all the time we go (and we can see the car as well). We get up to the mountain ridge (which is the Spanish border) and then follow the ridge up to the summit. While we go dark clouds have accumulated and the cold wind is blowing. The clouds are near us and for a while we see nothing on the Spanish side.

On the way down we select another path. There we see a flock of some 15 wild goats. A light rain starts. Looks like elsewhere the weather is worse – we see storm clouds and hear a thunder.


Day 17. Pic d’Eyne

We have Pic d’Eyne summit for today. The summit is not far from yesterdays Puigmal d’Err. Acccess by the same route – Mont-Louis, then turn-off to village of Eyne.

The path follows the Eyne stream in a beautiful valley. It runs through a wood, then meadows full of rhododendrons and other flowers, then rocks. Just before the Eyne pass we see the flock of about 10 wild goats. We approach carefully – Ilze takes shots non-stop. The goats are shy but do not run away. We manage to get as close as 50 meters.

The summit comes easy. We are not alone there. Hikers are on the summits around as well. Not a surprise because the weather is perfectly good. We take a rest, then climb the nearby Nuria summit, and then climb down to the parking place. We have spent 8 hours in a route. The height difference – 1300m.


Day 18. Tech valley

We have spent all the time so far in Tet valley. So we decide to have a look on the neighboring Tech valley. To get there we drive to Prades and further to Ille sur Tet. Shortly before Ille sur Tet we turn to the right by the road that goes up in the mountains. At first we visit Seratonna abbey. To reach it we have to turn to the right again and follow uphill for some 4km a steep dead-end road. We are there at 9am. Unfortunately the abbey opens at 10am. Fortunately we find there a beautiful botanic garden. We explore the garden and then move forward to Tech valley. The first sight we head to is Gorge de la Fou – a very popular sight indeed. We are there shortly after the opening time but we are not the first ones in the car park. In no time the first tourist couch arrives – so we better hurry to the entry of the gorge.

Gorge de la Fou is couple of km long, some 100m high and very narrow. At the narrowest section of the gorge the branches of the trees from the opposite edges meet. There are over-hangs with some nice stalactites.

We go by the metallic plank-ways and ladders fastened to the cliffs some 5 meters above the stream. The stones of different size have been falling (and are falling) into gorge. The larger ones have transformed the gorge into cave in some places. There is a double grid above our heads. The one with larger meshes protects against the larger stones. The other one – against the smaller ones. The helmet everybody gets when entering the gorge is meant to protect from the smallest stones.

The next stop is Prats-de-Mollo. This is last town before the Spanish border.  The town is fortified and has a stronghold up the hill – very much the same as the Villefranche de Conflent. This is not a surprise because both are built by the same man – Vauban.

We climb up to the fortress to find that it opens at 2pm – means we should have wait an hour. We decide to explore it from outside instead. We enjoy the gorgeous views on the town below and then move down to find the subterranean stairway similar to that of Villefranche. Unlike the latter the stairway here is not subterranean in fact – it is just a concrete tunnel covered with earth.

Down in the town we explore the streets and the fortifications. The town resembles Mosset in some extent.

Next we turn homeward (I mean Fillows). On a way back we make a stop to look at old city and abbey of Arles-sur-Tech, then drive through Amelie-les-Bains and have a look at buried in flowers village of Pallaldo. Then – back to Tet valley. We drive another road – closer to Canigou to have a look from opposite side. And we are rewarded.Views are stunning indeed – to the Canigou and to the valley. When in Tet valley we drive through huge vineyards and orchards of aprikots.

Day 19. Back home

We drive to Carcassonne to take a flight home.

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