During the Spanish Civil War, many people had to flee across the border to France on foot and there were several routes through the mountains. This route from La Vajol in Catalunya to Les Illes in France, was famously taken by Lluís Companys (President of Catalonia), Manuel Azaña (President of the Spanish Republic), and Manuel Aguirre (Basque Lehendakari) in 1939 to escape Franco's forces, as well as by thousands more. In France the gendarmes took the exiles to the internment camps, one of the most notorious being on Argeles beach. The memorial statue of the man with his amputee child is a representation of a photograph taken at the time of two such people on the route.The route on foot is from La Vajol - Monument a l'exili - Can Comaulis - Can Barris - Coll de Lli - Les Illes (Catalunya Nord aka France) - Coll de Manrella - La Vajol - Mina Canta - La Vajol.
Distance: 13 Km.
We arrived in La Vajol, had a little wander around the small hamlet with its' Romanesque church (closed) and then headed for the monument, which considering it is the only such monument in Catalunya, was isolated in a disgracefully unkempt back lane with a derelict-looking caravan parked round the back. (Nobody else tells you that). Things improved, though. It being December and hot, naturally, we passed on the suggested complete re-run of the exile walk/cycle. We took the car part of the way up, walked to the commemorative plaque, where we had a picnic, then took the car to the top. We drove over the top of the mountain and down into France and Les Illes, where we had coffee in the charming Hostal dels Trabucaires, it being a little late for 'omelette'. It was magical, a time capsule, though the road is not to be driven by those with nice cars! It is almost vertical and unpaved. We spent the afternoon in the La Jonquera Exile Museum which is fantastic.
Taking the GI-505 road towards Coll de Manrella, we soon come to the Manrella-Comaulis restaurant, a good place to park for those travelling by car. One hundred metres further ahead, we come to a turn-off to the left, where a sign indicates the path to Coll de Lli hill, Cabrera Castle and the Sanctuary of Les Salines.
Just beyond this building, we come to a crossroads, where we continue straight on towards the village of Les Illes in France. At this point there is a small esplanade with a wire fence, where signs indicate the French border. Another sign, which reads Gite d’étape, indicates the direction towards a rural holiday homein Les Illes. We have now reached the top of Coll de Lli hill.
Our path now leads downwards, along a slope of low-to-medium difficulty. In autumn, the track, which leads through a chestnut wood, is thick with fallen leaves, which makes it difficult to negotiate, and it is advisable to walk along the side of the path itself. The last stretch of the path runs through private property at which, though we have right of way, we must open a gate and follow the path to a second.
Passing through this second gate, we find ourselves in the centre of Les Illes, where the exiles arrived after climbing the Coll de Lli. The first building we reach is the Hostal dels Trabucaires. This hostel is a historic establishment where, according to the local people, President Companys stayed. When he left, the hostel keeper made him an omelette, though he was unable to pay her for it as he had no money. There is a saying around these parts that the Catalans still owe them an omelette. Opposite this hostel is a Gite d’étape (rural holiday home). Another interesting site in Les Illes is the monument to the International Brigades and the republican army.
The quickest way back to La Vajol is to retrace our steps along the same path. An alternative route is over the Coll de Manrella hill, though the journey is longer and the path is not so easy to follow due to the many forest tracks that cross it. However, on leaving Les Illes, those returning by this route should take the cement road towards the Mas del Batlle farmhouse then follow an easterly direction until they reach the forest path to Coll de Manrella.
On reaching Coll de Manrella hill, where we enter Catalonia once more, we find the pyramid-shaped monument known as the “Temple of Peace”, erected to the memory of Lluís Companys. The monument was erected here precisely, not because President Companys passed through this point, but because it occupies a better site, more open and accessible than the Coll de Lli, which is the route that Companys actually took. The monument is also easily accessible from La Vajol, the journey taking just a few minutes by car.
(thank you for great description of walk above)
Directions to La Vajol
N-II national road to km. 773, or A-7 motorway to Exit 2 (La Jonquera), then take N-II towards Barcelona to the sign indicating the turn-off to Agullana and Maçanet de Cabrenys GI-500. From Agullana, the road to La Vajol becomes the GI-501.
Exile Memorial Museum
La Jonquera. 43-47 Carrer Major