A Modern Resort with an Ancient History

Céret-born Martin Fourcade, a 26-year-old non-commissioned officer of the mountain infantry brigade at Chamonix, emerged from the 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games as the new star of biathlon, with three medals – two gold and one silver.

This year, 2018,  after a disappointing performance on Sunday when he missed three shots in a eighth-place finish in the men’s 10km sprint, he went on to win gold in the men’s 12.5km pursuit at the Alpensia Biathlon Centre in PyeongChang, South Korea.

With a centre of excellence for biathlon located in Font Romeu, the second-oldest ski town in France, after Mont-Revard in the Alpes, it is hardly surprising that many top French biathletes are P-O natives.

The development of Font Romeu as a ski resort and tourist destination started more than 100 years ago and took place in three phases.

Le Petit Train Jaune

First, the Yellow Train, named after the colour of its rolling stock and the Catalan flag, built to connect the mountain towns with the plains.

It is the highest railway track in France, with the highest SNCF station and stunning views along the way. Building the line was no easy task however, requiring 65 bridges and viaducts, more than one for every kilometre of its 62.56 km length.

As roads improved, motor vehicles took over much of its original traffic, but the Train Jaune remains a commuter line as well as a popular tourist attraction. When winter snows close roads, Le Petit Train Jaune stays open, its snowploughs resolutely clearing the track ahead.

Le Grand Hôtel

Next came accommodation. At 1,312 to 2,213 metres above sea level, Font Romeu enjoys 300 days of sunshine a year, so it clearly had potential as a resort. In 1911, La Societé des Chemins de Fer et Hôtels de Montagne built Le Grand Hôtel overlooking the town.

And grand it was indeed when opened on 28th July 1913, with 200 rooms, apartments, elevators, electric lighting, an American bar, a casino, a garage and a shuttle bus service to the railway station. It soon became THE place to be seen in high society on both sides of the nearby Spanish border, and welcomed the Spanish royal family and famed painters Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali amongst its many guests.

The Ski Resort

The third phase began in the winter of 1920 when the Hotel offered its first winter program and Font Romeu became a ‘station de ski’.

Today Font Romeu is a busy ski town, twinned with the neighbouring Pyrénées 2000 to offer 60 pistes served by 25 lifts, and 110 kilometres of cross-country ski trails as well as paragliding, boarding, snow shoe walking, husky sledge riding and quad VTTs. It also attracts Olympic teams and great athletes for its biathlon facilities at its Centre National d’Entraînement en Altitude (CNEA) (“National centre for sports training at altitude”).

The Grand Hotel still towers above the town, after being closed down in 1975 and split up into apartments.

But Font Romeu isn’t just about the snow. In this modern and lively winter resort – with its casino/cinema/disco and plenty of hotels, bars, and restaurants – there is also plenty of opportunity for relaxation at the natural hot baths at nearby Llo, Dorres or St Thomas. Alternatively, there are numerous superb, marked hiking trails through fantastic countryside that is worth exploring at any time of the year.

PILGRIM'S FOUNTAIN

Font Romeu means ‘pilgrim’s fountain’, named after the Ermitage de Font-Romeu, built in the 17th and 18th centuries, on the site of a 1035 oratory. According to legend, a cowherd noticed his bull scratching at some water and bellowing loudly. There in the ground, he found a statue of the Virgin. Pilgrims on the Camiño de Santiago (St. James’s Way), en route to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain, heard of the miracle and stopped at the holy fountain, putting Font Romeu firmly on the map of Medieval Europe.

To this day, the meticulously preserved Hermitage at Font Romeu is still a stop on the Camino for pilgrims, who bathe in the interior basin and visit the magnificent Sunyer altar.

THE WORLD’S LARGEST SOLAR FURNACE

The abundant sunshine that triggered the evolution of Font Romeu as a resort also led to the building of the world’s largest solar furnace. The immense parabolic mirror, tall as the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, reflects the countryside and sky, giving an ever-changing patchwork view of the surrounding countryside that is beautiful and fascinating to watch.

LE MUSEE SANS MURS

Nature and art collide in this museum without walls. Wander around sculptures and statues, the highest art gallery in Europe, starting in the centre of Font-Romeu opposite the tennis courts. museesansmurs.fr

A HISTORICAL HICCUP?

Why not visit the nearby Spanish enclave of Llivia, a little piece of Spain surrounded by France?

About eight square miles in area, with a population of around 1,000 people, Llivia is considered by some a bit of a historical hiccup. By a strange quirk of fate when the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659) decreed that Spain hand over Roussillon and 33 communes of the Cerdagne to France, Llivia was classed a town, not a village. As the treaty stipulated that only villages were to be ceded to France, it remained, a small enclave of Spanishness.

With a fortified XVII century church, its other claim to fame is the ‘Oldest Pharmacy In Europe’, founded at the beginning of the 15th century and now a small museum with antique drugs, and one of the largest collections of prescription books in Europe.

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EGAT

Follow the trail through the forest from Font-Romeu to the pretty village of Egat, a thirty-minute walk culminating in views to take your breath away.

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