Guest Notes for Episode 480: Hiking the Sentier Cathare

Categories: Active Vacations in France, Occitanie

Discussed in this Episode

  • GR367
  • Port-la-Nouvelle to Foix
  • Sentier des Bonshommes from Montségur to Spain
  • Semi-itinerant hiking
  • Vineyards in Vingrau
  • Chateau of Aguilar
  • Tuchan
  • Staying in Padern for the night
  • Using walking sticks
  • How much water to carry
  • Using the Komoot App
  • The eSIM card not working but getting 5G with Verizon's international plan
  • Best times to hike are May and October
  • Favorite part of the trip: hiking between Padern and Quéribus
  • Getting a ride from a local to the next town because of a storm
  • Dinner in Cucugnan
  • Spending two nights at a Gîte in Duilhac
  • Another favorite: Chateau de Peyrepertuse
  • La Malle Postale
  • Easy walk to the Gorges du Verdouble
  • Hardest day: Duilhac to Camps-sur-l'Agly with a detour to Gorges du Galamus
  • Camps-sur-l'Agly to Caudiès-de-Fenouillèdes
  • Peak of Bugarach a place where the end of the world did NOT take place
  • Best preserved: Chateau de Puilaurens
  • Last destination on the trail: Axat

Who was traveling? Ages?

Christian Chauret, 57

Eric Bain-Selbo, 58

Date of trip?

May 29 to June 8 (2023). The part on the sentier cathare was May 30 to June 4.

Where did your trip start and where did it end? Where did you stop along the way?

I was in Spain (Catalonia) with my wife for 8 days. She then returned to the US. I met with my friend Eric in Barcelona. He found out I was planning this long-distance hike and showed an interest in accompanying me. Eric and I took the TGV train to Perpignan (on May 29) and started the trek the next morning (May 30).

Our trek on the sentier cathare GR367 (and a few side trails) was from Vingrau to Axat.

 Day 1: Hike from Vingrau to Padern, 21 km.

We took a local bus early in the morning from Perpignan to Vingrau. We hiked through the Vingrau vineyards and hills on a secondary path that led us to the sentier cathare GR367. We visited the château d’Aguilar (near Tuchan), which was considered one of the “five sons of Carcassonne” in the 13th century. It was occupied by Simon de Montfort in 1210.

From there, we hiked to Tuchan where we had a late lunch in a nice café. Then we hiked to Padern, where we spent the night in a gîte (hostel).

 Day 2: Hike from Padern to Duilhac, 14 km.

We started the day by climbing up to the château de Padern, which is mostly in ruins. We then had a very long climbing hike to the château de Quéribus. The hike, however, was beautiful and well worth the effort. Quéribus is one of the best preserved Cathar castles and another of the “five sons of Carcassonne”. It includes a beautiful gothic room. It is also a “citadelle du vertige” (great views over the region!). It was apparently the last Cathar stronghold after the fall of Montségur.

While in Quéribus, we got caught in a bad thunderstorm with heavy rain. A very friendly lady (who works at the castle) gave us a ride to the village of Cucugnan, where we had another late lunch. Cucugnan is a pretty village, but we did not see much of it because of the rain. After lunch, we hiked to Duilhac where our next gîte was located. The rain eventually stopped… Dinner in Duilhac.

Day 3: Day hikes around Duilhac, 14 km.

On day 3, we did two day hikes and spent a second night in Duilhac. In the morning, we climbed up (very long hike) to the château de Peyrepertuse, which is a huge fortress about 300 meters in length. This castle sits on a limestone ridge at 800 meters. It is really impressive and can be seen from miles away. It is a “citadelle du vertige” (fantastic views!) and one of the “five sons of Carcassonne”. Highly recommended – this was the highlight of the trip for me. After lunch, we hiked to the Gorges du Verdouble, a waterfall with natural rocky pools where the locals go swimming. Dinner in Duilhac. We met several other hikers (all French) in Duilhac.

Day 4: Hike from Duilhac to Camps-sur-L’Agly, 23 km

This was our longest hiking day and the most strenuous, but the views were spectacular. We left Duilhac early in the morning and climbed up to the Plateau de Brézou, which gave us another scenic view of the area. While climbing along the trail, we encountered a herd of cattle going in the same direction; we followed them at a safe distance for a while. At the top (great views of the Pyrénées including views of the Mont du Canigou), we temporarily left the GR367 and took the GR36 all the way down to the Gorges de Galamus and to the Ermitage de Galamus. The hermitage (ermitage) is built in the rock and really beautiful. The Gorges are spectacular and well worth the detour (for us). After a lunch of baguette, cheese, and sausage, we hiked (back on the GR367) to Camps-sur-l’Agly and to the Gîte de la Bastide, our inn for the night. It was a long day on the trail… This inn was located near the Peak of Bugarach, which attracts New Age followers.

