1000 Year Abbaye Saint Martin du Canigou in Pyrenees-Orientales, France | Day 1 of Tour du Canigou Trail
This was the first day of our Tour du Canigou trail that we started in the middle of September and planned to do the whole 69kms in 5 days. We meant to do this trail a long time ago but were always busy with other hikes and didn´t have time for it. But this year it was finally happening. We planned to make a detour and ascend to the peak de Canigou itself of 2784m on the second day and then continue doing the Tour. Canigou is a very symbolic mountain for the locals and some say it may be even a sacred one. It unites the Mediterranean coast region to the Pyrenees mountains and it is definitely considered one of the most important mountains in the heart of Catalan Pyrenees. This was going to be quite a wild trail that is famous for its fascinating views of the seacoast and its rugged mountain ranges. This trail believed to be quite difficult with major elevation changes every day but nothing too extreme. It had the option to stay at the refugee house but we were going to stealth camp all the way through as always. We just hoped for the weather to be nice and warm and not too cold but were ready that it may be a bit chilly at night so we brought all of the warm clothes with us.
On that first day of Tour du Canigou we planned to do around 10kms and to hike up 1400m from the town Vernet les Bains to join the GR10. It was going to be a shorter day because we had started at 12am so quite late in the day but still wanted to get up closer to the mountain to be able to ascend the peak the next day.
So we started our day at the outskirts of the town Vernet les Bains where the bus had left us and were heading in direction to the next village Casteil. It was only couple of kms away so hiking along the easy car road for some time we got there in a half an hour.
When we were there we already felt quite hot at 800m of elevation and descending down from 1500m where we live it felt even too warm. But it was nice that we could enjoy the summer like weather especially walking in the shade most of the time. Also we knew that it is going to be more chilly up at 1800 we were heading to that day.
So getting out of this small village with red roofs, rocky houses and narrow streets, we were hiking uphill towards the Abbey that was standing on top of the hill. It was a several km part going all in the shade and through many beautiful waterfalls and river streams. The trail was a bit slippery at times when stepping on the rocks or roots of the trees after the day before rain so we had to watch our step. But the path was very picturesque with some dry yellow leaves on the ground and a smell of early autumn approaching.
Then we were up at the Abbey Saint Martin de Canigou – a glorious old made of sand rock building dated back to 11th century. It had a nice green spacious patio with quite a bit of picnic tables around. It transmitted peace and serenity and we enjoyed the atmosphere of it. It had amazing views down the ravine, surrounding mountains and Casteil village. The Abbey can be visited for a small fee and there are some guided tours.
From there we continued on as we didn’t have much time to spare and the trail was going uphill for quite some time. It was rocky and relatively steep but still going in the shade which was very appreciated in the middle of the day. Under our feet were a lot of pretty colored leaves and a tasty smell was accompanying us. Here and there the forest was opening to a beautiful view over the mountain hills.
At this part of the hike we found the marking quite confusing as it didn’t tell us where to go exactly in order to join the GR10 and get closer to the mountain Canigou. There were many local trails with yellow and white marks but they were going in the different directions and it was misleading. We were yet to join the official Tour du Canigou trail where we hope the marking would be better. At this part it was essential to have a map or a GPS at hand.
So we did our first 7 kms and 800m of an uphill and were half way done for that day of hiking. We had left another 800m up to go but fortunately it was only 2.30pm so there was still enough time for us to do it.
We crossed several river streams until we faced another uphill that turned out to be the most challenging of all and most tiring as well. It was only 1km long but it felt like we were doing 1m of elevation gain with every step and we had 500m to do this way. So it was absolutely killing for our legs and we were constantly out of breath. We were following the red sign that we saw on the trees as it was going along our path leading up.
By the end of that cruel hill we felt quite exhausted and weak and couldn’t wait to finally have our lunch break at the top of it. So we did, having our bulgur brought from home and some snacks like nuts, banana and chocolate.
After that we felt a bit better and as it boosted up our energy levels we were able to continue and do our last 3 or so kilometers and 200m up. Fortunately it was quite a bit easier and not as steep and so following the rocky paths through the forest we did this part in approximately an hour and a half. And finally we crossed the GR10 trail (big crossing of Pyrenees on the French side) and its marking and knew that we are on the right track. We had the choice to turn either left or right and we did the latter because we were determined to ascend to the peak du Canigou itself the next day. And if we wanted to just go ahead with the Tour without ascending there was an option to turn left.
At this point we already felt like we conquered the peak from the challenging and long uphill we did that day. So it was about time to search for the camp spot. And the first most important thing as always was the water source that would define where we stop. There were several water streams that we passed but as we saw no possible camp spots around we had to stretch further. The terrain was quite challenging with the steep slopes on both sides of the path and no more or less flat areas. We passed a bunch of cows pasturing in the forest ringing their bells and once again wondered how skilfully they were able to move across such difficult terrains.
Only after a km or so wandering away from a trail we were able to find our place to camp. It was a bit of a miracle in itself that we found it as there was nothing but a steep slope and lots of rocks. It was quite small, jammed in between the rocks, trees and roots but it had just enough space for our tent. We hoped that the trees around would act like a wind block at night also.
In the end we ended up doing only 10 kms that day but as we started late and had to tackle a challenging trail we considered it pretty good. The next day we planned to have another hard day of hiking and climbing to the peak but at the same time it promised to be quite epic as we hoped to get many more beautiful panoramic views including the Mediterranean seacoast.
So we did set up our tent, filtered our water for cooking and cooked our dinner. We had a mix of cereals with fresh tomatoes, cheese and dry bread that we baked at home. Then we went to sleep at 21pm as we wanted to get up early the next day and do the climbing in the first half of the day. The weather was very quiet and the cow’s bells were lulling us to sleep…