In Céret the hills are alive with Catalan culture and cherry blossoms. For visitors to this part of the French Pyrénées, walking is one of the most popular things to do, especially here in Céret. So we asked local guide de pays Christian Piquemal to give us a taste of what makes walking in Céret so special, starting with the season of cherry blossoms.
We meet Christian Piquemal in the busiest café of Céret. It’s a charming village in the foothills of the French Pyrénées, where we’ve settled into a light-filled apartment in a stone house on historic Boulevard Arago for two weeks on our yearlong global grand tour aimed at inspiring you all to travel more slowly, more locally, and more experientially.
A French-Catalan guide who has lived in the French and Spanish Pyrénées for 25 years, Christian’s specialty is Catalan history and heritage. Christian’s walks – whether they are gentle hikes in the hills around Céret, or more challenging treks up to Canigou – are imbued with Catalan culture.
“I’m very proud of the Catalan culture,” Christian tells us. “I feel Mediterranean and Catalan before I feel French. I feel much closer to the Italians and Greeks and Spanish Catalans than the French. I can’t explain why, but that’s how I feel.”
“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 been 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.”
And we’re about to learn more about that history on a hike with Christian in the hills around Céret.
The Hills are Alive with Catalan Culture and Ceret’s Cherry Blossoms
Christian Piquemal was raised in Toulouse, but his grandparents and parents were from French Catalonia. He remembers as a small child hearing his family speak a language he couldn’t understand. 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 exclaims. “And in Céret, because the old Catalan people died, and so many foreigners arrived, the town has 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,” Christian explains. “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.”
“Most people who come to Céret don’t know anything about Catalan culture or history – they don’t even know that Céret 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 explains. “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. It 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 a 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 explains.
“Some people would have travelled up to six hours to get to the village,” Christian reveals. “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 of which are still home to Céret’s famous cherry trees – blossoming beautifully at the moment! – others abandoned in the late 19th and early 20th century when people left the village to find jobs in the cities.
Christian picks dandelions, which he encourages us to take home for our salad, and hesnips stems of wild asparagus (“very good in omelettes”), which the people of Céret come to collect early each morning. He recommends that we get up here before 6am so we don’t miss out.
Christian explains that wild mushroom season is starting soon, although most people don’t know where to find them anymore. He was lucky, he says, because an old man once revealed the secret places where they’re grown. After mushroom season, he tells us, it’s time for the cherries, then the apricots, almonds, grapes, and more mushrooms.
As we walk, Christian 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 Céret, 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 olive industry.
We stop periodically to pause on our hiking route so Christian can share his favourite views: there’s a view of old Céret and the colossal plane trees on our street, Boulevard Arago, which were painted by some of Europe’s most famous artists; there’s the charming Convent des Capucins, another view reproduced by countless celebrated artists; and there’s the view of Canigou, the majestic snow-covered mountain we can see from our street in Céret, which at 2,780 metres is the highest peak 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 Canigou at least once.”
When we reach a crossroads, Christian points out 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 that they set up beneath the trees, we continue downhill along a narrow lane.
At the bottom of the hill, we stop outside an enormous residence with blue shutters. It’s the house that Picasso rented when he came to Céret 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.
The route that we’ve taken is part of a much longer walk that Christian offers that loops around the whole of Céret. But 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 Céret’s patron saint.
With 360-degree vistas that take in Canigou, Céret, and, in the distance, the Mediterranean Sea, we understand why this is Christian’s favourite view of all – and what makes walking in Céret so special.
“It’s Céret’s vicinity to the mountains and the sea,” Christian confirms. “As well as the 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!”
Aside from the breathtaking views, I ask Christian what makes his work so special?
“I love discovering walks and places not in the travel 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 on a hike in the hills of Céret or 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 and around Céret, the Pyrénées, and French Catalan Coast.