Breathtaking, varied, contrasting… Be surprised by the fascinating landscapes of the “Pyrenees Orientales” – Meanderings through France n° 126
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
After visiting Perpignan and enjoying the sandy beaches of the western Mediterranean coast, Annick Dournes and Frederic de Poligny come back to the “Pyrenees Orientales” and drive inland to discover unexpected and simply beautiful sites.
Just a few miles away from Perpignan, the capital city of this small French department, let me take you to Ille sur Tet’s amazing mineral landscape, to Castelnou village, a well-preserved treasure, to the beneficial waters of “Molitg les Bains” at the foot of Mount Canigou, and of course to precious gourmet stops along the way!
If you were to be dropped in an unknown place and find yourself in the middle of the “Organs site of Ille sur Tet”, it is unlikely that you could guess where you had been left. Could it be Utah, Arizona, Cappadocia? Indeed this geological site is quite unique in France. After parking your car, follow the charming path that winds through olive orchards to get to this remote site where, like patient artists, time and rains have sculpted columns, towers and organ pipes into soft and friable rock cliffs. They stand out against the blue sky, their colours changing according on the sun’s path. Each rain wear them away a little bit more and slowly but surely their shapes change, until one day there will be nothing left of them. But there is plenty of time to enjoy this rare landscape before this fatal ending!
A few miles away from Ille sur Tet a small road will take you up to Castelnou a wonderful little village awarded “France most beautiful village”, lost in the middle of a typical Mediterranean forest fragrant with lavender, cistus, rosemary, thyme… Finally you will see the village overlooked by an impressive medieval castle and in the distance by the high silhouette of Mount Canigou, the highest point of the Pyrenees Orientales. The village is entirely pedestrian with picturesque pebble streets lined with Catalane houses made with dry-stones. In each nook and cranny flowers have found a place to flourish making the village even more pretty.
It comes as no surprise that such a lovely village attracted craftsmen and artists who found there a quiet and inspiring place. There are jewel makers, painters, sculptors, potters and at the village entrance a small shop called A La Ruche (In the Hive), where you will meet the owner, a passionate beekeeper who sell organic honeys, propolis, pollen and homemade meads, jams or gingerbread. Every morning when they bake their cakes the whole village is filled with a wonderful fragrance!
As if the village had not been big enough the church was built outside its walls. Originally the villagers went to mass in the castle’s chapel, but as their number increased a church was finally built in the 12th century. It’s a modest and humble construction built by simple people but it has a remarkable wooden door strengthened by unusual wrought iron arabesques. All summer long on Tuesday evening concerts of classical music take place in the church followed by a tasting of local wines. Good music, good wine and good company in a unique setting, who could ask for more?
It will only take you 10 min or so to drive to Thuir and be transported to another world. This small town became famous worldwide in the beginning of the 20th century thanks to two brothers, the Violets, who created an alcoholic beverage made with wine, cinchona, coffee, cocoa and many herbs and spices. They named it Byrrh although it has nothing to do with beer! 750 people worked in their factory set in the city centre and no less than 30 millions litres of Byrrh were produced each year an sold everywhere in Europe, America and even Asia. In 1951 a one million-litre oak barrel was added in the cellar and it still is the largest barrel ever built in the world!
You will be able to see it when visiting the factory. It stands at the bottom of a huge cathedral-like hall where dozens of gigantic wood barrels are filled with the amber and aromatic wine. Walking along the alleys makes you feel very little and this feeling gets even more impressive when finally standing at the foot of the one million-litre barrel. The tour ends by a wine tasting where you will drink a glass of Byrrh made with the original recipe or the ‘Byrrh rare blend’ aged 10 years in small oak barrels or the “Byrrh Grand Cinchona” especially created to make cocktails. Twice a week cocktail sessions are organised in the cellar and you will learn how to make new spicy cocktails.
Before leaving Thuir you can have lunch or dinner at “Can Marty” a typical Catalane bodega. Its owners Jean-François and Dominique are not only food lovers they are also art collectors and the place is a small art gallery. The chef Youri makes great Catalane dishes with season’s produce for great value. Grilled vegetables or meats, seafood, paella with black rice, fried squids… a good wine menu and a quick and friendly service will make you have a great time. The restaurant is closed on Sundays and Mondays and is located in Thuir’s main street (13, Bd Léon Jean Gregory).
Back on the main road that follows the Tet River take a little side trip to Eus (say ews) that is said to be the sunniest village in France. It is perched on a hillside, facing south and is also one of “France most beautiful villages (there are 154 ones of them in all France). It used to be a haven for the jet set in the 60’s but if the village is not fashionable anymore it still is charming and unique. Going up and down the cobbled shady streets you will get to the church and the ruin of the ancient castle and get a panoramic view over the Pyrenees and the valley of the Tet River.
Leaving Eus the landscape gets more and more mountainous and a small winding road will lead you to Molitg (say molitch) a sunny health resort where many people come to “take the waters”. But there is no need to have health problems to go visit this quiet little town. Actually, in my opinion, the best reason to go to Molitg is going to “Chateau de Riell”, a small luxury hotel set in the middle of a pine forest. As a member of “Relais et Chateaux” it attracts demanding tourists from the whole world in this unspoilt valley.
The “Chateau de Riell” is like a family home, don’t expect a big lobby and vast impersonal lounges. An eccentric doctor, Mr de Massia who used to work at the spa built the castle at the end of the 19th century. He created a gothic style home filled with furniture and pieces of art collected during his numerous travels. After he died the castle fell into neglect until Adrien Barthelemy who had revitalized the health resort creating a modern health centre bought it. The castle was entirely restored and turned into a luxury hotel that is now ruled by his daughter, Ms Biche Barthelemy. Each of the 19 bedrooms and suites has its own style and atmosphere as well as the bar and the lounges filled with period furniture and all kinds of decoration objects collected by Miss Barthelemy in antique shops in France and abroad. It’s a unique hotel with a highly personal style.
There is of course a nice outdoor swimming pool in the lush garden and more surprisingly a rooftop swimming pool from where you will get an spectacular view over Molitg, the forests and the Pyrenees. The spa is set in a vast greenhouse seems to be hung from the trees and from the indoor pool you feel like floating on the canopy. Of course the wellness treatments use the Molitg’s hot spring water tapped 150 metres under the rock. It is naturally hot and pure, filled with precious minerals and thermal plankton that do wonders on the skin.
In summer time breakfast is served on the outside terrace that surrounds the castle but you can also have it in a charming wooden house next to it and make your choice at the varied and hearty buffet. The dinning room set in the gardens has a spectacular open fireplace built in the middle of the room giving it a warm atmosphere. Chef Sebastien Nouveau has created personal menus largely inspired by Catalane and Pyrenean cuisine. Why not try the Pyrenees wild trout or the sweet and sour slowly cooked pork, the Pyrenees cheeses and finish with a pistachio nut “millefeuille”? In any case Mr Nouveau’s cuisine will fulfil all appetites!
More about Chateau de Riell: http://www.chateauderiell.com/en/charming-hotel/
More about these destinations and Pyrenees Orientales: http://www.tourisme-pyreneesorientales.com/en
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes