Canigou and the
High up on a mountain in the
Eastern Pyrenées is the tiny
hamlet of Evol. In October 1995
we installed ourselves here in a
gîte which looked out towards
the eastern chain of mountains
where Canigou reigns.
This is Catalonia where the
Catalan people of France and
Catalonia in Spain are strongly
bound together by their history,
literature and language.
The Gîte at Evol
In selecting a base in the Eastern Pyrenées, the hamlet of Evol had emerged as best suiting
our requirements. The gîte was owned and operated by the local commune and was a
modern extension to a very old building most of which lay in ruins.
The nearest small town for everyday shopping and eating out was Ollette about ten minutes
drive away and a little further away was the sizable market town of Prades. There were
several old abbeys tucked away in isolated valleys and there was a wide range of walking
opportunities, the most compelling being the climb to the summit of Canigou.
Evol had a population of 34 living in a cluster of buildings terraced into a steep hillside. There were
no shops but a ruined feudal castle overlooked the town and the local church is famous for its
13th century retable, or altarpiece, which was painted for the owner of the chateau. There is also
a very old wooden statue of the virgin which is taken on an outing several times a year - up to the
chateau's chapel where a mass is held and then back down to the church. The church had a very
distinctive belfry with two bells side by side, guaranteed to help us keep good time.
The gîte was surrounded by a vaste terrain where we could sit under the trees eating al fresco
lunches. The whole area was an autumn cornucopia. In the ruined courtyard beside the gîte
was a huge walnut tree shedding lots of nuts which could be collected to incorporate in salads.
In the garden and alongside the road were fig trees loaded with plump juicy fruit. Around the
chateau was wild thyme which found its way into several slow cooking daubes.
The Frontier between France and Spain
A historical account of how the frontier between France and Spain was established
is included in the page on the Pyrenées. However, even today, the border is no
more than an imaginary line, to the extent that it impedes the common cultural
identity of the Catalan people.
The red and yellow flag flies proudly on both sides of the border and the Catalan
language defies the frontier. Derived from Provencal and very similar to the Langue
d'Oc, Catalan is still spoken on an everyday basis on the Spanish side of the
border. Though spoken less in France there is active promotion of its use in street
signs and place names. This is particularly so round Prades where the cellist Pablo
Casals settled after the Spanish Civil War, established an annual music festival and
did much to maintain Catalan unity.
The main difference on the two sides of the frontier has been in their approach to an
autonomous identity within the modern states of Spain and France. The Spanish
fought strongly for independence and now have a strong national identity in the
province of Catalunya. The French have been more pragmatic, satisfied to maintain
their cultural identity within the Republic of France.
The walking in this area was wonderful. The pièce de resistance was undoubtedly le
Canigou which, at 2784m, is revered by all Catalans. First climbed in 1285 by King
Pedro III of Aragon, it has been a favourite challenge ever since though not these
days a particularly difficult walk. You see the peak from everywhere, much of the
year covered in snow and in springtime a picture postcard with a foreground of pink
blossoms. We made the climb early in our stay as it was going to be too
tantalising to look at it every day knowing that the challenge still lay ahead.
There are several ways to reach the final climb to the summit. The GR10 circuits
round the base on its last big challenge before heading down to the coast and
other minor trails split off it at various points to head for the top. An easier option is
to drive up towards the Chalet des Cortalets by way of a nail biting route on a steep
and narrow unsealed road which hangs on to the cliff edge as it negotiates 31
hairpin bends with great drops looming into space on either side. With a 4 x4
vehicle you can drive all the way to the chalet, though we left our vehicle further
down to make more of a walk of it.
From the chalet, at 2150m, a pathway winds round a mountain lake before
beginning to climb along a long steep ridge and eventually reaching a jumble of
scree where any trace of path has completely disappeared. You slip and slide up
the slope before emerging on the summit where there is a huge metal cross and
an amazing view across a desolate treeless landscape of precipitous ridges.
Beyond this it is possible to see to Marseilles 253 km away but it is seldom clear
We shared the summit with six other
walkers and noticed that there were scraps
of confetti lying in the cracks in the rocks.
