Tower Tour: Hit the Mountains of France

Head south along the western coast in Mediterranean France or take the train through the Pyrénéss-Orientales Department. As you approach the Spanish border—with the deep blue of the sea on your left—the rugged foothills of the Pyrenees rise up to the southwest. Creating a natural border between France and Spain, these mountains are jsut as full of adventure as they are history. On some summits you may spot stone masonry towers. They were part of a visual signaling system built in the 13th century, and the highest of them sits on the summit of Madeloc, perched at an elevation of 2,132 feet. It commands one of the best views you will find on this stunning coastline.

This is also vineyard country: The surrounding Languedoc-Roussillon region leads oeno-crazy France in terms of total vineyard area and annual production of wine. It’s hiking country, too, starting at sea level where the Pyreenes plunge into The Mediterranean, and ascending through the foothills and minor peaks up to the summit of Canigou at 9,137 feet, about the same vertical height difference as between the Court House in Denver and the summit of Long’s Peak.

Trekking is a popular outdoor activity here in France, and there are extensive facilities to make the journey more, well, European. The national network of Sentier de Grand Randonnée (GR), which translates as “long-distance hiking trails,” totals 37,000 miles of well-marked and signed paths, among the biggest systems in any country. The National Institute of Geographic and Forest Information (IGN) also publishes a series of 380 regularly-updated 1:25,000 scale maps of hiking areas here, and you can purchase them at bookshops and newsstands throughout the country. The best part? Along most of these trails you will find gîtes, a type of overnight accommodation found in France, Belgium and Switzerland. The word gîte comes from the Old French giste, which also is the root of the modern French verb gésir (“to be lying”). There are many varieties of gîtes, from houses in remote locations to bed-and-breakfast establishments nestled in towns. Most gîtes are not staffed (the way many European mountain huts are), but to offically classify as a gîte the owner(s) must live close by to provide assistance and welcome guests.

Need to Know

Contact the gite operators directly at The Gîtes de France website has options in English or French as well as other European languages. The European Ramblers  Association of the outdoor organizations maintains trails in 34 European Countries (including the GR trail network of France).

The Refuge Madeloc, which takes its name from the nearby Madeloc Tower, classifies as a “Gîte Rural” on the Gîtes de France  website (see sidebar), a listing of some 30,000 gîtes in the country.  Madeloc is self-contained, accommodates up to ten people in four bedrooms, and includes a lounge and dining area, a kitchen for self-catering, a bathroom and two shower rooms. It’s completely off the electricity supply grid, powered by solar-cell lighting and wood-stove heating.

Madeloc’s in a sheltered location at an elevation of 1,500 feet, with a magnificent view of the Mediterranean Sea. Like many other older buildings in the foothills of the Pyrenees, its history is entwined with that of past conflicts. It originally was built in 1885—after the humiliating Second French Empire defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870—as Caserne Taillifer, a barrack for the Taillifer coastal artillery battery on the hilltop above.

David and Linda Cadwallader, a multilingual English couple long residents in France, discovered the abandoned Caserne Taillifer in 2009 and spent three years renovating and upgrading it to the accommodation standards of Gîtes de France. The refuge is open to groups of six to ten in double rooms, either self catering or with meals provided, if required. As avid hikers, the Caldwalladers chose the location well. The Madeloc Tower on the summit above is at the geographic center of a maze of trails in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Routes to two nearby cols to the south, Coll de Vallauria and Coll dels Gascons, connect it to major sytem, including the GR 10, the longest in the system, running 570 miles through the cordillera from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.

Refuge Madeloc also is easily accessible, about an hour’s hike from the railway stations in the coastal towns of Collioure or Port Vendres. The closest airport serving intercontinental flights is at Barcelona in Spain, 95 miles south.

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