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White water rafting in Quillan (France)

The days are getting hot and summer has just about reached the Costa Brava. For us, that makes it a good time to travel north out of some of the heat and so we took the chance for an overnight camp in Quillan, a small town just south of Carcassonne on the river Aude and close to spectacular gorges as the river comes out of the Pyrenees.

I wasn't originally going to write it up in this Costa Brava blog, as it doesn't seem that close, but in fact it is just over two hours drive from here - so closer than Andorra or skiing in Ribes de Freser, and we had such a great time doing white water rafting with Sud Rafting from their base near Axat that we just had to add it yet another possibility for people who live in the Costa Brava.

For holidaymakers who are starting to flock here for the summer season, it might seem strange that as the temperatures rise, we might look to places further north, after all summer on the Costa Brava is why most people come to visit. But we have the advantage of being able to pick and choose, and so while the beaches are filling with sunbathers it's also a time to take a few days here and there to escape the heat and hordes of the high season.

Quillan White Water Rafting Quillan is a small town in the Cathar region of France tucked into the foothills of the Pyrenees and the rivers that have carved deep gorges coming off the mountains. The Cathar region is famous for the Cathar Heresy and as the location of the Albigensian Crusade in 1208 with the remains of strong castles built on isolated peaks and hilltops that led to later legends of secrets and myths, that modern times have added to and transformed including the story of the Holy Grail and the Da Vinci code which draws on Rennes Le Chateau.

For a weekend, it's relatively easy to throw tents in the car and head into rural France without needing to book and taking advantage of the cooler weather compared to the heatwave on the coast. So we took the road to Perpignan, turned left just past the airport and headed out along the dry landscape of Roussillon towards the mountains and valleys south of Carcassonne.

The countryside becomes greener and more wooded as the roads head inland reaching the river Aude at Axat, a small valley village at the head of the tourist train route (Le Rouge) that runs up the from Rivesaltes just outside Perpignan. The first day we spent touring, but we called in on the tourist office and were informed that rafting needs a reservation, so we booked for the next day and so found ourselves on one of the white water raft trips with five guys from Southampton and Julien, our guide. The experience was fantastic - eight of us on a rubber inflatable boat going down a fast moving wide river running into rapids and falls and drops and lots of white water.

Of the eight on the raft/boat, all but one had never rafted before, so the first stage was to get going and get instructions. We were on the longer route, so we started about 6km above Axat - taken there by minibus all kitted out in wetsuit, life jacket and helmet - and through the early parts of the journey and lots of tumbling into the water we were shown through a series of jokes, deliberate calamities and practical demonstrations, how to get safe on the raft, how to stay on the raft (mostly, or at least when Julien wanted us to stay on) and a variety of practical ways to cope in the fast moving water. So as the boat moved through the more advanced rapids and ran into rocks or bounced off the gorge walls we'd have some idea of what to do.

Over the course of the next two hours we travelled some 13km down the river paddling when Julien said paddle, stopping when he said stop and falling in the water any time he wanted to prove a point. He steered and seemed to know every rock and pool of the river.

Along the way, we got thrown out of the raft a few times, jumped off rocks into the river and swam across the stream, flipped, spun, slid forwards and backwards and bounced across the waves, occasionally scraped a hand on a rock, or took in water from a sudden unplanned disembarkation. And then considered tested and ready we ended on some big category four drops and rapids for the last two kilometres of the gorge. It was just such good fun out among the elements, wet (but not cold in the wetsuit), and having a real natural roller coaster ride with moments to enjoy the wagtails tracking us down the river below the 100m high walls of the gorge, before the rush of another rapid bouncing the raft off rocks as we bobbed down the river.

The Aude also offers other forms of white-water sports including canoing, hydrospeed. The area is also obviously also very French, which means a complete change in landscape and culture to the one we find in Catalan Emporda with the more open French-style towns and broad rivers and the raft of French produce and wine sold by the roadside.

For white-water rafting on in Spain, we would need to go to Sort - towards the Val d'Aran - to have the same type of opportunity, which would be more like four hours drive from here, so sometimes we need to look laterally to find other ways to get into the mountains.

Also in France close to the Costa Brava

Collioure (France) - Villefranche-de-Conflent and Mont-Louis (France)  - Perpignan - Elne (France) - Ceret (France) - Andorra La Vella - Puigcerda and Bourg-Madame

Walking by the border

Mollo (Camprodon) - Pyrenees to France

La Jonquera to Fort de Bellegarde (France)

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