With their snowy peaks, chamois and peach orchards, the Pyrenees Orientales are sacred to Catalans and enchanting to visitors. By Sarah Gracie
IT SITS 9,000 feet above sea level, has a squint summit like the head-dress of a Capuchin monk and waters hundreds of miles of peach, cherry and apple orchards. Its name is Pic de Canigou - or dog's tooth - and it is sacred to the Catalan people.

Wherever you are in Roussillon, the rich valleys of the Tet, the frontier towns of Osseja or Estavar or the salt marshes of the Mediterranean, you will see its characteristic summit. "Veuillez demander a pape Canigou," people will say if they don't know the answer to something, and jerk a thumb at the snowy summit. And it is unique among mountains in having reached such a state of popular affection that a dog food is named after it.

Each year, on 14 June, it hosts one of the most ancient nation-affirming rites of the Catalan people: the Feu de St Jean (or Fox de St Jean in Catalan). A great bonfire is assembled at the summit and crowds from as far away as Barcelona and Toulouse make the trek up the mountain to light it. As soon as its flame is seen, all the farmers in the valley - whether they are owners of a few tiny terraces, a couple of cows or just a handkerchief of a peach orchard - torch the fires they have assembled themselves, forming a ring of flame that reaches all the way to the Mediterranean. Meantime, in the streets the people dance the sardana, the Catalan national dance, and there is an orgy of eating and drinking.

If you want to climb Canigou on any day other than 14 June (when you can hitch a lift with the revellers almost all the way to the top), you have to take care. It is the last big Pyrenean peak before the sea and the weather can be fierce and changeable. Its last sacrifice was in 1992; a German couple who were climbing between its two peaks mistook a glacier for a little late spring snow.

Aside from footpaths which go vertically up the mountain from the villages of Fillos or Taurinya, allowing a 16-hour round trip for someone of Olympic fitness, there are two roadworthy tracks which will take you the bulk of the way. These are the Balatg and the Villeroch. The first, nicknamed the escala d l'ours, or bear's staircase, follows the old medieval mining path (the mountain is still scarred purple from open-work iron and tin mines) and can only be done in a 4-wheel drive. The Villeroch, or promenade touristique, treats the mountain with proper respect, starting many miles away and moving in on its prey with slow circuitous loops.

We opt for the latter. It seems like a good decision, despite the wheeziness of our little Ford on the switchback bends, until we come to a barrier across the road. A notice from the Sous-prefecture of the Pyrenees-Orientales announces that considerant les animaux hivernales dont la vie ralentie rend aucun derangement tres perturbant (hibernating animals, whose slow-motion life renders any disturbance very perturbing), the road is closed.

Which puts the would-be climber of Canigou in a bit of a spot. For if you're to get to the summit now, not only do you have to make up 6,000 feet of height, but also a deadly 20 kilometres of distance.

We brace ourselves and set off. A loomy trudge of two hours through a pine-forested ravine brings us out at a ridge where the air is cooler and little trumpet-throated gentians grow just beneath the snowline. There are species of rare orchid and the odd chamois stares at you with a liquid eye before crashing off into the forest.

A little further, we are at that mountaineer's paradise where all the tracks converge, a kind of Alpine plateau with its own road system in the clouds. Wooden signs announce the GRIO, the Grand Randonnee des Pyrenees, among others. This is the magnificent route that travels by peaks all the way from the Atlantic in the West to Canigou in the East and which turns at this point into a tiny vertiginous path with enough room for one-and-a- half goat's hooves, called Le Grand Balcon.

At this season, Le Grand Balcon has no great view of the esplanade, but hangs in the sky like a suicide's rope bridge with a witches' cauldron of thermals whipping up from the ravine. The last couple of hours to the summit is a vigorous scramble against time and weather, with our gaze focused firmly on a patch of ground six inches ahead of us. (It's worth noting that in summer the Chalet des Cordalets, an hour from the summit, has a very fine restaurant and you can put in your order for anchois a la Catalane or morues en petit beurre blanc before proceeding to the top.) But the view from the top makes it all worth it. The weather clears briefly, revealing the whole of the curved blue loveliness of the Mediterranean to Avignon, the ochre plains before Barcelona and the diamond-white peaks of the central Pyrenees to the West.

