The Hills are Alive with Catalan Culture and Cherry Blossoms
A French-Catalan guide who has lived in the French and Spanish Pyrénées for 25 years, Christian’s specialty is Catalan history and heritage, and his walks — whether they are gentle hikes in the hills around Ceret or more challenging treks up to Canigou — are imbued with Catalan culture.
“I’m very proud of the Catalan culture. I feel Mediterranean and Catalan before I feel French. I feel much closer to the Italians, Greeks and Spanish Catalans. I can’t explain why, but that’s how I feel,” Christian says.
“I’m proud of what the Catalans have achieved,” he explains. “What they did in the Middle Ages — they were the first to have a constitution and they didn’t have armies of conquest, rather they conquered through business, and they treated their workers well.”
“There is a very strong relationship between the land and man and what has done to it,” Christian elaborates. “From the churches he has built to the castles he has destroyed — so as you cross the landscapes, you are crossing a whole history, a Catalan history.”
Christian was actually brought up in Toulouse, but his grandparents and parents were from French Catalonia. He remembers as a child hearing them speak a language he couldn’t understand, yet at the time he didn’t know it was Catalan.
Until the 1960s, Catalan children were forbidden from speaking the language in French schools, so Christian had to re-learn the language of his family.
“The Catalan culture was crushed by the French for so long… since Napoleon!” Christian explains. “And in Ceret, because the old Catalan people died and so many foreigners arrived, the town lost some of its Catalan spirit.”
Christian, who lived in Spanish Catalunya for many years, believes the Spanish Catalans are more dynamic than the French Catalans and have been much more pro-active in terms of protecting and promoting their culture.
“But I think this is changing, partly, as a reaction to globalisation. Now there are many Catalan language courses — more than 8 million people speak Catalan! — and once again, the Catalan people are slowly finding their identity. I like to show this through my walks,” he says.
“Most people who come to Ceret don’t know anything about Catalan culture or history — they don’t even know that Ceret is Catalan — they just know this is France and Spain is just across the border, so this is why I cover this content in my walks,” Christian reveals. “It’s a shortcut to our culture.”
We begin our walk on Rue Pierre Brune, or “long street”, as Christian calls it. It’s a narrow alley off our street, Boulevard Arago, that was the beginning of an age-old route, little more than a donkey track, that started at the exterior of the old city walls (long gone) and led right up the hill to at castle that was pulled down in the 19th century.
“People used this track to go from their farm houses to the village. In the old days it would have been two mules wide, although it hasn’t been maintained, because while man can carry 60-70 kilos, a donkey can carry 120!” Christian reveals. “Some people would have travelled up to six hours to get to the village, but then in those days people walked an average of 6-7 hours a day.”
Along the way, Christian points out the rocks that formed the original path, the canal beside the path that carried water down from the mountains, preventing erosion of the path, and sections of the old city walls.
He shows us terraced gardens, some still home to Ceret’s famous cherry trees — blossoming beautifully at the moment — others abandoned in the late 19th and early 20th century when people left to find jobs in the city.
Christian picks dandelions, which he encourages us to take home for our salad, and snips stems of wild asparagus (good in omelettes), which the people of Ceret come to collect early each morning; he advises getting up here before 6am.
He explains that wild mushroom season is starting soon, although most people don’t know where to find them — he was lucky because an old man once revealed to him the secret places where they’re grown. After mushrooms, it’s time for the cherries, then the apricots, almonds, grapes, and more mushrooms, he says.
Christians points out old fig trees; cork oaks, the core of a once-thriving cork-making industry; green oaks, which cover most of the hills around Ceret, keeping the slopes green, as they keep their leaves during winter; and wild olive trees — of which there are few now, most of them dying out in the big freeze of the winter of 1954, which decimated the olive tree population and spelled the end of the industry.
We stop on the route so Christian can share with us his favourite views, including that of old Ceret and the much-painted colossal plane trees on our street, Boulevard Arago; the charming Convent des Capucins, another view reproduced by many artists; and that of Canigou, the snow-covered mountain we can see from Ceret, which at 2,780 metres is the highest in the region, and has become very symbolic for the Catalans.
“Canigou can be seen from most of Catalunya,” Christian explains, “So for many Catalans it’s the first thing they see in the morning when they open their windows, and many Catalans are proud to say they’ve climbed it at least once.”
When we reach a crossroads, Christian shows us the signs that are posted along the path, and the yellow markers on the trunks of the trees, so walkers don’t lose their way. While the path continues up to the top of Fontfrède, where on 15 August the people of Ceret enjoy a feast at long tables they set up beneath the trees, we continue downhill along a narrow lane.
At the bottom of the hill, we stop outside the enormous house with the blue shutters that Picasso rented when he came to Ceret to paint. Christian opens the big green gate to show us the garden, and we see a fluffy ginger cat playing with the tip of the tail of a snake that looks like it’s playing dead.
While the route we’ve taken normally forms part of a much longer walk that Christian offers that loops around the whole of Ceret, because we are stuck for time, we hop in Christian’s car and drive 5kms out of the village and up a hill to a splendid 14th century chapel, the Ermitage Saint Ferréol, named after Ceret’s patron saint.
With 360-degree views that take in Canigou, Ceret, and, in the distance, the Mediterranean Sea, we can understand why this is Christian’s favourite spot — and what makes walking in Ceret so special.
“It’s Ceret’s vicinity to the mountains and the sea,” Christian affirms. “As well as its variety of diversities and landscapes — you can do a completely different kind of walk every day — plus the fact that there are 300 different possibilities a year of good weather!”
And what make Christian’s job special?
“I love discovering walks and places not in the guidebooks,” he confides. “Fortunately, there are more secret places than well-known places — and I love taking people to those places.”
If you want Christian to take you to one of his secret places, visit his website www.enchemin.com where you’ll find information on the wide variety of walks he offers in Ceret, the Pyrénées, and French Catalan Coast.