“Plant a walking stick and it will grow into a fruit tree.”
Such is the amusing way one accomplished author – Norman Longworth described the rich vitality of a region in southwest France known as the Conflent in the Pyrenees Orientales Languedoc.
But there’s much more to this charming place than bountiful sunshine and equally bountiful harvests of peaches, oranges, melons, pears and grapes.
There’s a lively tradition of music and dance and a rich, checkered history. And, being only an hour’s drive from the Mediterranean Sea not to mention the Spanish border, you could be skiing in the morning and licking ice-cream on the beach in the afternoon.
Here are a few other reasons for visiting.
Bathing for most of the year under glorious blue skies, the Conflent is an ideal place for discovering the myriad riches of Nature, with orchards, vineyards, undulating hills, verdant open spaces and mountains with rugged peaks such as Canigou, the Catalans’ sacred mountain.
Around 2,700 meters high, this massif area is a popular spot for hiking and other outdoor activities such as horse-riding, trekking with donkeys and use of electric bikes. Rich in flora and fauna, it also offers breathtaking views over surrounding countryside.
Geological curiosities from another planet. That might be your first reaction upon seeing the strangely shaped basalt columns known as the Orgues of Ille-sur-Têt. Formed from sand and clay and shaped over millions of years by erosion, these ‘fairy chimneys’ tower above a labyrinth of narrow paths winding through what seems to be a desert environment. A visual feast for the imagination.
No place is probably more significant in terms of local history here than the quaint 11th century UNESCO World Heritage Site known as Villefranche de Conflent , built by Guillem Ramon, Count of Cerdagne, at the confluence of the Tet and Cady river valleys.
Ranked among the ‘Most Beautiful Villages in France,’ only 200 people live here, along two main streets named after saints, James and John, but the place is rich in legend and intrigue.
Here under the expert guidance of historian and writer, Fanny Pla, you’ll discover fascinating secrets about witches and an emblematic statue made from walnut, stare at fantastic carved beasts such as griffins, and learn about a rebellion with a poignant love twist. Here you’ll also see a 12th century town hall, once a prison in the Middle Ages, and walk along high ramparts surrounding the village to learn more about their architect, a famous French military engineer who worked under Louis XIV and was commonly referred to simply as Vauban.
Villefranche de Conflent also features many souvenir, wine and craft shops, plus charming chocolatiers.
Meeting Locals On Market Day
A charming town with pavements of marble and a central square bordered by plane and mulberry trees, Prades dates back to the culturally-rich 9th century Carolingian Empire. And no better time to enjoy the lively atmosphere here than on market day, followed by a leisurely lunch at one of the local cafes.
On Tuesday mornings until Noon-ish, the entire population seems to come out to examine the many stalls bulging with products of all kinds that snake from the square to neighboring streets. You’ll also catch an entertaining tune or two from local buskers as you stroll along. A 17th century church in the town centre with a baroque facade and a Romanesque tower contains the largest altar-piece in France.
If you happen to be here in late March you can even enjoy a special international creative writing retreat. In summer there’s a musical festival created by hometown hero, cellist and conductor Pablo Casals back in 1950.
To discover some of the town’s hidden secrets including an ancient ice well, try a walking tour organised by the Conflent Canigou Tourism Office with historian Nati Zorzo.
Sipping The Grape
Making wine seems second nature to people in Languedoc, a gift inherited at birth, thus the profusion of vineyards throughout the region. Two well worth a visit are Domaine Treloar (just outside Conflent) and Domaine des Trois Orris.
The former, on nine hectares of land beside the village of Trouillas, is operated by Jonathan and Rachel Hesford, former IT and tax specialist respectively in previous lives.
A visit here means not only a fascinating talk by English-born Jonathan, a passionate viticulturist with experience in New Zealand, where he was employed as assistant winemaker at Neudorf Vineyards, one of that nation’s most highly regarded wineries, as well as England, but also an enjoyable wine-tasting experience with selected goat and sheep cheese and charcuterie, prepared by Rachel, from New Zealand.
We enjoyed tasty Kiwi sausage rolls with pepper, chilli and pineapple, tomatoes cooked with apple slices and red wine vinegar and Boudin blanc, traditional French sausage, accompanied by a dry, aromatic white wine, ‘One Block,’ from muscat and a red aged in older barriques, ‘Three Peaks,’ refreshing with a fruity character, from syrah, mourvèdre and grenache. The couple, who left their home in New York close to the Twin Towers after 9/11, also operate a 3-bedroom gite beside their courtyard.