Not a bad place to choose for a wedding!
On midsummer night they light a bonfire up
here. You could have done a circuit,
descending down through the craggy
precipices but we took the shorter and
easier option of returning the same way.
The Têt Valley
The Têt is a little stream which has its source right up on
the Spanish border near Andorra and which runs in an
easterly direction down to the Mediterranean near
Argelès-Plage. A terrifying road descends steeply and
sinuously from Bourg Madame on the frontier, through
Mont Louis, Olette, Villefranche-de-Confluent, Prades and
then on to Perpignan. The imposing fortifications of the
great military engineer Sébastien Vauban are a dominant
feature in these frontier towns.
High up in three of the side valleys of the Têt are the isolated
monastries St Martin du Canigou, the Prieuré de Serrabone
and St Michael de Cuxa. These are all worth a visit and once
there you can extend the visit with walks further up into the
The first of the three abbeys to be established was
St-Michel-de-Cuixa. Its church was consecrated in 974
though the first monks had settled there in 876.
The most remote is St-Martin-du-Canigou, which has
perched like a stone nest on its mountain top since early
in the 11th century.
The third, the Prieuré de Serrabone, was established about
the same time, perhaps as a colony of St-Martin.
All three are quite remote today, so one can only imagine the
hardships involved in their construction and the utter isolation
of the contemplative lives their monks lived.
During the Revolution of 1789, the
abbeys fell on hard times - they
were seized by the state, the
communities of monks dispersed,
and the buildings began to decay.
The beautiful columns and capitals
of the cloisters disappeared,
finding their way into many local
buildings and some were sold to
Americans who sadly have held
the heritage of France in no great
respect. Even today, stories
occasionally emerge of the
reappearance of lost pieces and
deals are done to have them
The restoration of the abbeys is
remarkable and they are
wonderful places, their
reconstructed cloisters displaying
the brilliant workmanship of the
ancient stone masons. Nearly all
the capitals are different with
detailed carvings of animals and
plants and weird grotesque
human faces and bodies. Once
again, religious communities have
taken up residence and in spite of
the daily invasion by visitors, they
remain calm oases in a modern
Le Petit Train Jaune
A little train called the Le Petit Train Jaune runs up the valley from
the fortified town of Villefranche-de-Conflent to Bourg-Madame on
the Spanish border. This is an exhilarating trip running along
through meadows, crossing back and forward across the river on
high and narrow viaducts, occasionally disappearing into tunnels to
re-emerge in stunning mountain scenery. We left the train just
before the top at a station called Saillagausse, and spent the day
walking down to one of the others, Mont Louis, for the return
We kept going back to an area just west of the Têt
called the Fenouillèdes. This is dry winegrowing country
with spiky limestone outcrops, rugged little gorges and
hilltop towns. Local walking routes wind around this
country though the only available maps aren't very good
and we kept getting lost. But you would never really get
lost as one of the villages was always visible and it just
took some improvisation cutting across the vineyards to
find the route again.
The grapevines were turning to gorgeous hues of yellow
and red and they were bringing in the vintage - this is the
Côtes de Roussillon Villages, a region of uncelebrated but
very drinkable wine.
One day we discovered an old Roman aqueduct at
Ansignan, set among the grapevines. Very little is known
or written about this structure though it probably dates
from 240-270 AD and is still in use.
The Mountains behind Evol
On our final day we took lunch up into the mountains behind
Evol. The road was narrow and potholed with terrifying drops
but it led to a fabulous walk through pine trees and
grasslands up to a lake known as the Gorg Negre. Set in a
dramatic cirque the lake was a deep and brilliant dark blue
with the walls of the cirque forming a dramatic and lofty
Pink autumn crocus were springing up everywhere and there
were clusters of other mountain flowers. You could only
imagine what the flowers would have been like in the spring.
This is a wonderful area for walking only seen to its full
advantage if staying there for a while. We felt we had only
touched its potential.
