An easy amble into the heart of the Pyrenees: the Cirque de la Plagne

I've lost count of the number of people who come and stay with us who think that walking (and driving!) in the mountains would be just too scary. To those - and to you, if you're one of them - we recommend this walk. It's short, it's ridiculously easy, it's nobbut a gentle climb ... but as the photos will show, you'll feel as though you're right in the heart of the high Pyrenees. And actually, you are, although you've done very little work to get there.

Here, you're in the Biros valley, these days one of the least-known and least-peopled in the Ariège - though it was once a hive of activity, with iron, lead, silver and zinc mines . You'll start the walk literally at the end of the road, butted up almost against the Spanish border and below the peak of Maubermé, higher than Mont Valier though not so well known. If you were a crow and could fly right over the mountain tops, you'd be in the Aran valley in Spain in just a few minutes (we sometimes drive there for the day: it takes us an hour and a half!).

Drive to the end of the tarmac road then continue on to Bocard d'Eylie, where you'll leave your car. There's nothing here now but a gîte d'étape, the Lez river, and some disused buildings that once housed 30 to 40 women, whose job it was to wash and process the minerals coming down from the mine workings. There were two high altitude mines where nearly 700 miners lived and worked: the highest, at 2750 metres altitude, was nicknamed Macchu Picchu! The mines were exploited for 100 years, between 1850 and 1950, and in this peaceful, remote spot it's almost impossible to imagine what life must have been like here back then.

To start the walk, cross the bridge over the river then follow the piste to the Port d'Urets (marked).

The heart of the Séronais: around the Pouch de Gariné near La Bastide de Sérou

Of all the places where we could have settled in the Ariège, neither of us can think of anywhere that we'd sooner be than in our local pays, the Séronais. For us, it's perfectly situated between the lower plains to the north and the high mountains to the south, with easy access to everywhere ... but more (much more) than that, it's beautiful in its own right. We love the green rolling hills, the scattered farms and hamlets, the woodlands and forests and the wildlife. It's pastoral, peaceful and bucolic.

As far as walking goes, it's perfect French Foothills terrain - in fact it gave birth to the whole French Foothills idea. You could easily come and spend two weeks just walking the Séronais: our local tourist office produces an excellent walking guide with 14 walks, all of which fit the French Foothills criteria.

This easy walk, a tour around the Pouch de Gariné, is one we often do ourselves. It's also a great walk to start off your French Foothills Ariège holiday, perfect for your first afternoon - it'll give you a real sense of place and help you orientate yourself within the area as well as warming up your legs for further delights to come! It's well marked all the way round, so you don't need to keep stopping to check your map. In spring and early summer, the wild flowers are a delight; in summer and early autumn it's the butterflies that will be the stars of the show. Come with us, in pictures .....

This is very typical of the pastoral landscape of the Séronais, near the beginning of the walk:



The Dolmen de la Siureda, from Maureillas

I'll begin this post with a confession: it's more than ten years since we did this walk. In the winter of 2006, we spent a month in a funny little Catalan cottage in Céret. It was a memorable holiday for many reasons. Firstly, our cottage had no inside staircase or downstairs loo, so every time we wanted a pee (or to go to bed - the bedrooms were upstairs too), we had to go outside and up the external stairs - never mind that it was January and freezing. Secondly, it was during that holiday that we finally decided to start the process of moving from north Norfolk to the Pyrenees. And thirdly, because we were blown away by the sheer variety of the walking: we'd be walking the coast path one day, clambering up the snowy foothills of Mont Canigou the next, and rambling around the wooded slopes of the Albères the day after.

This is a relatively easy walk, perfect for French Foothillers. For your money you get a dolmen, a ruined tower, a cork oak woodland and some lovely views over Canigou, the Aspres and the Roussillon plain, all for the price of an overall height gain of 415 metres and three to four hours of walking. It would be a great walk for a hot summer's day as much of it is in dappled shade.

We parked just outside the village centre of Maureillas (on the Céret side) then followed a small road that runs along a river and around some houses. From here, the way is well signed, and it's not long before the first views towards the Aspres started to appear. When the path split, we took the one on the left (the other one is the return route), passing some relics of a former talc mine and a lime kiln. It always amazes me that so many of the peaceful and beautiful paths in the Pyrenees go through areas that once would have been hives of industry.



On the rocks: the Cascade d'Ars, in the Ariège

One fine day in early September, we drove through the Garbet valley - one of the most remote, and sparsely populated, bits of the department - to Aulus les Bains, a miniature spa village specialising, would you believe, in cholesterol. Cholesterol was not, however, the purpose of our visit; we were there to walk up to the Cascade d'Ars, a waterfall in a wild and rocky valley nearby that's reckoned to be one of the most beautiful in the Pyrénées.

It's not a difficult walk; the path winds up through a beech forest, beginning as a wide rocky track and then gradually narrowing and getting steeper until for the last part you effectively find yourself clambering up a staircase of rocks.





Wine and water: a round walk from Villelongue dels Monts

Our Mediterranean retreat, Maison Leela (where you'll stay if you're on a French Foothills holiday), is in a small village that's lucky enough to be surrounded by small lanes and tracks known in Catalan as cami, from the same root as the French chemin. They're ancient ways of getting from one old house or domain or vineyard to another; some have now been tarmacked, though they see little car traffic, while others remain the earth tracks they always were. There are no yellow waymarks or red map markings, and sometimes you have to work a little to create your route (except when we've done it for you!), but when you just want a lovely but low-key stroll, they make for perfect rambling.

