Prats de Mollo (pronounced 'prah-duh-molo') is a small fortified town in the upper valley of the Tech river in the eastern Pyrenees (Pyrénées-Orientales), France. It's a popular tourist destination with its picturesque setting, fortifications and festivals. The Tech valley, also known as the Vallespir, is the southernmost valley in France, being on the French/Spanish border. Prats is on the north side of the river, on the lower slopes of the Eastern Pyrenees' highest mountain, the Canigou.
Prats de Mollo is a beautiful little town - it is rather touristy in summer but almost deserted in winter. It has a population of about 1,000 people. Situated at 745m above sea level (2,450 feet), it is near the tree line, so the heavy woods of the lower Tech valley are just giving way to more open ground and meadows.
It is these meadows that give the town its name: Prats de Mollo means 'Meadows of Molló' in Catalan, the language spoken in the area. The name is an old one, being recorded as far back as 878 AD. The town of Molló itself is across the top of the mountain ridge south of Prats, and is in Spain. While it might seem odd that the town is named after another town in a different country, in fact this whole area was part of Spain until 1659. And before the invention of motorised vehicles, when most people travelled on foot, mountains were not such an obstacle as they are now. It was easier to hike across the mountain pass to Molló than to trek down the heavily wooded valley to the towns further down.
The name of the area was obviously given by people from across the mountains, but the town itself was created by people coming up the valley. The monastery of Sainte-Marie in Arles-sur-Tech needed farmland. It was easier to do farming further up the valley where the woods weren't as dense and could be easily cleared, so some monks moved to the area known as Prats de Mollo and set up the town there as a farming community.
By the 13th Century Prats had become fortified, with a wall all the way around it. It was in the Kingdom of Aragon and Majorca. It became popular as a summer residence for the King; due to its altitude, it stays relatively cool in the summer. Later, this kingdom was subsumed into the Kingdom of Spain.
The Tax Rebellion of the 17th Century
In 1659, a war between Spain and France was brought to an end with the Treaty of the Pyrenees. One consequence of this treaty was the rationalisation of the border between France and Spain. It makes sense for everything on the north side of the mountains to be in France and everything on the south side to be in Spain. The Tech valley was transferred from Spain to France without any reference to the people that lived there. Almost immediately, the inhabitants got a demand from the French government - now that they were part of France, they were to pay French taxes.
In 1667, the locals decided to rebel; they would not pay the taxes. The only road into Prats was a very narrow track coming up the valley through a dense oak forest - they reckoned that they could easily defend the town against any invaders.
The French government was more determined than the Prats residents had expected. In 1670, the army climbed the Canigou mountain from the next valley, coming down onto the town from above, rather than up the valley. They quelled the tax rebellion and the locals were forced to pay up, the same as everybody else.
The Fortifications and the Fort
It was decided that the town should be fortified against an invasion from Spain, but the fortifications and the permanently occupied fort looking down on the town also served as a reminder to the locals that they should not rebel again.
This task was given to Sebastien La Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707), Europe's greatest expert on fortifications. He specialised in forts and walls that could withstand attack by cannon. He rebuilt the walls around the town, and these are quite impressive - the walls looking down on the river are about ten metres high. There are lookout points that project beyond the walls, and giant fortified gates.
The most impressive feature of Vauban's fortifications is the Fort Lagarde. Situated on the hillside about the town, it dominates the area. Like most of Vauban's creations, it is roughly star-shaped, with giant triangular extensions to the walls. Cannons mounted on these would cover all the approaches to the fort. The fort is not symmetrical - it is designed to fit the shape of the mountainside. For example, on the west side where the land is relatively flat, the wall construction is totally different to the south side where the ground falls steeply away.
The fort was not completed to Vauban's specification during his lifetime due to lack of funds, but various extra bits were added over the subsequent centuries, so that what you see now is a mixture of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. In the 19th Century, a tunnel was added connecting the fort to the town. This is still in existence. It reaches the town just north of the church.
The walled town is in the middle of a larger, more modern town. As you approach from further down the valley, you'll first meet a fairly typical modern French town. Then you arrive at the tree-lined Place du Foiral, where it may be possible to park. At the far end of the square you will see the walls of the fortified town. You won't be able to drive in. If you can't find parking, follow the main road left across the bridge; on the far side there's a large car park. Walk back to Place du Foiral and enter the fortified town through the Porte de France, the gate with the arch.
The fortified town is very pretty, with narrow streets and tall buildings. The main street brings you to the triangular Place d'Armes. Here there are coffee shops and free Wifi. Proceed up the steps of Rue de la Croix de Missions. At the top you will see a Cross of the Outrages (see below). Behind this is the imposing Church (also see below) and behind that you will find the way up to Fort Lagarde. You can go via the tunnel or an open-air path.
Going west from the Church, you reach a small river, a tributary of the Tech, which splits the fortified part of the town in two. The section beyond the river is known as the 'ville haute' (upper town). There's an impressive fortified bridge joining the two, with a sluice that can be lowered to store the water of the river in a giant pool. In the ville haute is the House of the Kings of Aragon.
