Stage 7 - Alp to Carcassonne

Stage 7 of my E4 walk is from Alp in Spain through to Carcassonne in France.  Walking east and then north along the GR 36 the route takes you through the departments of Pyrennees-Orientales and Aude within the region of Languedoc Roussillon.

The walk looks special from a number of different perspectives.

The area has a really complex history with associations with both Catalonia across the border (Pyrenees-Orientales roughly corresponds to an area the Catalans describe as North Catalonia) as well as Occitania which extended right across southern France and into Italy.  Both traditions have produced a distinct linguistic legacy which still echoes today.

Particularly interesting is the Cathar history and the Albergensian Crusade which saw the destruction of the Cathar version of Christianity in the early 13th Century.  Some estimate that 500,000 people were killed as a result of this crusade which transformed the area from one of the richest at the time in Europe (with a particularly rich cultural tradition - home of the troubadours) to one of the poorest and most marginalised.  The walk takes you through a number of places of particular significance to this Cathar history, including lots of hill top forts.

The route takes you east through the high Pyrenees, then descends north into the foothills of the Pyrenees before finally crossing a more agricultural landscape as you approach Carcassonne.  Some claim that the foothills of the Pyrenees provide some of the best landscapes in Europe and indeed the "light" has made the area famous for artists.

Although the area has lots of micro climates it is also noted for it's good weather.  EDF operated it's experimental solar power plant at this end of the Pyrenees because the area has the highest number of cloud free days in France.

Special mention to the Yellow Train which takes you all the way from Villefranche-de-Conflent up to Mont Louis.  A great way of getting to the start of this stage of the walk.  It climbs to 1.593 metres at Bolquere-Eyre, the highest railway station in France.
The little Yellow Train
Much of the accommodation will be in gites d'etapes which look like Austrian "huttes" and I guess the equivalent of a youth hostel in the UK (although there seems to be a lot more them).  I stayed in some when I walked the Haute Route across the Alps and on the Alta Via 1 in the Dolomites and they are good fun but with very variable (interesting) sleeping arrangements.

For the first four days of the walk the route follows the same route as the famous GR 10 "coast to coast" and is the toughest part of the walk.

Day 1 starts at Alp in Spain, crosses the border at Puigcerda/Bourg Madame and after a steady 26 km climb gets you to Eyne, a ski resort with plenty of accommodation.  Another 2 kms to Planes, which looks like a pretty little town with a gite d'etape for refuge.

The next two days take you over the highest points of the E4 walk in France - possibly the whole of the E4 walk.

The target for Day 2 is the Refuge Caranca and to get to it you have to go over the Col Mija which is around 2300 metres.  The whole walk is about 18 kms and involves a 1300 metre climb.

Day 3 involves climbing over the Col du Pal followed by a big drop down a long way to Py and then up again to the Refuge Marialles.  Quite a tough 10 hour walk involving 19 kms and 1628 metres of climb.  The option would be to stop at Py.

If I can get to Refuge Marialles on day 3, then day 4 is in effect the last day in the high Pyrenees. Another tough walk, 20 kms but with another 1600 metres of climb followed a steep down to Vallmanya.  The GR 36 stays with the GR10 until just past Cortalets where it splits and starts to head north.  The views could be spectacular including views across the coastal plain to the Mediterranean. If I don't make it to Valmanya I could always stop at Cortalets.

On Day 5 you descend from the high Pyrenees down into the foothills dropping 1,000 metres in a 27 km walk to Sournia.  On the way you pass the line carrying the Yellow Train just to the west of Vinca.  Sournia is a village with a gite d'etape.


Day 6 is a 25 km walk through a series of small villages (le Vivier, Saint Martin), past hill top forts, along the bottom and over a limestone (looks like it) ridge and through to Caudies-de-Fenouilledes.  Can't find accommodation at the moment but the commune web site certainly suggests that there is some. 

The next day's walk is 28 kms to Duilhac-sous-Peyrepertuse.  Again the scenery looks amazing with more sharp limestone ridges, a chapel literally built into a gorge, and some great views across the valley.  Duillac-sous-Peyrepertuse has an old ruined Cather hill top fort and, if I can't find anywhere else, a gite d'etape.

Castle at Duilhac-sous-Peypertuse

Day 8 is a long walk, 41 kms, all the way to Lagrasse.  There is an option to stop at Termes half way along the route, which has another hill-top Cathar fort, but at the moment I plan to make it to Lagrasse.  Lagrasse is regarded by some as the most beautiful village in France, has a famous abbey some well preserved medieval bridges.  Looks like there is a choice of accommodation.
The last day of this stage involves the 36 km walk to Carcassonne where I plan to stop for a an extra night.  The route takes you out of the Pyrenees foothills and into a broader agricultural valley in the middle of which sits Carcassonne.  Carcassonne has been fortified since Roman times, held out for a time against Simon de Montfort in the Albigensian Crusade (didn't end well though), and then became a border citadel between France and the Kingdom of Aragon.  It's now a UNESCO world heritage and there is lots to see and plenty of places to stay.


So, 9 days, 244 kms, lots of castles, amazing and varied scenary, Carcassonne at the end, a perfect walking week (and some).

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