If it's not mountains you're looking for, the valley scenery of Roussillon is to be matched by none. Villages with mule-thin streets and pantile roofs capped by little stone churches with filigree ironwork bell-towers. Roussillon also has some of the best Romanesque relics anywhere in Europe: in particular, the 10th-century abbeys of St Michel de Cuxa and St Martin de Canigou built high up in the mountains to avoid floods and the Saracens.

These abbeys have been stripped of some of their finest stonework by the phenomenon known in France as l'Elginisme. George Barnard, who founded the prestigious New York women's college, shipped off whole cloisters at the turn of the century, which were later to form the basis of the medieval collection of the Metropolitan Museum at the Cloisters in New York. But the structures themselves, in their amazing settings, remain. And some of the capitals which didn't make the transatlantic journey but were to be found decorating the baths in Prades or propping up an old olive tree have since been restored to their rightful place.

The area has always been a refuge for artists, vagabonds and exiles. Across two world wars, groups of artists congregated in the town of Ceret in the Tech valley. Picasso spent several summers here, along with Derain, Dufy and Matisse and the museum of Ceret was founded by fellow bon viveur and painter, Phillipe Bernard. "Pour le Musee de Ceret" is a not uncommon inscription across works of the time. And the gallery that resulted is a wonderful hodgepodge of a century of French art: early Cubist paintings by Braque and Picasso, Matisse sea sketches at Collioure, and the amazing ceramics of the Vallopolis bullfights dashed off in two weeks by Picasso, who astonished his fellow potters - he had entered a workshop to learn their techniques - by his effortless assimilation, and then deconstruction, of their lore.

A little further north is Cathar country. Ranging from the 19th-century reconstructed fantasy of Viollet le Duc's walled city of Carcassonne (The Name of the Rose was filmed here) to the crumbling mountain fortresses of Peyrepertuse and Queribus, the Cathars built some of the finest architecture of medieval France in some of its most desolate spots.

The Cathars (from the Greek katharos, clean or pure) held the not unnatural belief that the world must have been created by two opposing forces, good and evil. Evil was responsible for the material world (including the Catholic Church) and the job of the holy men - or parfaits as they were defensively called by the foot soldiers of the Inquisition - was to purify themselves of all its emanations.

It is hard to imagine now how they thought they stood a chance against the might of the Holy Roman church. But, standing on the terraces at Queribus looking out over the lunar landscape of Corbieres, with its rocky limestone outcrops, clumps of wild thyme and a pair of royal eagles hanging stationary on the wing, it is almost possible to get yourself into a frame of mind where you might dare to be king of your own beliefs. But there was to be no "world elsewhere".

Together with a number of northern French lords on the make, the popes rooted out the Cathars and destroyed their fortresses one by one. "Kill them all, the Lord will know his own," Pope Arnaud Amaury is supposed to have said at the sacking of Beziers.

After absorbing this melancholy history, go into the valley and reward yourself with a little tour of degustations. Ventes directes signs announce this wholly satisfying formula. Cool lobbies lined with great futs (oak barrels) in which the best reserves are aged, a little counter with banks of glasses at the ready. And a professor of vinification behind each one, ready to give you a lecture on the precise gradient of the slope, the pH of the soil and the sunshine count behind each bouquet, while he polishes and refills your glass.

After this, you roll home through the peach orchards, the blossom foaming electric mauve against Canigou's snowy peak. Cowbells set up their tinkling in the valleys and the scent of wood smoke steals from a thousand kitchens as people set about preparing the evening oiellade.

Catalonia fact file

Getting there

British Airways, return flights for the next few months from Heathrow to Toulouse approximately pounds 220; Heathrow to Perpignan pounds 250; Heathrow to Montpellier pounds 234; Heathrow to Barcelona pounds 234. Keep your eye on the World Offers as advertised on BA's website for reductions on these prices. (BA Reservations: 0345 222111)

Getting around

Hire for lower: very reasonably priced with the smallest car starting at pounds 145.00 per week and a family saloon for pounds 159.00. Pick up and drop at Toulouse or Montpellier airports. Reservations: 0171 491 1111.

Accommodation

For house rental look in the back pages of The Lady magazine. Otherwise, try the Gascony Secret (01284 827253).

If you want to stay in Toulouse, don't miss Hotel Grand Balcon, 8 Rue Romiguieres (00 33 5 61 21 48 08), the hotel where Antoine de St-Exupery and other flying buffs used to stay when they were in town. Full of photographs of their pioneering flights down through Africa and across the Atlantic and decor hardly changed since the 1930s.

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