We began the walk in Padern, in the foothills of the Pyrenees north-west of Perpignan, climbing steeply up through the alleys and little passageways between the houses and on up to the ruins of the castle and to the view and the path that we hoped would take us to Quéribus, Cucugnan and Duilhac-sous-Peyrepertuse. One and a half hours from Padern we had reached the ruins of an ancient priory some 1600 feet above sea level, with distant views (mentioned by the guidebook) and a clear, fast-flowing, deliciously cold spring (unaccountably not). We drank from the spring and replaced the already tepid contents of our bottles with cold water before toiling on up towards the ruin of the château of Quéribus on its pinnacle of rock at 2600 feet of altitude.
Towards Quéribus, but not to it. The sun was at its zenith, and an hour and a half after leaving the spring and some three hours in all from Padern, mostly uphill, we were hot again, thirsty again, hungry, and more than content to settle for a picnic with a view.We found our ideal place where a few hardy evergreen oaks shaded a rare, more or less level patch of earth made private by smooth boulders and outcroppings of rock. The view, though it might not have surveyed the plain of Roussillon and the Mediterranean as Quéribus does, nevertheless richly rewarded our so-far-moderate exertions. Steeply below was Cucugnan, fortress-like on its hill, commanding the vineyard valley eastwards down and back to Padern and westwards gently up to the Col du Tribi and Duilhac- sous-Peyrepertuse. Beyond the village and stretching for 30 miles to the valley of the Aude were the wild heights of the very heart of the Corbières: fold upon fold, ridge upon ridge fading into a blue haze of summer. And three miles to our left, beyond Duilhac and 2650 feet up in the cloudless sky, we could just make out the ruins of Peyrepertuse, one of the great bastions of the medieval marches with Spain, and later a desperate refuge of the Albigensian heretics. Barely distinguishable from the towering wall of the rock itself, it amply deserved the name bestowed by one writer on these Cathar strongholds: citadelles du vertige.
We did not go down into Cucugnan. Keeping to the high ground at the southern limit of the vines for as long as possible, we descended at last to the valley road, then rejoined the prescribed route to the little village of Duilhac and the two mile serpentine climb to Peyrepertuse. “Worth every ounce of the effort,” we declared to one another, as from the gaping windows and wind-buffeted battlements of this most awe-inspiring fortress we contemplated some of the loveliest landscapes in France.“Worth walking any distance for,” we agreed, later, drinking very cold beer on the terrace of the Auberge du Vieux Moulin in Duilhac. Later, as an evening breeze choreographed the long, slim branches of a willow in a slow dance above our heads, we drank a Corbières Blanc from Tuchan as an aperitif and marvelled at the stamina of a mixed party of French walkers who with formidably large rucksacks had come all the gruelling nine- or ten-hour way from Aguilar and were now off to pitch camp for the night. They would make the ‘itinéraire’ excursion up to Peyrepertuse before continuing to Bugarach next day, they remarked casually. Bugarach, as we and they knew, is a nine-or ten- hour haul from Duilhac as even the moderately-laden walker goes.Once beyond the northern end of the Gorges de Galamus he is committed to all the additional nine miles to Bugarach or nothing. Our own plans, therefore, were limited to a mere three and a half hours to the gorges, to be followed by an hour down into the valley and a night at St Paul-de-Fenouillet. The guidebook said that the seven miles of mountain path between Duilhac and the gorges represented “certainement le parcours le plus pittoresque’” of the entire route.
The noisy departure of other walkers woke us next morning. Having followed our noses to the boulangerie soon after it opened, shopped more enthusiastically than sensibly at the village store and filled our water-bottles at the shaded, cold, and bounteous spring (which used to supply the millrace) hard by the auberge, we took the Peyrepertuse road again before leaving it soon afterwards for the high garrigue under a morning sun that was hot on our backs long before noon.On our left for some distance was the awesome, 800-foot deep ravine of the Riben stream. Soon, we were standing at an altitude of some 2,000 feet on a wide, grassy plateau where the ruins of a bergerie, a familiar feature on the hills, stood as testament to the once- vital, centuries-old tradition of sheep-grazing in the high Corbières. We admired the views over Peyrepertuse and the eastern Corbières, and a little later, from the Col de Corbasse, the Pyrenees. And as well as these far prospects of mountains there were also the sun and air as clear as one hopes it is in paradise and the hot summer scents of the garrigue (box, juniper, wild thyme), and the god-given breeze. For once, “on top of the world” seemed a permissible description of our feelings.
“Glorious!” we said. “Unbelievable!”. For a while we sat there on a rocky bench, just looking, then we drank a glass of Réserve du Révérend rosé from Cucugnan, kept cold in an insulated bag, and with a hyperbole bred of circumstance pronounced the agreeable wine “sensational”.‘Un havre de fraîcheur’ was the guidebook’s description of the Sentier Cathare to the Gorges de Galamus: a haven of coolness. So it is, or so it was for us that noon as we came to the end of an unavoidable mile uphill on the glaring D7 under a tyrant sun. St John the Divine’s image of the “pure river of water of life, clear as crystal” could be interpreted quite literally here. Surely the medieval pilgrims on their arduous journey to Santiago de Compostela must have paused to drink?
Deep down between the limestone cliffs, in the course it had cut for itself over time unimaginable, the Agly tumbled, cascaded, flowed smoothly and voluptuously from pool to limpid turquoise pool, bordered here and there by willows and pink oleanders under an empyrean sky. Descending somewhat perilously (as it seemed to me) to a beach of clean gravel, we dumped our rucksacks, eagerly rid ourselves of clothes and jumped, dived or ventured tentatively into the cold water. For us at that moment, no pool was ever better or more enchantingly situated, or cleaner, or conceivably more exhilarating. We explored a little up and down the gorge, climbing over water- worn slabs of grey rock, romping in other pools. “Glorious!” we said again. “Unbelievable!”, we repeated. We dried in the sun and lunched there at the water’s edge. Long before the sun set we were in shadow, but the rocks were storage heaters and there was no hurry to pack up and leave.
That evening, sitting with a jug of rosé in the auberge in St Paul- de-Fenouillet, we read the guidebook’s description of the Sentier Cathare from Galamus to Bugarach. How had the French fared that blazing day on the unshaded trail? No doubt they would have taken in their stride the 4,000-foot Pic de Bugarach and the view that according to the book embraced “des horizons illimités” but they could hardly have had time for the rock pools at the Agly, so we envied them not at all.