by Penny Parkinson
Caixas – a commune without a village
You have probably crossed Caixas on your way to visit Castelnou without spotting this commune hidden in the rugged heart of the Aspres.
The only noticeable evidence of its existence is the red outlined signs as you enter and exit on the D2 and D48…
Now stating clearly that you are in País Català!
Caixas – pronounced with the soft catalan ‘sh’ as Ca-sh-as and not Cake-sas – is not a village, it is grouping of four hamlets spread widely apart.
These hamlets, Fontcouverte, Candell, Sainte-Columbe de la Illas and Caixas itself, were pulled together after the French Revolution to form one administrative area. Between these, there are smaller hamlets and a sprinkling of old farmhouses.
Until comparatively recently, people here were self-sufficient with the family pig, goat, a few olives and vines – the availability of water being the dominating factor.
The commune now counts around 140 inhabitants, compared to the 450 in the 19th century, a mixture of nationalities and incomers from other corners of France.
Despite that, many of the old Catalan families remain – Doutres, Ausseil, Cammas, Julia – some having been here since the 13th century.
The Aspres, the range of hills between the Roussillon Plain and Canigou, are so called because of their harsh (âpre), dry and schisty landscape, a landscape with a beauty of its own.
Kermes oaks, cork oaks, strawberry trees, gorse, lavender, thyme, rosemary, sage are in their natural habitat here. Walks are a delight, punctuated by the smell of the garrigue, but fire is a very real hazard.
To protect Caixas, the hamlet, a fire break has been established through the ecologically friendly munching of goats.
The fromagerie is open to visitors by appointment where Emilie and Sebastian’s award winning cheese can be bought. If you are lucky enough to be there at milking time, do sample the warm, fresh milk!
Caixas, the commune, is dominated by Mont Hélène, named after the mother of Constantine who gives her name to Elne.
This ‘hill’ reaches to 775m with a watch tower from which the whole of the Roussillon plain is studied for smoke from July through to September.
The commune is also criss crossed by fire roads, a bonus for randonneurs as they give access to its heart.
The jonquils (daffodils) in spring on Mont Hélène provide a beautiful yellow carpet and, as you drag your gaze from the Mediterranean, Canigou, in all it’s splendour, is behind you.
Of the four churches, only St Marc, which clings to the edge of Mont Hélène, is open, although permission to view the others can be obtained through the Mairie. All of these are Pre-Romanesque and this one, oddly, is the only church in Roussillon dedicated to St Marc.
There is a pleasant walk from the Mairie and, for the VERY energetic, it is possible to continue to the top of Mont Hélène from the church. A gentler ascent is by way of a Sentier Emilie.
Follow the signs from the D2 to Notre Dame del Coll (actually in Calmeilles, this is an interesting church which is open and still in use), continue past until you reach a parking area on your right with the familiar Sentier Emilie board.
Once you have located the watch tower and drunk in the breathtaking views, make sure that you search around until you find the remains of a chapel facing Canigou.
This was a point of pilgrimage in Medieval times. And you can see why! Don’t forget your binoculars for a spot of birdwatching.
Ste Marie de Fontcouverte is in a beauty spot adjoining the D2, well frequented by picnicers, and not far from a dolmen called Ramera which, with others, shows human activity in the area from the neolithic period.
Ste Colombe, with a rare double nave, is easily accessed from the hamlet of that name.
St Pons is more difficult to get to as Candell no longer exists as a hamlet. It is well worth the effort, though, and can be reached from Casefabre, as well as across the fire roads from the D2 (it is signposted) if you are wanting a longer stroll.
It has a lovely and well kept churchyard with topiary! It also boasts a strange tradition called the “anointing of the ears” which allowed the recipient to have the ear of God.
Finally, St Marc, the original Parish church of Caixas, was abandoned in the 15th century and a new church, St Jacques, was built lower down the valley.
This church, in the place de la Mairie, remains as the parish church today and has an interesting retable which was restored in 1878.
Even if churches and nature walks are not for you, do explore this unspoilt part of the P-O. If you haven’t the time to walk or pack a picnic, then have a leisurely drive along the D2 and D48.
The views to the sea are stunning and around every corner you may also see Canigou. There is no refreshment in Caixas itself, but Castelnou and Thuir have an abundance of restaurants and cafés.