Travel: France - Cathar castles and views of the sea, Spain, the world

Tucked away in a cleft in the Pyrenees, the Fenouilledes - a string of six hamlets - offer breathtaking views and a glimpse of other times. But first, you have to get out of the pool. By Hilary Macaskill
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The Independent Travel
I LEARNT backstroke in the Fenouilledes. On the day we arrived in the hilltop village of Fenouillet, a series of six hamlets strung along a cleft in the mountains, the owner of our rented house was putting the finishing touches to the swimming pool. We later discovered that he had been working on it for years, which is why it was not included in the brochure. But here it was, about 15 feet across and bevelled deep into the rocky hillside. And so we swam every day, in our pool with a view. From our rocky, watery eyrie we could see across the valley to wooded slopes broken by the occasional roof of warm ochre tiles and the jagged ruins of Cathar castles.

The Fenouilledes, named after the feathery fronds of fennel abundantly bordering the narrow steep roads, are tucked away in the foothills of the Pyrenees - and hardly known to English tourists. (We saw only three cars with British number plates.)

This is Cathar country, exotic and wild, where the inhabitants still speak a different dialect, with fragments of Cathar strongholds on almost every peak. La Vilasse, our own tiny settlement, had two castle ruins: Castel Sarbada and, on the facing crag, the remains of the castle founded by Charles the Bald, out of which much of the village was built.

The last Cathar stronghold was Queribus, a wondrous example of medieval engineering, perched as it is on a column of rock. When we visited, clambering laboriously up, and took in the eternal views - to the sea, to Spain, to the world - we got a sense of why the Cathars might have thought they would get away with their defiance. Very clear from here was Peyrepetuse - so visible that the inhabitants of the two must have communicated with each other by smoke signals or semaphore. Peyrepetuse is a perfect castle, camouflaged as part of the mountain itself. It was not until we got very close that we could distinguish between the rock face of which it was part, and the walls with their arrow slits.

That was one of our rare excursions. It would have been possible to make two or three a day, had we been so minded. The maps of the area mark a host of different attractions and offer many labelled routes. There are ones for Romanesque and Baroque art, for military architecture and a Domitian route. (The "Via Domitia" goes from Beaucaire to Perthus and was marked out in 118 bc by Cneus Domitus.) The curious little technique tourisme route takes in Catalan weaving, chocolate-making and the first solar oven installed by the army (at Mont-Louis, in 1953).

There are other distractions. Perpignan - with its vibrancy and distinctive Spanish flavour - was an hour's drive away but was slightly daunting for our new-found rural tastes (though we did at least visit the railway station, dubbed by Salvador Dal as the "centre of the world"). There are festivals - we paid a quick visit to the one in St Paul de Fenouillet, famous for its croquante a l'ancienne (crusty almond biscuit), with its bands and the fire brigade displays of ladder rescuing.

But, on the whole, we stayed closer to home. On our first day, we found a pond surrounded by clumps of bulrushes and reeds, where we swam amid the blue dragonflies, haphazardly darting, and water-boatmen skidding along the surface. Higher up the gorge was a gite d'etape, where we had divine tomato salads on a terrace overlooking the valley.

Another day I and teenage daughter went to the Gorge de Galamus. We had already driven along it on the way back from Castle Peyrepetuse, marvelling at the ribbon of road which clung to its towering curves, but this time we slithered down to the shallow river bubbling along the bottom. I wedged our shorts and sandals in a bundle under a tree and the two of us set off wading sturdily downstream, clinging to branches to guide us over slippery rocks.

We came to a deep watery canyon, its sides looming high over us as we swam through, feeling rather intrepid. On the other side a series of waterfalls spilled over cliffs into deep green pools; we pressed on with a mixture of scrambling and swimming.

At the other end, we scrambled up to the 17th-century Hermitage of St Antoine-de-Galamus where, on a terrace built around and under a spreading oak tree, we had mediocre coffee with stunning views. The chapel here is still a place of pilgrimage, though the hermitage is now a minute gite d'etape. This, apparently, was where The Last Emperor was filmed. They put up a pagoda in the car park.

Our other excursion into the wilderness was white-water rafting. The warmth of the day before had dissipated and we were having second thoughts about our booking at Castel Fizel. After consultation with a dictionary, the one linguist among us asked for combinaisons de neoprene (wet suits) - because, as she fluently explained, we didn't like the cold. "I don't believe that - you're British," said the instructor in a faultless Essex accent.

The rafting was down the river Aude past rock outcrops with names like The Snake, Pinball and Widow Maker. Four out of six of us managed to fall in, one person twice, and as he was swept away, struggling to follow Didier's instruction to "turn round, point your feet downstream", there was pandemonium in the boat, which was now jammed up against a rock. Didier, dispensing with the chat, was hauling us, one after the other, into the back of the boat, so it could be dislodged. Then "Back to your position," he shouted. "Back. Back", and all was haste and scramble and furious activity as we steered our way back to the raging torrent.

t Country Cousins Abroad is a small agency specialising in houses in the Fenouilledes and adjacent areas (all its houses are within two hours of Perpignan) and offers lashings of information and advice. It is run by people who have houses there. You can find them at: 12 Vicars Road, London NW5 4NL. Tel: 0171 284 0996. Brochure line: 0171 284 2295.

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