Roussillon: Two sunny weeks en France

The cow is between us and the summit, blocking the path. It doesn't look scary in the least, but we have been warned. Much like a wanted poster, trimmed in bright red tape, a picture of a very cute cow, topped by the words: "DANGER, vaches sauvages" (wild cows). It seems almost humorous. The doe-eyed creature in front of us looks non-plussed ... but a warning is a warning.

Reluctantly, we leave the path and scramble between Laricia pines and through shrubs and undergrowth to continue our route up Pic d'Orella, a summit in the Albères massif in the Pyrenean foothills of Roussillon, south-west France, emerging trimmed with bracken ... and sighing in admiration. On the last day of our holiday, it seems appropriate to be standing at the very top of the world in which we have spent the last two weeks.

There's Canigou, the Catalonian's sacred mountain that dominates the skyline to the west, its shoulder sweeping down towards the Tet valley and beyond, a speck on the horizon, Cathar castle Quéribus, clinging to a ridge top. Unravelling to the south, the plains of Roussillon, peppered with dusty terracotta-coloured villages, sweep towards the Cote Vermeille, a stretch of gold and turquoise.

We've been staying at Villa Abrial, a salmon-pink affair with a pool, somewhere far below us. The apartment is in dire need of TLC, but its setting amid Holm oaks halfway up the massif - so still you can hear the wings of birds in flight - has been a tonic. Even further below, at the end of a helter-skelter track, is Laroque des Albères, a quaint labyrinth of historic facades arranged around a castle. En-route into town is La Maison de l'Amande, an almond farm that makes its own almond butter - yum.

We spent one sunny evening enjoying tapas at Le Catalan, a bar-restaurant on a secluded square in the village; Spain is minutes away, and the Catalonian identity in the area, tangible. The village has been a nice base, with its own boulangerie (where Tim bought eclairs daily) and butcher, as well as a lovely little market on Wednesdays. There's a market somewhere in the area every day of the week, selling delicious locally grown produce - the peaches in particular were great, but we also enjoyed the figs, courgettes, and of course, the array of breads.

Our favourite market was in Ceret, the cherry capital of France: here, we rummaged through second-hand CDs, sampled handmade raw chocolates, and treated ourselves to a stripy hand-painted salad bowl made with local clay. We sat on the main square to eat cherry tart and people watch: everyone was wearing a smile.

Of course we have had lots of time at the beach, too - Paulilles being our coastal stretch of choice. Thanks to a now-disused dynamite factory, the beaches here were never developed. On the edge of an undulating landscape laced with vivid green vineyards dripping juicy red grapes like a rich lady might wear pearls (the wine made here is regarded as among the best in France) are secluded rocky coves. The water appears to be deepest turquoise, but once in it, it's so translucent you can see your toes.

One day, we did a beautiful coastal walk from Paulilles to Cap Béar, a lighthouse on a gnarled peninsula. A strong wind whipped the waves against the knobbly coastline, which stretches further to Port Vendres, where we had a disappointing fish lunch, and Collioure, the loveliest of fishing villages, where Henri Matisse once lived and painted. It's not hard to see how he was inspired by the clutch of orange- and pink-tinged cottages squashed into a cove and protected by mighty forts. The landscapes in Roussillon are nothing short of spectacular.

Another day took us to Les Orgues, eerie columns of white rock shooting up towards the sky, like a turreted castle crafted in piped icing. A white moonscape amid lush greenery, the work of erosion and one day to be no more. These rock formations are known as hoodoos, apparently. Then there was 'Les Gorges de la Fou', said to be the world's narrowest discovered gorge. There's a metal walkway strung up between the walls of rock, which feel like they could close in on you as you make your way from the romantic moss-clad entrance into caves where waterfalls rage in the darkness.

And more gorges - the Caranca, a real "will I or won't I" situation. Between mighty walls of rock, a corniche path cuts a vertiginous line. I lost all sensation in my knees; we were up there as if in flight with the Alpine swifts that were tossing and tumbling through the air. A dip at the nearby sulphurous thermal (35 degrees) baths, Les Bains de St.Thomas, a forgotten little world where Tim had to hire Speedos because swim shorts were banned (haha!), was a suitable reward.

We drove back via Villefranche, which is set between the stony bounds of a fortress built in the 11th-century. As we passed tumbledown facades housing all manner of businesses, scents lingered in the air: home cooking, leather and flowers. We bought some honey-infused spice bread and settled beside the city walls to enjoy it.

 There have been moments I wish I could bottle: munching crepes topped with melted chocolate by the sea as the light fell over characterful resort Banyuls; feeling the sea air on my face as I shut my eyes and listened to the crinkling waves; basking in the sun on the pontoon just off shore. The pace of life here has been frustratingly slow - especially the supermarket queues - but I'll miss it. I wish I could take the food back, too, and this view over the mountains, plains and sea... Now, I wonder if the savage cow has moved on so I can make my descent ...

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