The medieval mountain-top fortresses of the Pyrenees Orientales were born out of a long history of invasion and bloodshed, from the Bastides and Cathar castles of medieval times to the revolutionary defences designed by Vauban for Louis XIV to protect France’s new border with Spain after 1659.
Mont Louis, 1600m above sea level, is the highest such fortified town. Today, its citadel houses France’s National Commando Centre which can be visited at selected times in August.
France’s TopoGuide - Sentier Cathare - has details of a complete walking route visiting Cathare castles, and the Train du Pays Cathare de Fenouilledes stops at towns from Riversaltes to Axat daily in July and August. See www.tpcf.fr
Visit dramatic Chateau de Puilaurens above Lapradelle west of Perpignan. At an altitude of 700m, the chateau offers great views of surrounding mountains and forests. Closed mid Nov - end Jan, tel: (00 33) 4 68 20 65 26 for opening times.
Nearby, Chateau de Queribus stands high and isolated on a rock so sheer access is banned in bad weather. One of the ‘Five Sons of Carcassonne’ placed to defend the border against Spain before it moved south, the chateau is open all year except Feb - tel: (00 33) 4 68 45 0369 for details.
Chateau de Peyrepertuse, perhaps the most stunning and well preserved Cathar castle, is also banned in storms in case of a lightning strike. Lodged at 800m altitude on a rocky ridge with amazing views which include Queribus, the chateau was still in use in 1789. Road access from Duilhac or tough climb on foot from Rouffiac. Closed 3 weeks in Jan.
La Fortress de Salses on the coast and now a museum, is an option for those unable to make steep climbs.
Touring Pyrenees-Orientales’s lovely Romanesque abbeys will take you to some of the department’s most beautiful and remote places.
Many buildings have a Moorish influence and some hold summer music festivals, like the annual Pablo Casals festival held at lovely eleventh century St-Michael-de-Cuxa in its inspirational setting beneath the Canigou mountain. St-Martin-du-Canigon is a working monastery accessible only by foot on a rocky outcrop above the Cady ravine, over 1000m above sea level.
Tours in French are available Mon - Sat all year apart from January and Mon low season. Find picturesque viewpoints from paths round about which include a link with the GR10 long distance trail. One of the finest examples of Roussillon Romanesque architecture can be seen in the church of Serrabonne on the Compostella pilgrim trail, consecrated as the Augustinian priory of Serrabonna (good mountain) in the twelfth century.
Serrabonna’s crowning glories are its gallery and cloisters. Along with symbols from the scriptures including angels, an eagle, lion and lamb column capitals of finely carved pink Conflent marble display palms, roses and fantastical animals and faces showing influences from the crusades.
The abbey and lovely botanical gardens are open 1000 - 1800 except on public holidays.
Hot water seeping through mountain fault lines in the Pyrenean foothills create the many sulphurous and iron salt springs at Amilie-les Bains in the Tech Valley which reach 62° at source and are said to relieve respiratory and arthritic conditions.
This pretty spa town set amongst mimosas and palms has a daily market, restaurants offering a variety of Catalan cuisine and plenty of outdoor activities in the form of walking, horse riding and fishing. Contact the local tourist office (00 33) 4 68 39 01 98 for details of the Roman thermal baths and Mondonay spa baths.
Spa resorts cluster around the famous Canigou mountain. The centre at Vernet-les-Bains has been visited by the English for centuries. Open all year, the spa specialises in rheumatic, skin and respiratory problems. www.ot-vernet-les-bains.fr
St-Thomas-les-Bains near Font-Romeu is one of the hottest spa stations close to ski resorts in the Eastern Pyrenees. Three of the 6 springs have outside basins allowing skiers to have a hot steaming soak to a backdrop of forests and mountains.
Visit the hot sulpherous and alkaline baths at Les Escaldas near Mont-Louis - said to be the highest fortified village in France and built by Vauban.
Linking the high plains of the Pyrenees-Orientales to Perpignan, France’s highest non-cog railway first brought winter tourists to Font-Romeu in 1910.
Open all year and used by locals, walkers and skiers, the 64km journey through tunnels and over gorges with spectacular views makes a great photo opportunity. Carriages have platforms at either end and in summer some are open-air.
Starting at Villefranche-de-Conflent, the little train ascends to Bolquere-Eyne, the highest station in France, ending its journey at La Tour-de-Carol where it connects with the main line from Paris to Barcelona
Winter sports resorts in the Pyrenees Orientales are favourites with French and Spanish skiers, particularly families. With 31 excellent pistes - black, red, blue and green - snow-boarding facilities, lifts and snow guns, along with sports such as snow kite-surfing and diving under icy lakes on offer, popular Les Angles has everything for a winter sports holiday.
42km of cross-country trails, ski school and kindergarten make the resort ideal for everyone. If you’ve energy left after skiing, go ice-skating, bowling and swimming or watch a film, then relax in a sauna. Find out about seasons and tariffs from Les Angles Tourist Office, tel: (00 33) 4 68 04 32 76.
In contrast, the ski station at Mosset is reputed to be the smallest in the world and run by the local mairie. It has a ski lift and 20km of cross-country slopes with 1 blue piste and 1 green/red. Parts of the slopes pass through the Catalan Pyrenees Regional Nature Park with opportunities to go snow shoeing.
Mosset itself is a maze of narrow lanes and archways in an area of outstanding beauty set around a sixteenth century chateau set on a rocky spur above the Castellan Valley. Apres ski should include a visit to Mosset’s perfume museum and local craft outlets.