Natural environment

The Canigó massif is one of the few places listed as a Grand Site de France for its natural and cultural values to be preserved

Natural environment

Great Sites of France: Great Site of the Canigó Massif

The area classified today as the Great Site of the Canigó Massif extends over 7,820 ha in the highest part of the massif and its highest ridges. Structured around the Pica del Canigó, to the south-west it follows the ridge to the top of the Puig de Sethomes and includes the Puig de Rojà. To the south-east it follows another ridge to the Puig de Galinassa and to the south, next to Vallespir, it is delimited by the Puig de Gallinàs and the Puig dels Sarraïs. From the western edge you reach Gazamir Peak, to the north, the ridge to Pic Joffre, and to the northeast and east to Mas del Rei and the village of Valmanya. Inscribed in the French Environmental Code since the approval of the Law of July 12, 2010, the Grand Site de France label recognizes both the unique value of the site and the interest of the preservation, management and development project.

A land of iron extraction in the past, this mountain is now an optimal space for hiking, with its 450 km of trails that allow you to go around the massif, discover its most aerial ridges, or go into the small villages and hills surrounding the prized Pica del Canigó. The Canigó divides the waters of northern Catalonia and pours them into two parallel valleys through which its two great rivers flow: the Tet and the Tec.

Here is a description of its landscapes from various points of view of natural evolution.


Geological – geomorphological origin

The Canigó formed at the same time as the rest of the Pyrenees, that is, under the pressure of the Iberian plate against the European plate. The massif is composed of metamorphic rocks, rocks that have surfaced due to the high pressure and temperature experienced by the deeper layers. The current relief is the result of brutal uplift movements and relentless erosion that is particularly representative of the southern location of the massif.

This great variety of rocks contains an abundance of man-made minerals from the Gallo-Roman period: siderite, barite, iron, quartz and gold. Talc, marble, fluorite and tungsten have also been extracted. The Canigó has been a place of resources and riches exploited by humans from an early age.

Landscape gradient

Three large landscape dwellings can be defined in the Canigó massif:

Peaks and ridges: from Pica del Canigó a north-south ridge is defined with Puig Sec and Tretzevents to the south, and Pic Jofre to the north. Another ridge, this time with an east-west orientation, draws a succession of peaks that rise from 2100m to 2730m in altitude, and that have continuity beyond the space classified as a Grand Site.

The valleys: the foothills of the mountain are clearly marked: topographic accidents, gorges and narrow valleys (Rojà valley, Mentet valley, Cadí valley, Fillols valley, etc.). This stage largely defines the geomorphology and landscape of the massif.

Balconies: of a very peculiar morphology, the balconies dominate down the views over the valleys, and join up with the ridges leading to the main peaks of the massif. They are actually erosion surfaces, evidence of ancient local climatic phases.


The modulation of the landscape by man

The current landscapes of the Canigou are the result of natural phenomena (geological, climatological, biological), but also the consequence of centuries of history where man has left his mark on his activities, beliefs and lifestyles. The Canigó Massif has always been a source of wealth for the region, and has been well populated until the interwar period (20s and 30s of the twentieth century), and since the beginnings of civilizations, with traces found since of the Neolithic period. Thus, the Canigó shows us a present that reflects the different occupations and exploitations carried out by man over the centuries and millennia:

Livestock and grazing have been one of the most popular activities in the Canigó massif. As early as the second century BC. there are definite transhumance paths, then favored by the opening of paths for iron mining in the mountains. Grazing will reach its peak in the late seventeenth century, early eighteenth century, and then experience a decline in the second half of the nineteenth century, a time of great industrial and economic restructuring.

Miningwas already carried out in the first century BC, with the extraction of iron, although it was not until the Middle Ages that the first forges appeared.

