The road from Le Boulou takes us through Amélie-les-Bains and Arles-sur-Tech, separate days out in their own right, before passing through the tiny village of Le Tech, with its recently renovated million euro ‘mairie’, and on to the end of the Tech Valley.

Prats de mollo

On either side of the winding road, signposts suggest Corsavy, Montferrer, Saint Laurent de Cerdans and Coustouges, pretty villages well worth a visit another time. Today however, we are heading towards the end of the line, the unspoilt fortified medieval town of Prats de Mollo, dominated by Fort Lagarde, designed by Vauban in 1680.

Only 13 kilometres away from the Spanish border, situated on the south face of the Canigou,this walled town is a delight of narrow cobbled streets and ancient mediaeval architecture….and with only 1,100 inhabitants, it nevertheless boasts numerous hotels, restaurants and cafés, the narrow streets forming terraces linked together by stairways and passages.

With Canigou at its back and the River Tech in front, the views all around are stunning. But it was not merely built for the view.

When, after the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees, Louis XIV enforced the outrageous salt tax, the locals revolted and feeling remote enough to act with impunity, set to murdering King Louis’ tax collectors.

They were subdued eventually and the Spanish were kept at bay by the garrison of Fort Lagarde. On summer afternoons the rebellion is re-enacted in a typically French “Spectacle” featuring much costume, cavalry, fencing and jousting. Check the times with the Tourist Office. 04 68 39 70 83.

Prats de mollo

The Vauban walls of the town, built on 14th Century foundations, are pierced by four arched gateways: La France, L’Espagne de a Cavalerie, la Fabrique and le Verger. Enter any of them and follow the narrow cobbled streets of the old town to the beautiful 13th century church.

You will pass a curious cross “Croix des Outrages,” adorned with all the tools of the Crucifixion. Typical of this region, this one is a fine example, as is the door of the church itself. The curls and swirls of the local iron never rust, the lock is a serpent and, next to it, planted in the wall is a 2 metre whale bone. The little chapel of Saintes Juste and Ruffine is also worth a visit.

Walking, canyoning and exploring is superb.  A fairly strenuous walk will take you to the imposing XIII century Tour du Mir, ancient signal tour, with wonderful views all down the tech Valley to the sea. For more views, drive up to the Col d’Ares overlooking the Tours de Cabrens, Notre Dame de Corral and over into Spain or head off to the Pic de Costabonne. Maps and/or a guide available from the tourist Office.

La Preste

La Preste, at the very end of the valley has been a source of Thermal Cures since the 14th century.

Originally of leprosy, in the 14th century, people with the disease would bathe in the ‘Leper’s pool’ to help to relieve their symptoms.

Today, it offers treatment for urinary infections as well as general health, massage, mud and thermal treatments. The natural beauty of the surroundings, the tumbling waters, the peaceful streams all combine with the grand old hotel buildings to create an atmosphere of calm and healing.

The town comes out of hibernation every year for the ‘Fête de l’Ours’ celebrating the legend of the bear who kidnapped a local damsel.

Luckily, she was rescued by shepherds, the bear dragged into town, shaved in the main square and transformed into a man.

Every February, ‘bears’ and ‘hunters’ gather in the fort courtyard, swig down copious quantities of liquid courage, black up with a mix of oil and soot, and dress in sheepskins.

After a hilarious chase through the narrow streets of Prats de Mollo, ‘barbers’, with faces covered in white flour paste, attempt to catch the ‘bears’ and in a storm of flour and soot, they are shaved, become men, and the party begins.

Whilst you’re checking out the bears of Prats de Mollo this spring, why not check out the beers too!

I met dynamic northern lass, Cathy Grainger at the newly created brewery on the outskirts of Prats.

Cathy and Kevin Grainger moved to Prats de Mollo with their young daughters in 2003. They loved everything about their new life – apart from the lack of a decent pint in the village – and so was born the idea of a micro-brewery.

First came the name, La Bière de l’Ours, named after the famous bear of Prats-de-Mollo, then came the logo based on the paw print of a wolf hound and dreamt up and designed by their 13 year old daughter.

Next followed a thorough training course with a fully qualified brewer from the UK. Despite some experience and knowledge of home brewing, the Graingers wished to produce a professional beer to the highest possible standard.

Finally came the courageous step of setting up as a business in France, not a mission for the fainthearted, and at the beginning of 2013 La Brasserie de l’Ours opened its doors in Prats de Mollo.

Malt and wheat is imported from the UK because of the high quality and reputation of British cereals……. but the rest is pure Prats-de-Mollo.

La Brasserie de l’Ours

The original intention was to sell around the bars and restaurants of Prats, but at a recent introductory tasting, guests were so agreeably surprised by the taste and quality that orders have already started coming in from elsewhere. “At last a French Real Ale that is as good as English Real Ale” was one of the delighted comments at the tasting.

The Graingers are experimenting, learning, improving and innovating all the time. The different types of ale with distinctive bear label are available in a smart presentation pack or by the bottle, only at the brewery, or in bars and restaurants around the town for the time being. What a great excuse for a day out in Prats de Mollo!

How do you persuade a bear to eat cheese?
“Cam-em-bert”!

 

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