The eastern Pyrenees

Two of the days we were in Perpignan we headed inland to see the range of appealing sights that French Catalonia had to offer. These sights included castles dating from the Middle Ages, including the Château d'Aguilar and the Château de Peyrpertuse, built to defend this border region. They included medieval monastery churches, such as Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa and the Prieuré de Serrabone, built in remote locations to encourage quiet devotion. They also included picturesque mountain villages, like Villefranche-de-Confluent. And they included amazing natural wonders, like the Grotte des Canalettes and the Orgues d'Ille-sur-Têt.

The landscape of the eastern Pyrenees varies considerably. Closer to the coast it is characterized by large valleys separated by high hills. Not surprisingly, this region has been a wine-growing area for many centuries, although the wines produced here--including red wines called Corbières and Côtes du Rousillon, white wines called Banyuls and Rivesaltes, and sparkling wine called Blanquette de Limoux--are not well known outside of France. Farther inland, the Pyrenees rise higher (the Pic du Canigou, below right, is over 9000 feet), the valleys become narrower and steeper, and the vineyards give way to forests.

Not too far from the coast, in an inland valley north of Perpignan, is the Château d'Aguilar, built in the twelfth century
and used until the seventeenth century, when this region no longer formed the border between France and Spain.

Farther inland is the Château de Peyrpertuse. Like the Château of Montségur, it is one of the "Cathar castles," meaning that it was held by members of the heretical sect until the early thirteenth century, when the Albigensian Crusade was proclaimed against the heretics, and the King of France led troops from the north to conquer the south. Peyrpertuse was ruined then, as was Montségur, but the ruins of Peyrpertuse are better preserved.

The castle rises on a steep-slopped peak that even today is difficult to approach.

Some of the rooms of the old castle remain as haunting reminders of the past.

The view from the castle walls over the surrounding countryside is truly impressive.

Even in small things, the beauty of the mountain setting is striking.

Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa is one of a group of medieval monasteries, built far into the mountains purposely so as to be inaccessible and thus to provide an isolated setting for the monks' lives. Even today they are not easy to visit. The strength of medieval religion can be seen in the money and skills that were needed to build such magnificent buildings even in such inaccessible locales. The church dates from the tenth century and the belltower from the eleventh. Only part of the monastery's cloister survives in place. The rest of it was sold in 1925 to the New York Metropolitan Museum, and now form part of the Cloisters in New York City.

The Prieuré de Serrabone is another of these splendid medieval churches, built in the eleventh century.

What survives of the cloister looks out over the river valley below.

The glory of Serrabone, though, is the cluster of columns inside the church, carved in pink marble in the twelfth century
and covered with an astounding assortment of sculpted human figures, animals, vines, and other interlacing designs.

We stopped for lunch one day in Villefranche-de-Confluent, an appealing mountain village, completely contained
still within its medieval walls and consisting only of two long streets intersected here and there with short cross-streets.)
Notice the yellow and red striped Catalan flag in the lower left photo, a common sight in this area.

The town was founded in the eleventh century, and its fortifications were repeatedly improved,
since it sits astride one of the few valleys that lead from the mountains to the coast.

In the seventeenth century it was refortified under King Louis XIV of France, who worried about a Spanish invasion.

Not too far away was the Grotte des Canalettes, a self-guiding cave tour that extends a mile into the mountainside.
The day that we visited it, we were the only ones there, which made the visit all the more special.
They have a sound and light show that was mesmerizing--as the lights shine on different features with music.

The feature below looks like bacon strips!

Another amazing nature feature are the Orgues d'Ille-sur-Têt, the result of erosion over millions of years.
We parked at the entrance and hiked in an around the formations for about an hour.

Click here to go to the next page for the weird village of Rennes-le-Château.

Close this page to return to the main menu and map of southern France.