The Alberes Mountains
The Alberes Mountains are the eastern end of the Pyranees, and occupy the northeastern part of the Alt Empordà. This is a scrub-covered, rocky wilderness, where early April sees the blooming of the best of the coastal flora, characterised by plants such as silver ragwort, tragacanth, tree spurge and sea mallow, the beautiful Iris lutescens, sawfly and early spider orchids, along with a wealth of ferns; also, Europe’s only native palm, the dwarf fan-palm. With luck you might see interesting animals, including an unusual breed of cattle, about 1.10 to 1.25 meters high, with very sharply pointed horns. These cows were traditionally herded through the Alberes valleys to graze in summer, but now mostly live at total liberty and are of tremendous interest to researchers. Typical Mediterranean birds here include pallid swift, blue rock thrush, black wheatear, Bonelli’s eagle and Sardinian warbler. Reptiles and amphibians to be found in the Albera Mountains include painted and parsley frogs and the marbled newt, the western spadefoot, the stripe-necked terrapin and the large ocellated lizard.
The easiest access to these mountains is by way of Garriguella, a pretty village with a decent roadside wine cooperative and a recuperation centre for the Iberian Peninsula’s only native population of Hermann’s tortoise. Drive north through the eerie landscape of the Serra de la Mala Veína, (the Sierra of the bad neighborhood), an area full of megalithic dolmens and menhirs, to Vilamaniscle, where a very recently paved road to your right traverses 6 kms through a beautiful river valley tortoise reservation to a green but desolate bowl scooped out of the arid Alberes mountains, and the ruined 11th century Benedictine monastery of Sant Quirze de Colera and the Romanesque church of Santa Maria de Colera, which is nearly in its original state. The splendid cloister is currently undergoing restoration. The inhabitants of Llança on the coast walk here for a traditional festival every year. A good lunch can be had in the recently opened restaurant nearby. It is possible to continue on foot to the French border, where a monument commemorates the many refugees who used this route to flee northwards from Franco or southwards from the Nazis. From Sant Quirze it is possible to drive along tracks to reach a plateau with several dolmens and two famous menhirs, Murtra and Vilatoli, and wonderful views of the Gulf of Roses, Pic Neulos, Pic d’Esquers, the Serra del Puig and the whole Ampurdan.
Rabós is a pretty village with a lovely bridge, a very strange church, weird local wine, an excellent fonda / restaurant and people who are so rude and unfriendly as to be comical. I put this down to centuries of smuggling, but some of the symbols in the church might indicate other, more occult causes……..
Espolla has a lovely Romanesque church and more megalithic remains than anywhere else in Catalunya, including a necropolis. From there it is possible to reach the Romanesque church of Sant Genis d’Esprac in the beautiful high valley of Orlina, and the pleasant hostal/restaurant in Bausitges.
Another point of access to the Alberes is Cantallops (“the howling of the wolves”). This little village feels quite Transylvanian, and is surrounded by very wild countryside. There is a beautiful forest road to the Castle of Requesens, a very strange place restored but abandoned by the Rocaberti family. I once spent a night here. Although not officially open to the public, it is not too difficult to get into. After a good long tramp in the woods, there’s nothing better than olives, salad, embutidos and local wine in the nearby cantina.
Sant Climent Sescebes is famous for its military base, and loud bangs are not uncommon, but the soldiers hanging out in the local bars are very friendly and there are also some pleasant walks through pine forest and olive groves. The annual Passion Play at Easter is usually rather ambitious; I particularly enjoyed the time when Christ flew off the cross and over our heads, revealing his red underpants!
La Jonquera is a hellhole, but Els Limits, just south of the French border, and El Portus, just on the other side, are in fact both parts of the same quite pleasant little town with a pre-romanesque church. The lovely countryside around here has been inhabited since prehistoric times, as witnessed by the dolmens Can Nadal and Can Beleta. Le Bolou is also visitable, and a trip to the walled medieval town of Ceret is very highly recommended.
This article was written by Francis Barrett. See also Francis' excellent guide to Ireland irelandbyways.com
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