Friday, June 15, 2012

Sentiere du Cathar - Day 1 and 2

14 June 2012
Duilhac Sous-Perpeteuse

This hike started out rather poorly - lost my wallet in London with all my money & credit cards - pretty certain it was stolen on the extremely crowded subway ride from Euston Station, near my hotel, to the station where I would catch the train to Stansted Airport, for the one daily flight to Perpignan (the only one I was able to find, anyway). So I had to make a very quick decision - stay in London, try to deal with it, miss the flight, and throw the entire hike off, or get on the plane and deal with it at my first B&B, in Estagel, a very old, very historic, but very small town north of Perpignan. I took the gutsy path and went ahead with the plan (the national railway gave me a complimentary pass to the airport). My host, Daniel Henry, picked me up at the airport (if I had been planning to take a cab or public transportation that probably would have decided me on giving up the trip.) Two hours on the phone with my financial services company, and we finally came up with the plan that I would transfer the funds I would need for the rest of this trip to him, and he would advance me the cash. I was a wreck, and for almost the first time since I've known I am gluten intolerant, I really seriously wanted a beer. Daniel gave me a glass of pink wine, not quite the same thing but much better than nothing!

The hosts at the Auberge in Estagel are wonderful people. Extremely kind, went out of their way to be helpful, a tremendous experience. The room there was extremely comfortable, looking out on a walled garden, very quiet. Mme. Henry was heroic - apparently I had not told them I am gluten-intolderant, but she came up with something spectacular at the last minute - a rice flour and almond milk cake full of freshly-picked apricots that was delicious, and fueled me fairly well for my walk. There was also a "new cheese" - .like sour cream in consistency but not so strong - that apparently is eaten in a bowl with jam. I didn't realize that and ignorantly put it on my cake - but in fact it went perfectly with the apricots, so I don't actually think it was so bad! I should also mention their 2 year old, who is one of those incredibly sweet children who take immediately to anyone and everyone. While I was obsessiong over my financial issues (I had to have cash now or the trip was ruined, and the banks were thinking in terms of 2-5 business days!) he kept demonstrating and offering me his toys and trying to lead me outside to show me something or other. Very strangely. it really relaxed me! (He also strings his toys out all over the place, and I repaid his kindness by stepping on and breaking two of them.) The two dogs - terriers I think - were also very friendly and kept trying to nudge my fingers off the computer keyboard so I could play with them.

So this morning the previous stormy weather cleared up, it began to warm, the sun came out, and finally at 10:15 I was on the road, then dirt track, toward the massif where the first castle is located. After walking along the main highway for a while I turned off onto a farm road, that led past a string of wineries (M. Henry tells me the soil is so depleted nothing else will grow here) to the base of the massif. At first the chateau du Queribus was just a big squarish bump on the edge of the mountain, but as I walked closer, detail filled in. Walking along the edge of the mountain underneath it, it is very imposing - it is evident why it was so difficult for opposing armies to capture!

Talking with Daniel, I had thought of trying a short-cut either up a gorge and around the peak, or up over a shoulder of the peak itself, and thus cutting off maybe a mile of the distance, but the climb looked difficult, and a hundred meters or so of 5 fout high bush was in the way. The road I was on parallels the highway for at least a kilometer before joining it - I managed to cut off probably 1.5 miles by scrambling up a series of rock walls to the highway. The traffic was not bad, so walking along the edge of the highway was not terribly uncomfortable. I was walking around the castle, and kept getting different views. I had promised myself not to overdo the pictures quite so much this time, but could not keep from taking more snaps from various angles.

At the pass, a paved road leads up to the Chateau parking lot - 2 km. at a 17% grade. I headed up it, sweating profusely (it felt like about 80 or maybe 85 F), and it helped me calibrate several trails I've hiked. At the top, there is a concession stand and ticket booth - the lady at the ticket booth let me put my pack in the room behind the booth, which was very convenient, since my shoulders were by then thoroughly tired of carrying the pack. I figured it to be about 12 miles (20 km) from Estagel to the castle, based on the time it took me to walk the parts that had mileage signs.

The castle is very interesting - much of it in ruins, but enough there to get a great sense of it. Apparently it served mostly as a garrison - after the French crown defeated the Cathars and took it over, it was garrisoned by only 15 soldiers, then even fewer. It is easy to see why - it would be a tremendous challenge to assault it. Unfortunately, I also couldn't see how one could launch much of an attack from it, and apparently it was of little military significance after the Cathar era.