Day 5: Hike from Camps-sur-l’Agly to Aigue-Bonne, 21 km

We had to move from one valley to another, so the day started with a strenuous climb, followed by a very long and steep way down into the other valley. In the middle of this, we found an abandoned village in the hills (apparently abandoned since WW2 until local hippies occupied it in the late 1960s…). There were also some “wild” horses along the way. We were now on the south section of the sentier cathare (GR367A) – the sentier cathare splits in two at that location (north and south sections). We had great views of Bugarach and of the Pyrénées. We made it to the village of Caudiès-de-Fenouillèdes for a nice lunch at a local café. We then visited the church of Notre Dame in a nearby village and hiked into the gorges de Saint-Jaume. This area is beautiful with many waterfalls. Our hike continued along a long farm road to our next gîte located in an old farmhouse (active with 45 cows). Coincidently, four Americans on horseback shared the gîte with us that night. After a great dinner made by our innkeeper Colette, we went to sleep to the sound of the cows.

Day 6: Hike from Aigue-Bonne to Axat, 18 km.

In the morning, we first hiked (small detour) to the village of Puilaurens to buy some groceries. We then climbed up to the château de Puilaurens, which is built on a ridge at 697 meters (of course, great views of the valley once again). It is another Cathar castle and another of the “five sons of Carcassonne”. The castle is very well preserved and the path going up includes a small botanical garden. After a lunch of baguette, cheese, and sausage, we hiked to Axat and got caught in a heavy downpour 2 kilometers before arriving to town… Axat is a very pretty town built along the Aude River, and we had dinner at a local pizza restaurant. We stayed at a B & B (chambres d’hôte). This was our final stage on the sentier cathare – as planned, we did about half of the official route (with some detours on other GR and GRP). Approximately 110 km (65 miles) in 6 days.

Day 7: Bus and train from Axat to Banyuls-sur-Mer

Travel day by public transportation, what a change! We travelled to Banyuls-sur-Mer on the coast. We stopped in Collioure (pretty town, but so touristic…) and had a seafood lunch in Port-Vendres. We then reached Banyuls where we spent two days in an Airbnb apartment. Dinner in Banyuls.

Day 8: Day hike along the coast near Banyuls

We hiked 10 km in the morning along the coast (sentier du littoral on the Côte Vermeille), where the scenery was beautiful – rocky trail with the blue sea as background. It was more strenuous than expected, but a highly recommended day hike. In the afternoon, we visited a Banyuls winery (Terres des Templiers). Dinner in Banyuls.

Day 9: Return to Barcelona

We returned to Perpignan by bus, where we caught a TGV to Barcelona. Flight home the next day!

Rank your favorite activities and places on this trip (list at least 10)

Hiking along the sentier cathare! Some technical challenges at times, but overall, a 10/10 trail. For hikers and outdoors people, highly recommended trail…

  1. Château de Peyrpertuse
  2. Château de Quéribus
  3. Gorges de Galamus
  4. Ermitage de Galamus
  5. Château de Puilaurens
  6. La Côte Vermeille, and especially the « sentier du littoral ».
  7. The old town of Perpignan
  8. The “Terres des Templiers » winery (visit and tasting)
  9. Château d’Aguilar (our first castle on the trail)
  10. Duilhac-sous-Peyrpertuse
  11. The town of Axat
  12. Port-Vendres (a real fishing village)
  13. Banyuls-sur-Mer (not as touristic as Collioure)
  14. Collioure (historic sights)
  15. Back in Barcelona, we visited Camp Nou where FC Barcelona plays

Did you have favorite restaurants? Please list them and say what city they were in.

The evening dinner at the Gite de la Bastide was fabulous: tomato and cheese salad, couscous merguez, crème brûlée.

La Casa Catalane in Port-Vendres : Excellent seafood.

Aigue-Bonne: Colette prepared some veal escalopes from her farm with salad and potatoes. Great food for hikers; very filling.

Bar l’émotion in Caudiès-de-Fouillèdes: Excellent lunch at this small café-bar.

Le Globe Kfé in Tuchan: Excellent lunch in this café. Very friendly service.

