For many communities in France the festival of St Jean celebrates the arrival of summer with a great bonfire. Here in Catalonia, including communities in the eastern Pyrenees of France as well as Spain, the festival takes on a unique twist with the climbing of the peak of Canigou (the highest in the region).
This past weekend, June 16th and 17th, Catalans from both sides of the border climbed to the Chalet des Cortalets, about 1200 meters, where they gathered with friends and family for the Trobada festival and hopefully got a little rest before the second climb, just 700 meters, to the top of Canigou. It is here at the summit where they add their bundles of sticks, gathered from their local villages, to the great pile that fuels the fire of St Jean, which will be lit next Friday, June 22nd, summer solstice. The fire will then be brought back down the mountain and distributed to all the Catalan communities.
Don and I sort of stumbled on this festival last Sunday morning when we decided that it might be a good day to make the climb to the peak – the winter snow had melted and although the sky was a bit hazy the weather forecast predicted sunny skies.
The drive up to the Chalet des Cortelets via Villerach is a long 23 kilometer trip on a rough dirt track (about an hour to hour and half depending on the vehicle). With patience it can be done in most any car that isn’t too low. We were in a Mini Cooper. Generally the road is wide and not too steep but does cling to the cliff in places with dramatic drop offs. Near the top cows graze where they like.
There are several places to park around the chalet. As the grounds were still packed with Catalans, we parked at a small lot at the crossroads with the road that climbs up from the Abbaye Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, a supposedly steeper and rougher track. A short distance up the road from the lot a 300 meter trail leads to the chalet. At 9AM the place was buzzing with activity, groups packing up tents and supplies for the trip back home, others breakfasting before their descent down the mountain or ascent to the peak to add their bundle to the accumulating pile of sticks.
Although not a short climb, about 2000 feet in 2 and half miles, it is a well graded and easy to follow trail. At the base is a pretty alpine lake surrounded by fields of wild flowers – broom in full bloom and azaleas just about to burst forth – seeming to mirror the colors sported by the Catalans – red and yellow scarfs, tights and flags dotted the otherwise gray rocky trail to the top.
At the top the festival continues where the Catalans ceremonially place their bundle on the growing pile and get their pictures taken with others from their community.
Everyone hangs out and enjoys the views and sunshine over a picnic lunch. And on a day like this why not join them?
June 17, 2012
For links to all the posts in this series see the French Pyrenees page.