If you return to Place d'Armes and take the right-hand road back to the Place du Foiral, you'll pass a little chapel known as the Chapel of Saints Juste and Ruffine. (This is confusing, as it almost exactly the same name as the main church.) The chapel has been decorated by local artist Jean Lareuse in brightly-coloured paintings and stained glass and is worth a look.
Within the walls of the town, the biggest building is the Church of Saints Juste and Ruffine. There's been a church on the site since the 9th Century, but it was rebuilt a couple of times, the present building dating from the 17th Century. The doorway is impressive: the wooden door is decorated with wrought-iron spirals and there's an unusual two-metre rib bone of a whale mounted in the wall over the door.
Inside the church, in a side chapel, stands a wooden statue of the Madonna and Child. This is a copy of the Black Madonna Notre-Dame d'El Coral (Our Lady of the Oak Tree). The original statue was reputedly found in the heart of an oak tree by a farmer whose bull refused to come when called and stood by the tree lowing. The statue was venerated by the locals and a small chapel was built on the mountainside at the location it had been found. This became a popular destination for pilgrims. The chapel is still in existence, a few miles up the mountain from Prats towards the Spanish border, but the location of the original statue is unclear.
According to the Tourist Office, the baroque furniture of the church reflects the former splendour of the town. The altar shows scenes from the life and martyrdom of Saints Juste and Rufine, who are the patron saints of the town.
The Cross of the Outrages
At the top of the steps, just under the walls of the church, stands a very fine example of a 'Cross of the Outrages' (Croix des Outrages in French, Creu dels Improperis in Catalan). Normal crosses have a figure of the dying Christ on them. The Cross of the Outrages, on the other hand, is covered in brightly coloured models which are symbols of Christ's Passion, in which he was arrested, tried, tortured, put to death on a cross and taken down from the cross. Such Passion Crosses are found in many countries, including France, Spain, Italy, Germany and even in South America, but they are particularly common in the parts of France and Spain where Catalan is spoken (the northeast of Spain and the parts of France just north of the Eastern Pyrenees). They were designed as teaching aids, so that the story of the Passion could be told to illiterate believers.
The cross has a particularly good set of symbols, presented here roughly in order from top to bottom and from left to right. The exact meaning of some of these symbols escapes the author:
- The cock that crowed after Peter denied Christ three times.
- The INRI inscription ('Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews') that Pontius Pilate had placed on the top of the cross
- The hammer that drove in the nails into Christ's hands and feet
- The lantern used by the Roman soldiers when they came to arrest Jesus
- The Chalice or cup of the Last Supper, the day before the crucifixion
- The hand of the High Priest, who slapped Jesus
- A jug
- The pincers used to remove the nails when taking the dead body of Jesus down from the cross
- The nails used to attach Jesus to the cross
- Some rags
- A spear with a sponge that was used to give Jesus a drink (of sour wine) when he was thirsty
- The curved sword with which Peter cut off the ear of the Roman soldier when he went to arrest Jesus
- The face of Jesus miraculously imprinted on Veronica's towel when she went to dry his face. This is displayed at the centre of the cross, where the figure's head would normally be.
- A rather spiky-looking plant, perhaps the palms used to honour Jesus when he entered Jerusalem in triumph
- The spear used by the Roman soldier to poke Jesus' side to see if he was dead
- An orange jar
- The seamless gown that the Roman soldiers gambled for, because they did not want to tear it
- A tall grey vase representing the water that Pontius Pilate washed his hands in, to show that he was not going to offer any ruling in the case
- The dice the Roman soldiers used to gamble for the gown
- The 30 pieces of silver that Judas received for betraying his friend
- The ladder used to take the body of Jesus down from the cross
As is normal for such crosses, the long items are positioned diagonally from the foot of the cross up to the ends of the arms. Other items are dotted around the cross, with the Towel of Veronica featuring Christ's face at the centre of the cross, and the cock standing at the very top.
Pageants and Festivals
Prats is home to a number of pageants and festivals.
The Festival of the Bear traditionally took place in early February but has now been combined with the Festival of Carnival, seven weeks before Easter. Three men covered in oil and soot and dressed as bears rampage through the town, trying to catch any inhabitants they can find. Meanwhile, men dressed in white with flour-whitened faces are the hunters who pursue the bears and try to catch them. After the bears are safely caught, the hunters change to being barbers and the bears are shaved to make them more human. Then there is a bear dance.
Another traditional Prats dance that takes place at Carnival is the Ball de Posta. A plank with the Devil on one end and the Virgin on the other features in the dance. There's bowing, kissing and smacks on the bottom.
In Summer, there are historical pageants at the Fort Lagarde. People in costume, some on horseback, re-enact the military life of former times. There is an admission fee to these.
The Road to Prats
The modern road to Prats is unusual in that it has many bends but no steep sections. The road proceeds from about Arles at the same gradient the whole way. The reason is that this was built as a railway line, and trains can't handle steep sections. You can still see the original station houses when the road passes through towns. There was a separate road, closer to the river, but it was washed away in the catastrophic floods of 1940. By this time, the railway line was no longer used, so they decided to re-use the railway as a road rather than rebuilding the road.