This particular round walk is one that we often do almost as soon as we arrive, as a kind of hello handshake. It takes us around three hours, as we like to stop and catch up with the changing views and seasons on the hills and in the vineyards and orchards, though it's probably around two hours walking time; sometimes though we turn it into a longer outing by packing a picnic to eat at the lake, which is roughly the halfway point. It's great done all year round, though perhaps at its best in late spring and early summer when the nightingales are singing (all day, contrary to popular belief). And of course, although the route comes right back to the house, we often amble on down to the village bar afterwards for a well-deserved beer!

This is one of the walks for which we've created our own walking map and directions (you'll find it in the walking guide at the house), but here it is in a few photos:


Great views of a still-snowy Canigou in early spring.


Walking the coast path: Le Racou to Port Vendres

This gorgeous walk along the Côte Vermeille really is a walk for all seasons - we've done it on a cloudless blue day in January, on a golden October afternoon and, best of all, in spring, when the cliff tops are full of flowers and the Thekla larks are singing. (Just don't do it if the local wind - the Tramontane - is blowing strongly, or you might suddenly find yourself taking an unscheduled dip ...). It's well-marked and easy to follow so you don't need a map - and each time we've done it, the route has been a little bit different as bits of the path have been closed for restoration work or because of cliff erosion, so although the way is marked on the local IGN walking map, that's not necessarily exactly where you'll walk! Unless you have no sense of direction at all, with the sea on one side you simply can't get lost.

In terms of walking time, this is a relatively short walk that could be done in 3 to 4 hours (there and back) at the most. However ... as you'll see, it's charms mean that like us, you'll almost certainly want to make a long day of it, even if you've done it before!

Start the walk at Le Racou ( racou means 'corner' or 'nook' in Catalan), a small beach hamlet to the south of Argelès sur Mer and one of everybody's favourite summer hangouts. It's a charming and quirky kind of place - lots of little houses built in the 30s just behind the beach, with the roads between them just sandy tracks. In 1957, the inhabitants declared independence and created the 'Racou free commune'; it's never had legal standing, but is still very much its own place, quite unlike anywhere else. It makes me think of a Mediterranean Walberswick.


The "Chemin des Orris", in Haute Ariège

This post was first written for a previous blog in 2010, soon after we walked the Chemin des Orris near Auzat, in Haute Ariège. I'll let it speak for itself.

The swansong to our holiday week saw us making a very last minute decision to take our Quechua pop-up tent away for a couple of nights, to Vicdessos. It was the first camping trip of the year, as evidenced by the ridiculous amount of time and tantrums it took us to dismantle the infamous tent that takes only 15 seconds to put up; we go through this every year, along with half our fellow campers, before we realise that in spite of Decathlon's pretty pictures on the bag it's just not possible to put both blues to both browns before you do that funny twisting thing (if you have a similar tent you'll know exactly what I'm talking about) and you just have to wing it, or ask for help. Still, it's all good for campsite solidarité. At least it would have been, if we'd had any fellow campers to be solid with. This time, in spite of fantastic weather, we were alone, apart from a few semi-permanent caravanners who spent most of their time cleaning their cars and hosing their awnings (or was it the other way round?).

Vicdessos and its twin village Auzat sit up against both the Spanish and the Andorran borders, and at the foot of Montcalm, 3007 metres high and often known as the 'roof' of Ariège. Although only just over an hour from Maison Grillou the scenery here is very different - the valleys are narrow, edged in by tall, rocky peaks, and habitation tends to be gathered together in hamlets, some of which, like Mounicou, remain very traditional indeed. A lot of the walking here is of the 'sportive' rather than the Slow variety - but not all. We chose to explore Le Chemin des Orris, up above the man made Etang de Soulcem.

An orri is a low, round shepherds' hut found up on the estives - the summer high pastures - built entirely of dry stone (ie no mortar) and often topped with turf, or sometimes with slate. The design hasn't changed since the Middle Ages, when various confreries or guilds (some of which still exist today) were given the right to construct them on land owned by the local count, or king, or whoever; in some places - and we were in one of them - the orris were grouped into small hamlets, often around a communal courtyard. Until early last century, they would be occupied through the summer months not just by the shepherd but also by a part of his family, while the rest of the family remained down in the valleys to look after the crops; they would be used not just for habitation but also for cheesemaking, for the shepherd was also a fromager. Les Orris de Carla, closest to the lake at Soulcem, were in use until 1968.

Le Cap du Carmil: a balcony on the Ariège Pyrénées

This walk is not a famous one. It's part of the GR du Pays de la Barguillère, but it's not in one of Ariège's newly sexy valleys like Bethmale or Bellongue. It's tucked away in the Séronais, in the middle of a deeply unspoilt, forested region with great natural beauty but almost no habitation. So what a lot of people don't know is that with a couple of hours and 400 metres or so of relatively easy climbing, a 360 degree panorama is yours, and as if that weren't enough, you'll get to eat your lunch looking at the entire chain of the Pyrénées from Mont Canigou in the east to the Pic du Midi du Bigorre in the west.

After a gentle beginning during which you weave in and out of mixed woodland, you start climbing through an area full of blueberry bushes where the views gradually start opening out on your right.