WALK THE REGION
Prieurie Santa Maria del Vilar
With Leigh and Merry Foster
This walk is a circuit in the Alberes hills above the small village of Villelongue-dels-Monts. It is a bit steep in places and over varied terrain, so stout shoes and a walking stick are recommended.
Part of this route was one of the “PATHS OF FREEDOM” used by many escaping Jews, allied pilots and French Resistance to enter Spain, and in the opposite direction for escaping Spanish Republicans during the ‘Retirada’.
It is about 6 km (with about 500 metres of ascent) and takes 2 hours or more depending on how often you stop to take in the spectacular views. Remember to take plenty of water in summer.
The start point is reached from Villelongue. Follow the signs up the ‘Cami del Vilar’ towards the Prieurie Santa Maria del Vilar about 1.3 km until you come to a parking spot in the woods on your right, with a large green water tank. The Prieurie is about 1km further up the track, but our path starts at 491990E 4706920N elev 208m, and follows the signs for the walking path DFCI AL7.
Map IGN 1:25000 Banyuls/Col de Perthus/Cote Vermeille (GPS) 2549OT.
Yellow marks throughout.
Follow the dirt track down to the right from the car park, past a small stream after which it doubles back and starts to climb.
After about 300 meters you come to a hairpin bend where you can see across the plain of Roussillon from Cangiou to the sea. From here the footpath leaves the track behind, climbing the west side of the ridge while the track heads south and east.
The path climbs quite steeply through the brush and trees until you come to a fork at 491600E 4706500N. Take the left fork which continues upwards for another 300 meters until you emerge from the woods onto the same dirt track at an elevation of 370m.
From here the view is even more spectacular with clear views over the villages of the Alberes and Le Boulou all the way up to Canigou and back towards the shining coastline.
Now follow the track to the right, as it climbs south along the ridge for another 450m where, just before a right hand bend, you leave it and turn left on the footpath at 491550E 4706100N – elev 424m.
After only 20 meters, turn right and continue climbing the hill through the forest. If you can spare a few minutes, go straight on for another 50 meters or so and you come to a clearing to find the Ruines de cortal Cossanes, with its amazingly precise ancient pink stone walls and arches overgrown by vegetation.
After climbing for another 600m as the forest slowly changes from cork oaks to beech and conifers, surrounded by the constant chorus of thousands of crickets, you reach a plateau on the ridge and start to descend slightly, crossing the course of the stream of Sant Cristau.
This is a welcome break before the final climb to the head of the valley of Villelongua, which is the southernmost point on the trail, at about 580 meters elevation – continue northeast up the hillside over a ridge marked on the map as ‘El Reposador’ or “the restful one” in Spanish, at 492260E 4705380N.
Certainly you will need a rest after reaching the 610 meters elevation and a long, hot climb. There is a small ferny, grassy clearing there where you can take a well-earned break, relax and take in the amazing views back down the valley, over the villages and the plain below, with the Puig de Sant Cristau at your back.
After getting your breath back and maybe a picnic, it’s time to start your descent, heading north, passing many ruined walls and pavings on the way which hint that this was an ancient pilgrim’s (and smuggler’s) path.
About 250m beyond the rest stop, there is a path to the right down into the next valley which you should not take, but stay on the ridge as it descends, quite steeply in places, back towards the bottom of the valley about 1km away.
There is a short rocky section to clamber down, and near the bottom continue straight, passing by a couple of paths leading off to the left, and turn right at the bottom towards the Prieurie.
If you have time and it’s open, do call in at the Prieurie which is a charming building, having been rescued and restored as a convent after being abandoned and used as a home for pigs in the 18th century!. It has a fascinating history which the charming Romanian nuns will be happy to tell you about, and to show you around their ancient treasures.
Continue 1km down the road from the Priory back to the parking place, and congratulate yourself on discovering another hidden part of this beautiful region!.