French Catalonia / Pyrenees

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There are truths on this side of the Pyrenees, which are falsehoods on the other.Blaise Pascal

Apr 26-May 2 2017

Following my short visit to Madrid I made my way over to Barcelona for a few days, meeting up again with Maggie who flew in from the States, as well as my family who came to visit for a couple of weeks. I’ll be writing about Barcelona in the future as we plan to return and spend some more time in the city later in this leg of our trip. From Barcelona we headed north by train just across the border into Northern (French) Catalonia and the Pyrenees Mountains. We stayed in the towns of Villefranche-de-Conflent and Perpignan to explore the region.



Villefrance-de-Conflent was a beautiful town, and one of the most unique places we have stayed during our trip. The town dates from 1098, and was fortified because of its strategic position in an area that changed hands between French and Spanish occupation. We stayed within the defensive walls of the town which still remain, located in the Pyrenees Mountains where the Tet, Rotja, and Cady valleys all meet.



Above the medieval town sits Fort Liberia. The fort was constructed by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, a military engineer to Louis XIV, after the division of Catalonia between France and Spain by the Treaty of the Pyrenees. Construction began in 1681, and is connected to the city below by an underground staircase made up of 734 steps. The fort dominates the village at a height of about 500 feet.



In the town we enjoyed some excellent meals, and while it was a small village, we never had to repeat anything twice. We would also explore the surrounding countryside, including nearby caves, a ride on the le Petit Train Jaune (Little Yellow Train), which would take us higher up in the Pyrenees, and several beautiful hikes.



One of the caves we visited was the Les Grandes Canalettes. Discovered in 1951, we were able to explore a little less than a mile into the cave which stretches for almost 4 miles into the mountains. The galleries of the cave feature lights that flash to classical music, and includes space for a symphony to perform within the cave throughout the year.



During one of our days we took a trip on the Little Yellow Train, a historic meter-gauge electric railway that opened in 1909. The line rises through dramatic scenery from an altitude of 1400 feet at Villefranche-de-Conflent, to a summit at Bolquère Eyne, France’s highest railway station, lying at an altitude of 5226 feet above sea level. We would get off mid-way in the town of Fontpédrouse, making a short hike to Les Bains de Saint Thomas.



Les Bains de Saint Thomas is a hot spring that includes several outdoor pools and an indoor spa area that includes a large jacuzzi, hammam, sauna, and steam room. It was a great experience after doing several hikes. Soaking in the sulphide, bicarbonate, and fluorine rich water left our skin soft, and the water temperature of 95 degrees was wonderful as we relaxed amongst the snow covered mountains surrounding the area. After a full day enjoying the springs, we caught the Little Yellow Train back towards Villefrance-de-Conflent.



Next we would head down the Pyrenees toward the Mediterranean coast, where would stay in Perpignan for a couple of days. Perpignan isn’t a place frequently visited, but it was an ideal location for us as my brother and his wife would be heading back to Barcelona in a couple of days to catch their flight home, and we would be picking up a rental car their to head north deeper into France, visiting Provence and the French Riviera. One of the main attractions in Perpignan is the Palace of the Kings of Majorca. King James II of Majorca made Perpignan the capital of the Kingdom in 1276, with the Palace being completed in 1309.



The apartment that we stayed in was very comfortable, overlooking the River Tet which ran through the town. Even though Perpignan is the largest city in French Catalonia and capital of the Pyrennes-Orientales, the town was pretty quiet as we were there on Sunday and Monday, which happened to be May Day, a national holiday. Still, the town featured beautiful plazas, canals that ran through the city center, and a local dance festival taking place that made it an enjoyable place to stroll around in. We would also end up visiting the nearby coastal town of Canet-en-Roussillon one of the days, enjoying a wonderful seafood dinner and playing at a small casino for a bit.



The Pyrenees and French Catalonia was a beautiful area, and the interesting and unique culture of the region was a great experience. Not quite Spanish and not quite French, an area of Europe that has it’s own strong identity, language, and customs. It made a great break from some of the large cities we had visited and allowed us to see some areas not often visited by those outside of the two countries it borders. Seeing the spring wildflowers blooming was amazing, the weather was starting to warm up but at the same time we got to see a dusting of snow in the higher elevations. Next up we would be starting our first road-trip of our around the world adventure, heading to one of the most beautiful regions in France, and possibly in the world.




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