I walked back down, bought an ice cream confection, then shouldered my pack and headed down the hill to Cucagnon, then here. I had originally planned to join the Sentier at the Chateau parking lot, but Daniel had warned me that it is very steep and cobbly, and I decided if it was any steeper than the road up I didn't want to subject my already sore feet to it, so I walked back along the highway. I had nice views of Cucugnan all the way down, with its working windmill. Daniel tells me that the miller uses only heritage varieties of wheat, does everything by hand. The houses in the front row all have magnificent views of the Chateau.

At the bottom, I found the Sentier again - it is a very pleasant walk between the towns, through vinyards and patches of scrub forest, with song-birds on every side - totally enjoyable! But my feet and shoulders hurt, and I was well glad to get here and climb into a hot shower. Based on my walking speed I make it out to be a total of close to 17 miles, about 28 km, that I walked today. I had not planned on quite that ambitious a first day, especially not leaving late. But for all that it was a truly great day.

There is a restaurant with a very large open air patio dining area across from the auberge - I had a glass of very nice white wine while beginning this. Then I walked around the town, which is very pretty, photogenic but nothing that really caught my attention - the walk did help to loosen up sore muscles. When it was finally 7:30 (nobody here eats before then; most more like 8:30) I went back to order dinner. The waiter understood about gluten-intolerance after some explanation, but habitually brought bread but, as he approached my table, realized I wouldn't want it. Actually I would have wanted it if I'd let myself - it looked spectacular. With the waiter's help (he speaks no English but was patient with my halting French) I managed to order - joue du porc, grilled, with chevre avec miele (goat cheese with honey) for dessert. I don't know what joue du porc is - I'd only encountered joue as cheek - but this had a big bone with a large spoon-shaped extension on it. Whatever part of the pig it came from, it was delicious. The chevre avec miele was a real surprise - the honey completely neutralized the goaty taste of the cheese and the dish came out really nice. He served it with a very good slice of cantaloup, which worked okay, but I am thinking that fresh figs might be better. I will have to try it later this summer - also the rice flour torte with fresh apricots.

15 June 2012
Domaine de Cousseres, Prugnanes
Longer walk today than I realized, but spectacular. This is the most expensive place I will stay at, 115 euros for room and 2 meals. Not bad, really, considering that I have a view out over the vinyards and limestone mountains beyond!
The walk started with breakfast - I know I told them about gluten intolerance, but I think they whizzed by it. A few slabs of cheese, a small carton of plain yogurt, fairly decent coffee. Good thing I carried lots of granola & kind bars!
It was quite cloudy when I started out - long uphill climb to Peyrepeteuse Castle - the guidebook says its a few hundred meters off the trail but actually it's over a kilometer. Spectacular views of the castle all the way up. I could see Queribus Castle quite prominently on the horizon, but the pictures didn't do it justice - sorry!
After touring English castles these Cathar castles are very interesting - they are built on all but inaccessible crags (how did they get all those rocks up there?!) As a result they pretty well conform to my most romantic notions of castles. Peyrepeteuse is particularly interesting - three structures spread out along a ridge line with vertical drops on one side, and just slightly less than vertical on the other side. This is not a site for vertigo sufferers. The rocks are limestone - some with the texture of marble - and they seem dangerously slippery now. I imagined fighting a battle in a rain storm and shuddered.

The rest of the hike was through very rough mountain country, sometimes along a ridge, a lot of up and down. The scenery is spectacular (but I could not find many focal images, so I didn't take many pictures. Aside from being a bit longer than I had anticipated, it was a very relaxing hike. One of the things I have found most delightful of all is the songbirds. Even now as I sit next to an open window writing this I hear four or five separate species. On the trail they are almost constant.
It is also a bit surprising - yesterday I encountered hardly anyone else; today maybe 8 or 10 people, all day long.

The Domaine de Cousseres is the most expensive place I've stayed - very luxurious. As I write I am sitting by an open window in my room smelling flowers and herbs and listening to song birds. Dinner last night was fabulous - started with sangria in the parlour (there are 10 guests in addition to myself, mostly Belgian, all French speakers, one speaks English slightly better than I speak French). Dinner itself began with lovely hors d'ouvres that I couldn't eat - two pates spread on French bread, french fried squid rings (breaded, alas). She made me a very nice salad so I felt only a little salad. The main course was an excellent paella. Dessert was a fresh apricot torte for those who can eat wheat products; for me she did some lovely things with ice cream, tropical fruit syrup, and chocolate sprinkles. It was worth the mile walk off the track.