Finding Hermitage

Dateline Europe: A visit to France’s L’ermitage St. Martin de la Roc. By M. Michael Brady

44 Camelas, ermitage Saint Martin de la RocaOne of the distinguishing features of Mediterranean France is its profusion of ecclesiastical buildings. Each village, each town has its own church. Away from the more populous places there are chapels, built in centuries past, when people traveled mostly on foot or hoof. In the Pyrénées-Orientales Department along the northwest coast of the Mediterranean Sea, there are 127 chapels, considerable for its area of 1589 square miles (about the size of the State of Rhode Island). Today there are roads to or near many of the Chapels. But most are accessible only by hiking, along dirt roads or marked trails.

The favorite chapel hike of this correspondent is to L’ermitage St. Martin de la Roca (or San Marti de la Roca in Catalan) in the foothills of the Pyrenees above the small village of Camélas (population 417), about 17 miles by road southwest of Perpignan, the capital of the Pyrénées-Orientales Department. It’s perched on a hilltop, with a panoramic view of the encompassing hills and valleys. Here the vegetation is sparse; it stands like a beacon, visible from afar.

43 Camelas, ermitage Saint Martin de la RocaAs its name implies, in the 13th century L’ermitage St. Martin de la Roca (“Saint Martin of the Rock”) originally was built as a hermitage, where one or more monks lived in seclusion from the world about. In the 14th century it was expanded to a trapezoidal church measuring 21 by 31 feet, including housing. In 1644, Honoré Ciuro, the local Abbot, decreed that the hermitage should become a chapel, a move typical of the 17th century, as the Church sought to give new life to ecclesiastical buildings that had been abandoned as families moved to other hamlets of the region.

Anti-clerical laws enacted in 1790 restricted the uses of ecclesiastical buildings that were not parishes, so the hermitage closed. But in 1801 the laws were moderated, and in 1838 the hermitage was restored. Thereafter it was well maintained, with further restoration in 1969 and 1977.

47 Camelas, ermitage Saint Martin de la RocaToday, “Saint Martin of the Rock” no longer is inhabited. But it is a popular hike destination, about a three hour round trip up from and back down to Camélas. The elevation gain is modest, from Camélas at an elevation of 1082 ft. to the hermitage at an elevation of 1699 ft., and the hiking easy, more than half of it on roads maintained by the local forest service for fire protection and woodland maintenance. The surrounding valleys and their winds also have made “Saint Martin of the Rock” a prominent site for paragliding; info here (selectable in French or English).

Getting to the starting point at the large, free public parking lot in Camélas is easiest by car, as it’s south of the N116 motorway and north of the D615 highway west of Perpignan. But there’s also inexpensive bus service at 1 Euro a ticket (about $1.12) throughout the Department. From Perpignan you can go by bus to Camélas with a transfer midway at Thuir; schedules here (French only), Perpignan-Thuir route 390 and Thuir-Camélas route 391.

Map: The French IGN (“National Institute of Geographic and Forest Information”) Carte de Randonnée (“Hiking Map”) series map “Thuir/Ille-Sur-Têt map, No. 2448OT”, shows Camélas and the trails around it. You can order it online from IGN here (French only, prices in Euros), or from map shops in other countries, such as Maps Worldwide in the UK here (in English, prices in British pounds).