Out for the day: Las Illas, La Vajol and the Chemin de l’Exil
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE RETIRADA
In early 1939, the Second Spanish Republic collapsed. As General Francisco Franco, aided by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, declared a fascist government, nearly half a million desperate Spanish refugees, civilians and soldiers, arrived at the French Spanish border seeking asylum. This was the biggest single influx of refugees ever known in France. This was the Retirada.
8th February 1939
Despite initial French efforts to keep them out, hundreds of thousands crossed the French border via the frontier towns of Las Illas, Cerbère, Le Perthus, Coustouges, Puigcerda, Prats-de-Mollo. They crossed in the depths of winter, one of the coldest on record, suffering incredible hardship, hunger and deprivation on the way.
With a population of around 250,000 inhabitants, the Pyrenees-Orientales was unprepared. Women and children were initially sent to accommodation centres, men ended up behind barbed wire on the beaches at Argelès-sur-Mer, St Cyprien and Le Barcarès.
With no protection from freezing temperatures and biting winds, supervised by ‘Gardes Mobiles’ (a special branch of the gendarmerie) and brutal Senegalese troops, they faced unspeakable squalour, food and water shortage, dysentery, rat-infested conditions…..Many died of exposure and were buried where they lay.
Arriving at the entrance to Las Illas, you can take a break – public loos and even a public shower are available at the village entrance. Have a wander around the sleepy hamlet, or lunch at the aptly named restaurant, Hostal dels Trabucayres, historical shelter for Spanish Republicans fleeing Franco’s Spain, and escapees from Nazi occupied France heading in the opposite direction. Stay for lunch, dinner, the night, a walking weekend…..
Out for the day
From Las Illas, turn left at the road next to the memorial signed La Vajol. Follow the sign around a hair pin bend to the right (three point turn skills could be required here), then another sharp left hander and continue up the track to the Col de Manrell, a wide open space with an interesting if rather incongruous pyramid monument, Temple de la Paix, dedicated to Luis Companys, president of Catalonia from 1934.
When Franco came to power, Companys fled to occupied France where he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent back to Spain. On Franco’s orders, he was tortured, beaten and executed for treason.
As featured in P-O Life n° 66 (winter 2019/20)