Canigou and the
Catalan Country
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.
Climbing Canigou
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 enough.
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 surrounding foothills.
The Abbeys
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 returned.
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 world.
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 journey.
Les Fenouillèdes
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 backdrop.
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.
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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 ©
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