Walking the Mediterranean Pyrenees

Arrive in the Pyrenées-Orientales - the most southerly part of mainland France, tucked in between the Pyrenees, the Mediterranean and Spain - and you immediately know that you're in a part of the country like no other. First of all, there are the strong Mediterranean colours and the quality of the light - intense, clear and very, very blue - that have inspired so many painters for so many years. There's the magical combination of mountains, sea, forests, vineyards, olive and fruit trees that combine to create ever-changing landscapes ... so much diversity too, over relatively short distances. Then there's the distinctive Catalan culture that underlies every bit of life here, from the street names in the towns and villages, to the food, the festivals and the way of life (you'll often hear the Catalan language spoken too). And last, but definitely not least, is the massive Mont Canigou that is the Catalan 'sacred mountain' and dominates the landscape wherever you find yourself.

The stunning landscapes and diversity make for fabulous, yet still relatively undiscovered, walking country. To the west, the high peaks of the Catalan Pyrenees reach 3000 metres. To the north, the almost lunar landscape of the Fenouillèdes - wine growing country par excellence with some of Languedoc's finest vineyards - shade into the Corbières of the neighbouring department of Aude. To the east, the Mediterranean coast: the northern half of the coast has long, flat, sandy beaches, while the southern end - the Côte Vermeille - is made up of smaller bays, rocky headlands and some charming coastal towns and villages. And to the south, the Albères: the final fling of the Pyrenees before they fall into the sea, and the border between France and Spain - here you get the best of both worlds ... Med and mountain. If you're tempted by a holiday in the Mediterranean Pyrenees, it's here we suggest that you base yourself.



The Albères

Your holiday base here in the Mediterranean Pyrenees will be Maison Leela, an old stone cottage in the French Catalan village of Villelongue dels Monts, right at the foot of the Albères and just 15 minutes from the sea at Collioure, from Spain, and from the artists' town of Ceret. Leela has two double bedrooms, two bathrooms, a first floor terrace with lovely views to Canigou and the Albères, plus a pocket-sized garden at ground floor level, and is perfect for one or two couples or for two friends. The village has a small supermarket, a bar, a tapas bar and a couple of restaurants along with a 12th century priory, open to the public, with tours run by members of the Romanian Orthodox community that now live there. 


Round walk from Maison Leela to the lake in Villemongue dels Monts via easy tracks and lanes




The Albères massif is the far eastern extremity of the Pyrenees as they drop dramatically into the Mediterranean. It's not especially high - 1256 metres at the highest point - but it's rugged, with deep valleys and wooded hillsides. You get several habitats for the price of one here: on the lower slopes, olive groves and Mediterranean garrigue with cistus, gorse, thyme, rosemary and other aromatics; climb a bit higher and you're in the realm of green oak and cork oak. Just a bit higher ... and you'll be in a lush forest of ash, birch and chestnut, then above 600 metres or so, the beech forest, now a protected area, begins. At the very top, the trees give way in places to open pasture land where Albera cows graze in summer. This incredible variety makes the Albères a wonderfully rich habitat, endlessly fascinating to explore on foot; there are paths directly from the village and many more from other villages close by.


The Côte Vermeille

To the east of Villelongue dels Monts, just 15 minutes drive away, is the Mediterranean Sea and the Côte Vermeille (the Vermillion coast) where you'll find the charming towns of Collioure, Port Vendres, Banyuls sur Mer and Cerbère, which is right on the Spanish border. The 24 kilometre drive along the coast, with the blue sea on one side and steep vineyards on the other, is fantastic; travel a little further onwards and in less than an hour you'll be in Spain, in Llanca, Port de la Selva or Cadaques. 


Walking in the hills above Argèlès sur Mer




The coastal area makes for amazing walking. There's a coastal path that will take you all the way from Le Racou, just south of Argelès sur Mer, to Cerbère and onwards into Spain; walk one way then come back on the 1 euro bus service that plies the coast. Alternatively, take one of the many paths that climb up into the hills behind the coast from all four coastal towns. For sure, you'll need to climb stiffly on some of these, but most are easily within the reach of French Foothillers, and the magnificent views (plus the promise of a swim on your return) help to take the pain away!