Domaine Treloar produces around 30,000 bottle of wine every year from different hand-picked grape varieties including Syrah, Carignan and Grenache. It has been chosen as the Coup de Coeur (Favourite) Roussillon producer by La Revue du Vin de France, an influential wine magazine.
Domaine des Trois Orris– named after the Catalan word for a shepherd’s shelter – is a vineyard high in the hills, at an altitude of almost 800 meters close to the ruins of a 10th century priory in Marcevol (in the heart of Roussillon) facing Canigou mountain.
Family owned and run for the last five years, it sits on 13 hectares surrounded by 43 hectares of preserved lands and produced 48 tonnes grapes last year – around 330 hectolitres of organic wine – white, red and this year for the first time, rose, under the direction of vineyard manager, Cyrille Gaubert and his brother, Xavier. Wines are categorised under ‘A Fortiori,’ a cuvée from white carignan; Origine, a bright, light purple red from carignan; ‘Horizon,’ from Carignan, black Grenache and Syrah; ‘Euphorie,’ a deep intense ruby colour with aromas of vanilla, ripe fruits and sweet spices.
Stepping Back in Time – Village Life
Conflent is pebble-dashed with hill-top villages, many of them clinging to slopes and steeped in history. Evol and Eus are classic examples.
The former, over 1,000 years old, and deep in the Pyrenees, boasts the ruins of a castle built as protection against invading Moors. As we toured the village under the guidance of Mrs. Ghelfi, a local guide organised by the Conflent Canigou Tourism Office, we learned the village, home to just 20 people, is also the birthplace of author Ludovic Masse whose many books included ‘Shadows On The Field.’ An old schoolhouse, complete with vintage desks, has been converted into a museum devoted in part to his life and work. On display are also a variety of local products such as bio-honey, liqueur made from conifers, homemade candles and sweet, dry and fruity vinegars.
Eus is known as a castrum, or ancient defensive site, built atop a giant granite mound in a ‘beehive’ style between the Conflent valley and Mount Canigou. It’s entirely classified as a historical monument and its few inhabitants are called ‘els lluerts,’ Catalan for green lizards. It became popular after Nessim Jacques Canetti, a French music executive and a talent agent, launched cultural activities there in the 1960s, including arts and crafts workshops. A small museum, La Solana, preserves the local heritage and celebratory events include Festival Croisée d’Art and special musical evenings.
Dance and Music
Catalan dance and music is flourishing in the Pyrénées-Orientales region and if you’re fortunate you may catch a performance by one of the many cultural associations such as Els Dansaires Catalans de Thuir.
Created in 1958 and with around 30 members led by its President, Jeannine Farran (65), it comprises children as young as four to people in their 60s. Dressed in traditional costumes or comarques, members perform such dances as the popular Sardana, symbolising fraternity, often accompanied by an orchestra, or cobla, with music played on instruments including the tenora, tible, flabiol trumpet, fiscorn, trombone, and three-string contrabass.
Jeannine and colleagues including her daughter, Florence; Jocelyne, the association’s most senior member; and Fanny Pla, an historian and tourism guide in Villefranche de Conflent, say their aim is to “transmit and perpetuate proud Catalan culture and traditions for future generations.”
Where To Stay
Secluded yet convenient – this phrase sums up elegant Villa Lafabregue, tranquil behind high walls, with an exotic garden and swimming pool, yet only a five-minute stroll from the center of Prades.
Owned and run by friendly English couple Nick and Kate Wilcock, this bed and breakfast mansion is furnished tastefully and contains both ensuite rooms with balconies and two separate cottages.
Aside from palm trees, flowering plants, herbs, cactus and a goldfish pond with seating scattered around the well-tended garden, the view towards the mountains, especially up to the peak of Canigou, is simply superb. A fridge, freezer, microwave, crockery and cutlery are at guests’ disposal so you can bring your own food from the market and enjoy eating alfresco in the silence of the garden or on the terrace.
“For anyone seeking asylum from lousy weather, the Conflent region of the Pyrenees is your salvation,” wrote Longworth. “It’s a region of mountains, valleys and villages that welcome anyone prepared to breathe the energising air of the countryside and participate in the local culture. Where else can one pluck a luscious ripe peach while looking out at a 9,000 foot snow-capped peak or write a prologue, as I’m doing right now, on a sunny balcony with a babbling brook flowing by and nightingales tuning up for their evening symphony.“