The Pyrénées-Orientales department in the southernmost part of France is home to many beautiful villages. However, only four of them can officially wear the “Most Beautiful Villages of France” label. A classification to be proud of, as you don’t become one that easily! Last holiday, I had the opportunity to visit all four of the most beautiful Pyrénées-Orientales villages. It was a real pleasure discovering each and every one of them.
My first encounter with this charming village in the Pyrénées-Orientales department was on a gorgeous, bright, autumn day. The snowy white peak of the Canigou mountain stood out against the blue sky, with Castelnou comfortably nestled in the foothills of Les Aspres. The meaning of the Catalan word “Castelnou” means “château neuf” in French (or “new castle” in English). You enter the village by the north gate, called “Porte de Millars”. This gate and its two imposing towers date back to the 14th century and were part of the fortified walls that protected Castelnou from potential enemies. At the top of Castelnou, you will find the Viscount’s castle, which dates from the 10th century. The small village with its cobblestone streets and typical stone houses has several restaurants and shops, mostly selling crafts and art related products.
The hilltop village of Eus looks out over the Conflent valley and the snowy summit of Mont Canigou, the emblematic mountain of the Pyrénées-Orientales. When strolling through the narrow cobbled streets of this picturesque village, you will notice some Spanish street names. Back in the 16th century, Eus belonged to the Spanish, and they successfully defended themselves against the French for about 200 years. In the 18th century, Eus became French again, and nowadays is still part of the Catalan Pyrenees. The Carrer de l’Ajuntament takes you all the way up to the Saint Vincent Church. Well, as Eus is a small village, the climb is not too bad, especially if you include a few stops. The church dates from the 18th century and stands on the ruins of an old castle. Once you reach the top of the hill, you will be rewarded with another great view.
Nestled in the mountains of the Haut-Conflent, Évol is a remarkable place that overlooks the old fortress of the Viscounts. The village itself is rather small; however, there are some really nice walks in the area. Évol is a village built in the typical, rural mountain architectural style of the Haut-Conflent area. The villagers seem to have used the same grey shale for all of the houses, and bluish schist – locally known as “lloses” – covers the roofs. It’s like time has stopped. Évol has produced shale since the 13th century, so the quarries brought a significant income to the region. The beautiful village was at the centre of an important Viscount’s territory during the 14th century, and it was mentioned as far back as the year 957. Like other villages in the area, Évol still has Catalan influences, and its inhabitants are proud of their roots.
Villefranche-de-Conflent , founded in the 11th century by the Count of Cerdanya, is a fortified village in the Pyrénées-Orientales department. Being part of the Catalan Pyrenees, Villefranche-de-Conflent had a strategic location in an area that occasionally changed hands back and forth between the French and Spanish occupiers. In 1654, the village was taken by the French again, who were determined to never again lose it to the Spanish. So, it was the famous French military engineer Vauban who helped to protect Villefranche-de-Conflent from enemies who would hide in the surrounding mountains. At Villefranche-de-Conflent, UNESCO has classified no less than three sites as official World Heritage Sites. The fortified village itself, of course. But also the two other Vauban strongholds: Fort Libéria and Cova Bastera. If you want to visit Fort Libéria, you can enter it through the underground staircase with 1,000 steps, which begins right after the Saint-Pierre bridge.