As is probably obvious to regular readers, your intrepid correspondent is not much of an athlete. Scaling the French Pyrenees, therefore, was something I planned to do from the comfort of a car — the passenger’s seat, no less, since my lack of coordination extends to manual transmission.
So I put my husband, Oggi, in charge of the gears and settled in for a drive through twisting mountain passes, green valleys and Alpine villages.
While heritage itineraries rarely include these villages, the Pyrenean route is in fact a well-trodden Jewish path. Throughout history, when facing persecution from one side of the Pyrenees or the other, desperate Jews have taken shelter within these lonely peaks — though they have rarely stayed (the modern communities are in cities like Perpignan, Narbonne and Nîmes).
Two periods in particular stand out: the late-medieval Sephardic exodus from the Iberian Inquisition, and the early 1940s, when French Jews — and those Germans, Belgians and others who had taken refuge in France — fled from the other direction because of the Nazi invasion. Franco’s Spain hardly rolled out the welcome mat, but the Pyrenees escape route bought some time.
With considerably less at stake, Oggi and I started on the Spanish side, driving north from the Catalan town of Olot through a verdant agricultural landscape. Soon signs dwindled, and so did passing cars.
Around one bend, the road became truly vertiginous, opening onto a panorama of snowy peaks off to the left and wildflower-dotted hillsides ahead. Then the road descended and a fairytale village came suddenly into view — a lacey church tower poised like a crown above a cluster of pastel buildings, framed by dark-green mountains.
Like many towns on this route, Prats de Mollo takes less time to drive through than to pronounce. It’s one of a string of fortified medieval villages along the River Tech, in an out-of-the-way part of the Rousillon Pyrenees defined by steep gorges and bubbling thermal springs.
Stressed-out Gauls have flocked to the mineral baths since Roman times. In more recent years, a convenient Ryanair flight into nearby Perpignan has brought legions of Northern European retirees and vacationers.
Barely 1,000 souls inhabit Prats de Mollo today, yet the town feels energetic and welcoming. Stepping through a stone arch, I entered a walled-off world of brightly striped awnings, inviting café tables, and picturesque cobbled stairways. You can stroll the entire town inside of a half-hour, but the sights are indelible: trompe l’oeil facades, ancient fortifications, and a waterfall whose stream trickles right through the town.
From Prats, the road winds through deep wooded forests, alongside rivers and through tiny, proper French villages. The next town of any size is Amélie-les-Bains; it’s a relative metropolis, with a casino, a lovely historic center and an ideal perch straddling the Tech River valley. As its name suggests, Amélie, popular for its hot spring spas and its surprisingly warm microclimate, is a sunny oasis of palms and laurels amid the foggy Pyrenees.
Going east, the olive-dotted Plain of Rousillon is bathed in a hazy, peachy-gold light that has drawn generations of painters. The most famous of these – Picasso, Chaim Soutine, Matisse, Chagall and Dalí — used to convene in Céret, the last town before the coastal zone.
From the road, Céret is not as adorable as Amélie-les-Bains or Prats. But at its core is a tree-shaded, pedestrian-only promenade that feels like a small slice of Paris. Well-heeled couples stroll idly between lunch and dinner, stopping to browse the patisseries and bookshops and boutiques full of exquisite children’s clothing. A 14th-century stone bridge arches over the Tech, leading to a medieval town center.
Céret’s Saturday-morning market is famous. Throngs of shoppers organize their weekends around the careful selection of local olives and figs, specialty cheeses, and artisanal preserves and honeys.
Nearly a century ago, however, Céret played host to the 20th century’s most influential artists. Drawn to the rural tranquility of the Rousillon, these pioneering Surrealists and Cubists gathered to experiment with forms, colors and shapes. Antique cafés around Céret are named for the painters who lingered over absinthe.
Their formal legacy is preserved at Céret’s Modern Art Museum, a small but lovely gallery that pays tribute to the town’s place in art history. When you consider the provenance of Céret’s most famous artists-in-residence — Catalan loyalists, Russian Jews, Parisian exiles — you realize that what looks like a quiet backwater has, in fact, a heritage as wide and deep as the Pyrenees themselves.