Published with the very kind permission of
this article first appeared in the
INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY on 14/06/1998
I learnt backstroke in the Fenouillèdes. On the day we arrived in the hilltop village of Fenouillet, a series of six hamlets strung along a cleft in the mountains, the owner of our rented house was putting the finishing touches to the swimming pool. We later discovered that he had been working on it for years, which is why it was not included in the brochure. But here it was, about 15 feet across and bevelled deep into the rocky hillside. And so we swam every day, in our pool with a view. From our rocky, watery eyrie we could see across the valley to wooded slopes broken by the occasional roof of warm ochre tiles and the jagged ruins of Cathar castles.
The Fenouillèdes, named after the feathery fronds of fennel abundantly bordering the narrow steep roads, are tucked away in the foothills of the Pyrenées, and are hardly known to British tourists (we saw only three cars with British number plates). This is Cathar country, exotic and wild, where the inhabitants still speak a different dialect, with fragments of Cathar strongholds on almost every peak. La Vilasse, our own tiny settlement, had two castle ruins - Castel Sabada and, on the facing crag, the remains of the castle founded by Charles the Bald, out of which much of the village was built.
The Cathars were an obscure Christian sect of the 13th century who believed that the world we lived in was created by Evil, that the body was the work of the devil and that life on earth was an inescapable sojourn in hell. Despite this, they had many adherents and it took many decades and an alliance of Pope and King to finally overthrow them. (Since one of the Cathar beliefs was an opposition to procreation, one wonders why their opponents did not take the long-term view.) The last stronghold to fall was Quéribus, a wondrous example of medieval engineering, perched as it is on a column of rock. When we visited, clambering laboriously up, and took in the eternal views - to the sea, to Spain, to the world - we got a sense of why the Cathars might have thought they would get away with their defiance. Very clear from here was Peyrepertuse - so visible that the inhabitants of the two must have communicated with each other, by smoke signals or semaphore. Peyrepertuse is a perfect castle, camouflaged as part of the mountain itself. It was not until we got very close that we could distinguish between the rockface of which it was part, and the walls with their arrow slits.
That was one of our rare excursions. It would have been possible to make two or three a day, had we been so minded. The maps of the area mark a host of different attractions and offer many labelled routes. There are ones for Romanesque and Baroque art, for military architecture and a Domitian route: (The 'Via Domitia' goes from Beaucaire to Perthus and was marked out in 118 BC by Cneus Domitus.) The curious little 'technique tourisme' route includes Catalan weaving, chocolate making - and the first solar oven installed by the army (at Mont-Louis, in 1953)
We did venture briefly onto the 'route of the wines', though our drives anyway sounded like a browse round the shelves of an off-licence in this territory of Roussillon and Corbières, hot dusty roads lined with a chequer of vineyards. One day, armed with the Wine Society brochure which someone had thoughtfully brought along, we visited Domaine Gauby at Calce. Past the open fire with racks of snails roasting for a family get together was the inner sanctum where we appreciatively conducted our dégustation, got briefly excited about the potential of a particular vintage - and then found it was cheaper through the Wine Society.
There are other distractions. Perpignan - with its vibrancy and distinctive Spanish flavour (this is in French Catalonia and it was once the capital of the kingdom of Mallorca) - was an hour's drive away but was slightly daunting for our new-found rural tastes (though we did at least visit the railway station, dubbed by Salvador Dalí as the 'centre of the world'). There are festivals - we paid a quick visit to the one in St Paul de Fenouillet, famous for its croquante à l'ancienne (crusty almond biscuits), with its bands and the fire brigade displays of ladder-rescuing. We passed over the chance to visit Europe's Oldest Man - prehistoric remains at Tautavel - but we did go on the Little Yellow Train which chugs up the mountains from Villefranche de Conflent. 'Everyone wants the single open carriage,' pointed out our guidebook, 'so arrive in plenty of time.' We did, eagerly taking our seats - and as we moved off the deluge began. Within five minutes we lucky outsiders were drenched and the driver made an unscheduled stop to allow us inside. And the Little Yellow Train climbed up and up, into lowering clouds. It would have been a wonderful view....
But, on the whole, we stayed closer to home. On our first day, we walked along the Gorge de St Jaume which starts at the tiny Chapel of Notre-Dame de Laval, once a hermitage, with 15th century paintings and appealingly realistic statue of Madonna with baby resting on her hip. We found a pond surrounded by clumps of bullrushes and reeds, where we swam amid the blue dragonflies, haphazardly darting, and waterboatmen skidding along the surface. Higher up the gorge was a gîte 'd'étape, where we had Sunday lunch on a terrace overlooking the valley. It was notable too for the sublime tomato salad which converted my teenage daughter, hitherto intransigent on the subject of tomatoes.
Another day I and teenage daughter went to the Gorge de Galamus. We had already driven along it on the way back from Castle Peyrepertuse, marvelling at the ribbon of road which clung to its towering curves, but this time we slithered down to the shallow river bubbling along the bottom. I wedged our shorts and sandals in a bundle under a tree and the two of us set off wading sturdily downstream, clinging to branches to guide us over slippery rocks. We came to a deep watery canyon, its sides looming high over us as we swam through, feeling rather intrepid. On the other side a series of waterfalls spilled over cliffs into deep green pools - we pressed on with a mixture of scrambling and swimming.
We were not alone. At one, I looked back to see my daughter squatting at the top of the cascade, about to negotiate her way down, when suddenly all around her clustered a gang of resolute sporty types in wetsuits who, on a given instruction from a guide, plopped purposefully into the green depths, one after another. This was the package gorge tour.
At the other end, we scrambled up to the 17th-century Hermitage of St Antoine-de-Galamus, where on a terrace built around and under a spreading oak tree, we had mediocre coffee with stunning views. The chapel here is still a place of pilgrimage, though the hermitage is now a minute gîte d'étape. This, apparently, was where The Last Emperor was filmed. They put up a pagoda in the carpark.
Our other excursion into the wilderness was white-water rafting. The warmth of the day before had dissipated and we were having second thoughts about our booking at Castel Fizel. After consultation with a dictionary, the one linguist among us, asked for 'combinaisons de neoprène' (wetsuits) - because, as she fluently explained, we didn't like the cold. 'I don't believe that - you're British,' said the instructor - in a faultless Essex accent. Didier, it turned out, had learned his English in Colchester.
The rafting was down the river Aude past rock outcrops with names like The Snake, Pinball and Widow Maker. Four out of six of us managed to fall in, one person twice, and as he was swept away, struggling to follow Didier's instruction to 'turn round, point your feet downstream', there was pandemonium in the boat, now jammed up against a rock. Didier, dispensing with the chat, was hauling us one after the other into the back of the boat, so it could be dislodged. Then 'Back to your position,' he shouted. 'Back. Back', and all was haste and scramble and furious activity as we steered our way back into the raging torrent. 'Do many people fall in usually?' we asked. Didier looked distant and said diplomatically 'it happens.' No-one at all fell in from the other boat.
But a lot of the time we were in Fenouillet, sitting with our feet up on the balcony, listening to the church clock strike seven twice. Sometimes there were storms, and we would watch the lightning playing over distant peaks. And, of course, there was the swimming. Each week now, as I gaze steadily at the corrugated roof and skylight of my local pool while notching up the lengths, I recall the skies over our pool with a view.
Country Cousins Abroad is a small agency which specialises in houses in the Fenouillèdes and adjacent areas (all its houses are within a two-hour radius of Perpignan) and offers lashings of information, advice and service partly because it is run by people who have houses there already.
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