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Day trip to Villefranche-de-Conflent and Mont-Louis in France

Villefranche de Conflent exterior One of the advantages of being on the Costa Brava is how easy it is to get to France for a day out. The border is about an hour away and in another thirty minutes you can be in Perpignan. Historically speaking this is still Catalonia, and is now rebranded as Catalonia North, but culturally it feels French and there is a strong sense of being in a different country and culture to the Spanish side of the border. One of the big differences is rugby which is the main sport (in league and union forms) north of the border, but practically non-existent on the Spanish-side of the border.

Villefranche de Conflent portcullis The other big change is in shopping. Though the French supermarkets Carrefour and Al Campo (Auchun in France) have crossed the border, the selection of products can be very different in range and quality to the products you would get in France. So from time to time we go across the border just to fill up with things we struggle to find locally, like syrup for squash, a joint of beef, duck or some more exotic cheeses that just don't seem to cross the border. And it would seem a shame not to make a day of it.

Villefranche de Conflent tower and walls So this time we crossed the border, reached the outskirts of Perpignan and then turned towards the mountains in the direction of Prades and Andorra. It's currently ski season so there is snow across the top of the Pyrenees and a steady stream of cars coming towards us with skis on their roofs.

From the Costa Brava there are really four possibilties for skiing. The closest is to Valter 2000 which is above Camprodon about 4-5 km above the closest village of Setcases. The second is Val de Nuria above Ripoll on a fenicular railway both are a little less than 2 hours from the coast. Next on the Spanish-side, the next is La Molina/Masella, but this is a very bendy road from the Ripoll-side and is best reached from Berga through the Tunel de Cadi, and if you're going this way you could also reach Andorra. The alternative is to cross the border into France and head up to Font-Romeu.

Mont-louis in the Pyrenees We weren't going skiing ourselves, but more sightseeing with the aim of visiting Villefranche-de-Conflent which is a walled town/fort situated in the valley that leads up to Font-Romeu that dominates the access to the valley. It sits just beyond Prades which is famous as the adopted home of two notable Catalans - Pau Cassals a world famous cellist, and Pompeu Fabra who wrote the first description of the grammar of the Catalan language. They came to the French side of the border as exiles from the Franco regime.

 Villefranche-de-conflent sits on the confluence of two rivers and is a world heritage site. The area of Roussillon/Catalonia Nord has changed hands several times between the Catalans/Spanish and the French, finally becoming part of France in 1659.

View from Mont-Louis to the mountains The town as it remains is unspolit in original condition reflecting the strengthening of the castle by Vaubon in 1700s. It's not large - about four streets wide each of about 150m length, so it doesn't take long to walk around and there are several cafes and artisan shops. At the sites of the drawbridge and portcullis you can still see the chains inside the gate house. There is a higher fort across the railway bridge above the town, but we chose not to visit.

Instead we decided to continue another 30km up the vally to Mont-Louis. This is another Vaubon fort but sits just above the col at the highpoint of the road - about 1600m. To reach it, the road curls up the valley and is bendy in places and broad double lanes in others. As mentioned, there was snow on the mountains and so when we reached the top there were the remains of snow piles built up next to the walls and houses, a huge contrast to the warm spring conditions back at the coast.

Mont-Louis is another fortress town, but with relatively few houses and a still occupied army barracks right at the top. From the ramparts you can look across to the mountains which were covered with snow at the top, and across the valley you could see chair-lifts and ski-ers on the pistes opposite.

On the way down we visited Ille-sur-tet, an old catalan town in the Spanish style, but not quite as interesting as it looked from the road as we passed. The shopping we did in Le Boulou (Le volo in Spanish) which is close to the border and saves having to go all the way to Perpignan.

Walk nearby: La Jonquera to Fort de Bellegarde (France) - Mollo (Camprodon) - Pyrenees to France

Neighbouring visits

White water rafting in Quillan (France) - Collioure (France)  - Perpignan - Elne (France) - Ceret (France) - Andorra La Vella - Ribes de Freser and skiing at Vall de Nuria - Visit to Setcases - Puigcerda and Bourg-Madame

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