Mining will contribute to the overexploitation of forests, the use of firewood as fuel, which is also affected by grazing and the use of deforestation for crops. The rise of the iron industry took place in the 15th and 16th centuries, but in the 18th century a policy of reforestation deprived Catalan forges of fuel, and small forges disappeared in favor of larger industries. Thus, mining survives until the twentieth century when it saw the closure of the last company in Vetera, in 1981. Even today, however, there is still an important industrial heritage that marks the landscape.

Forest management: The exploitation of the forest was such that almost all the forests in the massif became virtually extinct. The massive development of forges continually required fuel resources, and agriculture and grazing also contributed to the extinction of forests. This abrupt deforestation, naturally, ended up causing major problems of erosion and flooding. The rains of 1940 caused the dumping of millions of tons of sediment into the Roussillon, which was not very urbanized, and caused the death of numerous Catalan and Spanish refugees, who had built makeshift shelters on the Tec River. A dense forest cover had to be rebuilt in Conflent and Vallespir, so in 1943 the Mountain Land Restoration Service was established to combat erosion, with actions such as reforestation, land reclamation, creation of small dams. in the rivers, etc., a service that is still in force today.

Military architecture: the ownership of a territorial boundary. The Canigó, always in a border situation, has been an area of ​​conflict and tension throughout history. This situation has given it a defensive role, which is why two types of military buildings were erected on the massif: watchtowers and fortified villages. More than a dozen towers (built from the 11th century onwards) and thirteen fortified towns or castles are still standing today, with special emphasis on Vilafranca del Conflent (11th century) and Prats de Molló (15th century).

Religious architecture: since prehistory, the Canigó massif has been used as a sacred space (dolmens, megalithic monuments, tombs, etc.). This trend is confirmed in the High Middle Ages by the construction of numerous religious buildings around the mountain, both in the valleys and in the higher parts. With small rural hermitages or large monasteries, the mountain is Christianized, and a Catalan Romanesque art is born with Hispanic and Lombard influences that we find, in its maximum splendor, in the monasteries of Sant Miquel de Cuixà and Sant Martí del Canigó.

The villages: the contrast between the Conflent, the Vallespir and the Aspres lies not only in the landscapes but also in the types of occupation that man has done there. In Vallespir and Els Aspres it has always been scattered, occupying the mountain, while in Conflent denser villages were growing at the foot of the mountains and at the bottom of the valleys. The orography gradually gave rise to a different identity between the inhabitants of these mountainous regions and those of the Roussillon plain. Their villages, however, were depopulated as mining was abandoned in the early twentieth century, and with the various crises in the rural world since then.

The tourism development: At the end of the 19th century, the Canigó radically changed its face with the massive opening of tourism. It is the president of the French Alpine Club in Paris, Charles Durier, who, conquered by the beauty of the place, decides that “a step should be opened to facilitate access to the summit.” Thus, it has the dubious honor of embarking on a phase of destruction of the natural environment to meet the “needs” of leisure of the bourgeois class of the cities. There were other times, and on August 18, 1886, three loads of dynamite were used to create the “Durier Gap.” This is the era of bourgeois tourism, born at the beginning of the century as a result of thermal baths in Vernet or Prats de Molló. The Xalet de Cortalets was completed in 1899 and marks the beginning of the domestication of the massif.
The other 10 places that have been awarded Grand Site de France since 2004 are Orgnac, Sainte-Victoire, Pointe du Raz, Pont du Gard, Mont Beuvray Bibracte, Puy de Dome, Marais Poitevin, Saint-Guilhem-le -Desert Gorges de l’Hérault, Deux Caps Blanc-Nez and Gris-Nez Somme.