La Table du Curé in Cucugnan: Another excellent lunch in this small (and very busy) restaurant.

Le Donjon de Peyrepertuse in Duilhac: Very nice ambiance on the terrace in the evening. Food was simple, but good.

Cave Bar Tapas Epicerie Fine du Moulin in Duilhac: Very friendly waitress who made room for us even though we did not have a reservation (and the place was very busy).

Banyul – Le Corsaire Bistro Catalan : Excellent tapas. Our first waiter was a snubbish, but somehow, he got replaced halfway through the dinner by a much friendlier one…

What were your favorite foods on this trip?

Bread and cheese!

Fruits, especially peaches (I had forgotten that peaches could be so good)

Tomato and cheese salad (three servings), with couscous merguez

Marmite de poissons (seafood stew) and mussels in Port-Vendres

Poulet sauce crémée aux champignons (chicken in a creamy mushroom sauce)

Pork curry

Crème catalane

Escalopes de veau

Seafood tapas in Banyuls

How did you get around? Trains? Car rental? Metros? Walk?

We mostly walked!

Train (TGV) from Barcelona to Perpignan and back.

Local bus from Perpignan to Vingrau.

Local bus and train from Axat to Banyuls, and back to Barcelona by bus and train.

What did you learn about France on this trip?

Don’t trust Google Maps about opening and closing times for stores and restaurants! In any case, I learned that one can get a delicious meal from any restaurant/café, even in small towns. The food is taken very seriously in France (as I expected).

You can get baguettes from vending machines (!).

It’s impossible to get bad coffee in France.

People in small towns and villages are very friendly, warm, and willing to help if needed. However, these small towns/villages, although very charming, are very quiet compared to the more bustling “touristic” cities. But that was fine with us – we were looking forward to being away from big cities and very touristic areas.

The hiking trail signage system was better than I expected. We did not get lost and had 5G most of the time.

You can travel 1.5 hours and 50 km by bus for 1 euro. Public transportation must be well subsidized. The trains are definitely more expensive.

Did you make any mistakes on this trip?

The main mistake was not paying close attention to topographic maps while planning the hikes. There is nothing we could do about it, but the terrain in some areas was more strenuous than anticipated.

I purchased eSim cards from Orange for our phones and it did not work (and their Help Desk was not helpful). In the end, we ended up using the more expensive Verizon plan from home and wasted a lot of money over cell phone usage (and useless eSim cards) during the trip. I thought I had planned well for our cell phones but need to rethink how to do it in the future.

Is there something you didn’t like very much and wouldn’t recommend?

Collioure. It is a very pretty town, but it is so crowded and touristic.

What tips do you want to share with other visitors?

If you plan to backpack in France (or anywhere else), prepare the details of your trip very well (trail, distances, inns, what to pack, etc.), but be ready for changes due to weather and other unexpected circumstances (there was a train strike one day, but luckily it did not affect us). Also, make sure you physically train ahead of time, which we did and that prepared us fairly well for the rigorous trails.

The castles, gorges, hermitage (etc.) can all be visited by car (or by doing day hikes from local villages), but the sites are not accessible for people with reduced mobility. You still need to hike 10-15 minutes from the parking lots to reach the castles.

It is a beautiful and much lesser-known part of France. Everyone we met was so friendly and helpful. The scenery is breathtaking and there is a lot of history and culture. However, it is not Paris or the Loire Valley, and the touristic attractions are more “rugged” than in many other parts of France and would be of interest to people who lean more towards outdoors activities. The Côte Vermeille was more of a typical touristic destination.

Overall was your trip restful or stressful?

The trip, although physically challenging, was very restful. I forgot about work – isn’t that what traveling is all about?

How did the podcast and other trip reports help you prepare for your trip?

Yes, absolutely. The two podcasts (387, 388) on the sentier cathare inspired me to plan this trip. I did not know about the Cathars prior to listening to your podcasts. The podcast (390) on the chemin de Compostelle further inspired me (along with other sources) to plan a backpacking trip in France. After doing some research, it seemed to me that the sentier cathare was the perfect combination of what I was looking for and it did not disappoint. I really wanted to hike to explore a region at a slow pace, and I think it worked out for me. I am already thinking about where to go next.

In general, your podcasts have triggered my interest in visiting many regions of France. My roots are French Canadian, so I feel a connection with French culture and history. I visited Paris and Alsace decades ago, but this was my first trip in the South of France. It was a great experience.

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Categories: Active Vacations in France, Occitanie