You could easily spend a two week holiday walking the Albères and the Côte Vermeille (which really are interlinked areas), only scratching the surface of possible walks. But we'd recommend at least one day out in one or more of the following areas if you want to get a true sense of the diversity of this region.


The Vallespir

To the south-west of the Albères, the Vallespir region runs from Le Boulou to Prats-de-Mollo-La-Preste, along the valley of the river Tech and into the hills and mountains on either side: less than 30 km as the crow flies. This is the most southerly valley in France: on the northern flank is Canigou and the Aspres hills; to the south, a succession of peaks marking the Spanish border. The farther you travel west, the higher you climb: the landscape becomes wilder, steeper and ever more mountain-like, and the climate and vegetation change from Mediterranean to Pyrenean. At the valley end is the 2700 metre high massif of Costabonne, where the Tech has its source. 

Bas Vallespir, around Le Boulou and Ceret, is similar in many respects to the Albères, with its Mediterranean climate, orchards - particularly cherries, but also apricots and apples - on the lower slopes, and forests of green and cork oak on the upper hillsides. There are any number of well-marked walks here, many perfect for summer days when the forest shade is welcome. It's hard to pick out favourites, but we especially like the walk from Maureillas up to the Dolmen de la Siureda; the various walks from Las Illas and Riunogues that take you along the Spanish border (and even right into Spain for lunch!); and the walks that explore the hinterland of Ceret.



On the 'Crêtes du Ventoux' walk above Ceret; this was taken in January!



Haut Vallespir is narrower, more mountainous and more isolated. Steep sided, wooded valleys lead off the main Tech valley, and agriculture gives way to grazing. There are walks from all the villages and towns; we have a soft spot for the round walk from Corsavy which goes through beautiful terrain and affords fantastic views. If you're here in spring or early summer and drive a little further on to the Tour de Batère, a shortish walk will bring you to an area with beautiful wild flowers ... and marmots!


The Aspres and the Conflent

Largely undiscovered, the Aspres is a small region tucked in between the Roussillon plain, the Albères, the Conflent and the Vallespir and marks the transition between the low plain and the foothills of Canigou. Much of it is devoted to winegrowing; the lower slopes are largely formed of garrigue, with thyme, laurel, cistus and broom, though as you go higher you reach areas of thick forest. 


On a walk above Llauro, in the Aspres, our path took us through dense forest with these amazing greens ...




Over the centuries villages have grown up where the various valleys meet and the many tracks that still criss-cross the terrain were once busy with sellers, miners, and pilgrims on the St Jacques de Compostelle route. These days, they're peaceful and quiet, taken only by the odd walker who likes to get well off the beaten track. 

Just a little further away is the Conflent, or the valley of the Têt. The valley floor is lush with fields and orchards ... yet it's Canigou that dominates here. The upper valley, Haut Conflent, is a little too far away to fit the French Foothills criteria (though it's worth a visit as it really is amazingly beautiful), but there are several lovely walks in the lower part of the valley that borders the Aspres. We'd recommend particularly the circuit around the abbey of St Michel de Cuxa, and that around the village of Eus.


Spain

Yes, from your base in Villelongue dels Monts it really is possible - and easy - to spend a day walking in another country! And within 60 minutes drive you'll have plenty of choice: walk on the Cap de Creus, where you'll find the lovely village of Cadaques, once a favourite of Salvador Dali; the Cami de Ronda from Roses, along the coastline; around the nature reserve of Aiguamolls de l'Empordà; over the hills beside the monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes; around the lake of Boadella at Darnius; along the coast or across country from Llanca or El Port de la Selva ... and lots of other options!


On the Cami de Ronda between Roses and Cadaques