Return to Roussillon
In 2009 we were again in this area, this time on the Eastern
side of Canigou where we had found a gîte in Les Hostalets, a
tiny hamlet in the isolated mountain foothills of Roussillon. The
nearest small town was Forques where there was a boucher
and a couple of small shops. For major shopping we had to go
to the supermarché in the larger town of Thuir.
The gîte was owned by an Englishman who let it out when he
and his family were not visiting. It was full of comfortable
furniture, lots of books and cupboards overflowing with family
items like skis and walking boots. It reminded us very much of
our own holiday house in the foothills of the Victorian alps
except that our house sprawls over a single floor while the gîte
was on three levels, each reached by a perilously narrow and
flimsy staircase. From the rooftop terrace the summit of
Canigou peeked up above the nearer hills.
The resident population of Les Hostalets was 17, all the other
houses owned by Parisians, Belgians, and English. Once there
had been a small store or épicerie, a boucher and a hotel. Now
in the place of the shop, there was a restaurant, appropriately
called L'Epicerie. The owner would open virtually by request and
cook a delicious meal in her stylish home. We enjoyed a meal
there one night with some German visitors.
Walks around Les Hostalets
There were plenty of walks from the village, circuits that
followed minor, unused dirt roads up into the hills. We
discovered some deserted Romanesque chapels, one
in good repair and one in ruins. From up in these hills
there were wide panoramas and, when the clouds
lifted, Canigou was always visible.
Mountain roads wound through the forests to the Têt
valley, so we again visited the Fenouillèdes for a day's
walking. It was harvest time and the vines were dripping
with grapes ready for picking.
We picknicked and watched some of the action, a much
more low key operation than we had seen in Burgundy and
the Rhone valley. A white van would drive around and
select a field that was ready and then a couple of blokes
would drive up and start picking into the back of a truck.
Then they drove to the local co-op in one of the
picturesque hilltop towns, had the load weighed and tipped
it all into a big vat for crushing.
Gorge de la Fou
On an excursion to the Têt valley we discovered the amazing Gorge de la
Fou. La Fou is an old Catalan word meaning precipice, and not the French
fou which of course means mad or crazy.
This amazing gorge is a narrow canyon, 200 and 250 metres deep and in
some parts the walls are only about 1 metre apart. You put on a hard hat
and walk up the gorge on metal ladders and walkways which have been
constructed over a gushing little stream. Nets hang over the walkways to
protect you from falling rocks.
It is a truly amazing place. They say that, 100 years ago, bandits used
the gorge as a hideout, but it was not until 1928 that a group of local
people explored the full length of the canyon for the first time.
It was another short drive over more mountain roads to Céret,
a delightful regional town with narrow winding streets and a
mediaeval central square shaded by huge plane trees. Céret
is an important centre of Catalan tradition, and culture, and
all the street names are written in French and Catalan.
Céret has a long tradition as a home for artists. Pablo
Picasso arrived in 1911 and lived there for a time, joined by
Braque and later Henri Matisse and Amadeo Modigliani.
Chaim Soutine, the Russian emigré painter was another
who lived in here for a period, painting many landscapes of
the town and its surrounds. A third wave of artists, including
Jean Dubuffet and Marc Chagall, sought refuge here during
the Second World War.
The town's very fine museum for modern art displays works by all its celebrated visitors. On our visit the museum was featuring an exhibition
of all the artists who have painted landscapes of Céret and Canigou. These startling modern paintings presented a totally different approach to
the dramatic landscape of the area and we liked them all the more for this.
The gîte, the village of Evol and Canigou in the distance
The church at Evol
The Catalan flag
Nearing the summit of Canigou
The summit of Canigou
St Martin de Canigou
Prieuré de Serrabone
St Michael de Cuxa
Le Petit Train Jaune ©mon.camping.free.fr
Roman aqueduct at Ansignan
le Gorg Negre
From the rooftop terrace of the les Hostalets gîte
View towards Canigou
Hilltop town in les Fenouillèdes
A Romanesque chapel deep in the forest
la Gorge de la Fou
Chaim Soutine's View of Ceret
Card from National Gallery of Australia