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Serra de L'Albera - a natural park between the mountains and the sea
Sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea and the Col de Perthus, the Serra de L’Albera is where the Pyrenees Mountains finally meet the sea. To the north is France, Perpignan and the Cote Vermille and to the south Catalonia, Figueres, the Costa Brava and the plain of the Alt Emporda. Since 1659 this mountainous ridge has formed the border between France and Spain, the remains of which are a rusty barbed wire fence that nowadays seems more to stop the cows dotted in the alpine meadows than the contrabandistas that smuggled goods through the cols and along the mountain paths in bygone days. The Serra is scattered with peaks along it's single ridge, the highest being Puig Neulos at 1256 metres or 4121 feet. Since 1986 much of the higher ground has been a Natural Park.
Hiking is one of the main reasons to visit the area and there are some great trails on both the French and the Catalan side ranging from short walks to a full traverse of the ridge from La Jonquera to Portbou that can be done in a single day but is much more enjoyable if broken up with a night in either the Tanyareda refuge or the Salifort Refuge, both unguarded but with fireplaces, tables and wooden bunks. Away from the main route up Puig Neulos you will often find yourself alone walking through the beech forests or across the open meadows. Most of the paths are signposted, but things change so always remember to take your map. For the French side there is the IGN 2549 OT 1:25000 Banyuls map that is very detailed. On the Spanish side the Itinerannia Alt Emporda 1:50000, both available locally or online.
During a walk you may be lucky enough to see a Vaca de L’Albera, a wild boar that roams freely, or a Mediterranean Tortoise as the natural park has the last population anywhere on the Iberian Peninsula. Also remember to keep your eyes on the skies as Golden Eagles can be seen circling above the peaks.
Walking can be done at any time of year but can get hot in the summer months. There is also the possibility of the Tramuntana, a particularly strong northerly wind that can make being on the higher peaks all but impossible.
If walking is not really your thing it is possible to drive from Le Perthus on the border, up Puig Neulos and park just short of the summit. The views from the top are incredible as to the north there are the uninterrupted beaches reaching towards Perpignan and Narbonne and on the south side a fantastic view of the Cap de Creus and the sweeping Bay of Roses. There are some places to picnic with official BBQ facilities just off the tarmac which make an excellent choice if you want to escape some of the summer heat.
There are also plenty of ruins scattered along the Catalan side of the mountain, most notably the 10th century castle at Requesens, set in the forest and accessed via a piste from the beautiful village of Cantallops, or Sant Quirze de Colera, an abandoned monastery set against the dramatic backdrop of Puig d'en Jorda. Both are well worth the visit if not just for the fine restaurants close by that are packed with locals on a weekend.
A haunting reminder of the more recent past can be seen at the older border check point between Portbou and Cerbere where there are info boards and photos of the stream of refugees that flooded across as Franco’s army marched further in to Catalonia during the civil war of the 1930s.
The Serra de L’Albera makes a fun trip whether you are with the kids, the dog, your hiking buddies, or just looking to put a hammock in a tree and while away the day.