Take a drive……PUIG NEULOS

 

NeolousAt 1256 metres , the highest point of the Alberes, Puig Neulos is noticeable.

The mast that tops it can be seen for miles and kms away.

It’s an easy drive through a veritable arboreteum of varied species of Pyrenean trees.

To reach it, turn off the N9 just before Le Perthus and follow the twisting D71 mountain road, past the start of several tempting walks and a stylish dolmen, to St Jean des Alberes.

Just before the tiny hamlet you drive through an avenue of spectacularly twisted and gnarled cork oaks.

You could stop for an authentic Catalan meal at Can Joan but, if you did, you would probably never get to the peak. Vegetarians beware. The boar’s head thrusting its way through the wall above the fireplace sets the tone.

Generous portions of grilled meat and copious quantities of local wines are served on oil-clothed tables. The atmosphere is as rich as the food and booking is advised: 04 68 83 60 92.

OuillatLeaving St Jean, the trees lining the road change from cork to scrub oak. Occasional herds of Pyrenean cattle may force you to slow down and enjoy glimpses of increasingly dramatic views.

Sometimes back towards Fort Bellegarde above Le Perthus, at others over the plain of Rousillon.

Easy to imagine the Via Domitia, built back in 121 BC by the Romans, very much where today the tracks of the new TGV are snaking across the landscape.

They were enormous road-works in their time, requiring large amounts of money, considerable technical skill and creating a fast and important route between Rome and Spain. For Rome read Paris, throw in even larger amounts of money and much the same could be said of the TGV.

Pass St Martin des Alberes and continue up and up till the road runs through a towering pine forest. A veritable cathedral of pine trees.

Under them are bbq spots and picnic benches. If you don’t feel like picnicking there is a Chalet Restaurant nearby, much used by the many walkers whose foot paths criss cross the frontier here.

NeolousThe pines give way to beech, almost as tall, growing thickly, filtering the light through their straight silver-grey trunks.

Where the tarmac turns to earth you are obliged to leave the car and walk for about 20 mins to reach the summit. (Only service vehicles may drive the last couple of kms.)

The tall beeches become more and more stunted, swept by the Tramontane closer and closer to the ground, till, soon, they are virtually horizontal.

The views from the top are stupendous. The Mediterranean spread out below you, the towns and villages scattered across the plain, one side France, the other Spain.

A sign post with the familiar red and white stripes signifying the GR10 informs you that you have only 7 hours 20 mins walk left to Banyuls sur Mer. (Assuming you started in Hendaye on the Atlantic Coast some  40 days ago.)

Those driving can either retrace their steps along the tarmac road or take the earthen piste and make a long, slow and very bumpy descent to the Vallee Heureuse, just outside Sorede.

It is a route favoured by quad and trial bikes, rutted and not at all user friendly for the family saloon. But do-able if you have good nerves and plenty of time.

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