The fauna

The chamois (Rupricapra pirenaica) is the large mammal capable of withstanding the climatic conditions of the high mountains. It moves on snow or ice thanks to the special design of the hooves. It moves and jumps without difficulty by the great slopes and screes. The groundhog (Marmota marmota) is a species that has recolonized the area and is currently expanding. It lives in alpine landscapes and is one of the foods of the golden eagle. The ermine (Mustela erminea) is a small carnivore. In summer it has light brown hair and the tail ends in a black brush, and in winter it turns white to go unnoticed in the snow. The Pyrenean newt (Euproctus asper) is a tailed amphibian endemic to the Pyrenees and nearby areas. It can be seen in many rivers and streams in the area. he red frog (Rana temporaria) shows a distribution similar to that of the Pyrenean newt. It is a Euro-Siberian species. Refuse polluted water.

The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) is one of the most spectacular birds of prey. Plan for large areas looking for food. The bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) is a highly specialized bird of prey, which is seen relatively often in the high mountains. Taking advantage of the thermals, groups of vultures often visit us. Although their nesting has not been verified in the area, they are very easy to observe. The white partridge (Lagopus mutus) is a representative species of the alpine habitat. It is a bird that changes its color when it replaces its feathers. During the winter it shows white plumage to go unnoticed in the snow. During the summer, the coloration shows brown patches that confuse it with the surrounding rocks. It even has feathers on its legs to withstand low temperatures. The black woodpecker (Dryocopus martius) is the largest woodpecker species in Europe and is distinguished from other woodpeckers by its black plumage with its red head and neck.

The flora and vegetation

The Eastern Pyrenees in general, and the Canigó massif in particular, due to its contrasting terrain and the considerable rainfall, allows the organization of a great diversity of plant communities.

The alpine habitat (2.300 – 2.900 m) is mainly made up of meadows, with the presence of a large number of flowers, most of them very colorful. Plants such as the blue panicle (Eryngium bourgatii) or the mountain licorice (Trifolium alpinum) are typical of this area. Basically, the peaks form the screes formed by the cracked and mobile rock where a good number of plants have adapted to these places. by the cracked and mobile rock where a good number of plants have adapted to these places. The white grass (Senecio leucophyllus) shows a tight hair, it is endemic to the Eastern Pyrenees, such as the Isard Parsley (Xatardia Scabra) or the alpine pansy (Viola cenisia), which has fragrant flowers. The blue torus (Aconitum napellus) is a plant that produces intense lilac flowers and grows in places frequented by livestock. It accumulates alkaloids that make it toxic and medicinal at the same time.

The subalpine habitat ( (1.600 – 2.300 m) is potentially dominated by communities of black pine (Pinus uncinata), which is able to survive where the weather conditions are more adverse, few nutrients, wind, cold, snow, so it is often seen twisted and strangely shaped. The blackberry (Rhododendron ferrugineum) forms the undergrowth of these pine forests. The gentian yellow (Gentiana lutea) grows in natural meadows at the foot of the mountain and alpine habitat. It is a renowned species as a result of its use for snacks. Fir forms forests that end up mixing with beeches.

The mountain range (700 – 1.600 m) is made up of deciduous and Scots pine forests. The beech forest is a forest that grows in humid places, abysses and some streams. It can present a great floristic richness. Geranium nodosum, the laurel (Daphne laureola), liverwort (Anemone hepatica), green hellebore (Heleborus foetidus), strawberry (Fragaria vesca) are other plants that we can find in this stage. We also find the Scots pine pine forest (Pinus sylvestris), the oak grove (Quercus robur), the large-leaved oak grove (Quercus petraea) or the holm oak grove (Quercus pubescens), which represents a transition between the forest. Mediterranean and Central European.
In the riparian forest, the plants that make it up are adapted to withstand the thrusts of the water and the mechanical impacts of the rocks during the floods. It is a grove that follows the rivers and serves as a refuge for wildlife. It is composed of alder (Alnus glutinosa), white willow (Salix alba), bugs (Typha angustifolia), etc. Orchids are one of the most spectacular plant families during the flowering season and perhaps one of the most evolved. In Ripollès, 43 species have been found out of a total of 58 mentioned in Catalonia.

We remind hikers to stay on the signposted trails. Camps, harvesting and mineral collection are prohibited by regulation.