by: Irapuã Santos Ribeiro
The study experience
Most students when they see the specialisation in Solar Thermal may think like me, that the semester is at the campus in Perpignan, or that you would spend some time there. However, the whole course is given in the Solar Furnace building, located in Font Romeu-Odeillo-Via. This agglomerate of 3 small towns surrounded by majestic mountains was the daily scenery for going to school, shopping and all other activities that we did there.
The view of the solar furnace building when we arrived in February
The course, given in 5 modules, fills the whole period from February to the beginning of June, being the last two weeks more focused on assignments, the final project and the exams. There were 2 weeks of holidays at the beginning of April.
We had many practical works in labs, both using computer programs for design and simulations, as well as experiments using the facilities. The most interesting lab, in my opinion, was the one using the small solar furnace located in the last level of the building in which we reached temperatures above 1500 ºC, melting steel and copper samples.
The experiment with the solar furnace - melting steel samples
The lecturers are professors from the University of Perpignan and researchers from the French laboratory PROMES (PROCÉDÉS, MATÉRIAUX ET ÉNERGIE SOLAIRE). There were also some special lecturers from other universities, who contributed to our overall learning experience. The level of study is considerably high, although we had on average 5 hours of study in class per day. A good basis in Thermodynamics and Heat and Mass Transfer will for sure help the student to understand the topics, which in general the professors assume you already have. In my case, who had studied these topics some years ago, I had to do extra work at home to follow the classes.
The classes were generally from 10 am to 12 am, with a pause of two hours for lunch, returning at 2 pm and going until 5 pm. One and probably the best option for lunch is to eat in the lab canteen. The French style 3-course meal served daily has a good variety of salads, main plate and dessert. The modest price (3.35 euro/meal in June/2017) subsidized by the French government is also very attractive. Some people brought lunch few days but most of the times we were eating there.
There is also a cozy lounge room in the first floor of the building where we could spend our time during the lunch break or stay for studying outside the normal class hours.
There were two visits during the semester: one to the Themis Solar Tower facility where some European programs are being developed and another to a Fresnel power plant that is being built in Llo, a neighbour town of Font Romeu.
The heliostat field view from the top of Themis tower
Practical things: How to get there and move around, accommodation
Font Romeu is located in the middle of the Eastern Pyrenees in the Parc Naturel Régional des Pyrénées Catalanes. The town is around 90 km from Perpignan and 20 km from Puigcerda, the first Spanish town on the way to Barcelona (which is around 180 km by car). The best option if you are flying there is to go to Barcelona El Prat or to the Airport of Girona and then take the train to Puigcerda or LaTour de Carol. Both
towns are served by the Spanish train company RENFE (http://www.renfe.com/viajeros/cercanias/barcelona/index.html). Using the Rodalies (Cercanias) service is possible to take the route from Barcelona - LaTour with a stop in Puigcerda (Line R3). There is around 6-7 train a day and the trip lasts 3 hours on average, also being quite cheap (12 euros one-way in June/2017). There is also a possibility to take the train connection from the El Prat airport (R2), and then take the line R3 from Barcelona Sants. From Puigcerda the only option to go to Font Romeu is by taxi. But from LaTour de Carol is also possible to take the 1 euro bus (http://bus1euro.cd66.fr/telechargez-les-fiches-horaires/) line 260 that runs from Perpignan to Port Puymorens and stop in Font Romeu and LaTour few times a day. From Perpignan is also possible to take the 1 euro bus. Another option to get to Font Romeu is to arrive in Toulouse, take the French train SNCF to LaTour (https://en.voyages-sncf.com/en/train/timetables/toulouse/latour-de-carol) and then take the 1 euro bus from there.
From Font Romeu, the only options to move around are via the 1 euro bus (public transport) or by taxi. The options are rather limited unless you have a car.
We arranged the accommodation with the same landlady from the last semester group. We occupied 3 apartments from the 3-floor building. The balcony with an amazing view, was our reward after a long day of hard work with the studies. A good tip is to have a French speaker to sort out the contract, electricity, internet and the house insurance.
The view from our balcony
Activities and sports
Font Romeu is a ski resort. That said you have to consider the seasons and how the population changes because of tourism. When we arrived there at the beginning of February, the town was crowded. We heard that the local population is about 2000 people and this grows 10-fold during the season. There are cars with skis and snowboards everywhere. Snowboarding and skiing are definitely the best sports to do during this time. The tracks are easily accessible and there are options for all levels. The region is even famous for being a family friendly ski area. The closest cable car leaves from the town center on the side of the Tourist Office to the ski area of Les Airelles (http://www.altiservice.com/en/font-romeu-pyrenees-2000). There you’ll find many options to get to the hills. It’s also possible to walk to Les Airelles via the trails (around 3km) or the main road (around 5km), but be aware that during the winter everything is covered in snow.
Les Airelles in a sunny day after a stormy night
There are also many places for renting skis and snowboards in the town. Other options for winter sports outside Font Romeu are Bolquere (http://www.pyrenees2000.com/en/the-resort.html), Les Angles (http://www.lesangles.com/fr?v=winter), Cambre d’Aze (http://www.cambre-d-aze.com/fr/le-massif-du-cambre-daze) and Puigmal. Besides the snow sports, another fun option is to do one of the raquette circuits (there are several around the town) just rent some rackets to put on your boots and have fun walking on snow.
If you love cycling (like me) then you have many options to go around the region. Even during the winter there are sunny days that you can bike if you have proper clothes. Just choose one direction and have fun, remembering that it is a mountainous region so every hill you go down you will have to climb again to return.
One of the many bike rides I did there while it was still very cold
Some roads in the region are part of the Tour de France and La Vuelta de España. If you are curious about it, check the official website of each competition.
Mountain biking during the winter is more difficult (although there are some circuits to do with a fat bike), but during the summer is definitely one of the best options.
Unfortunately, the semester ends before the real summer season starts. That means that the city is basically empty from the end of March (end of the winter season and closing of the ski areas) until mid-June. During this time, more hiking trails become available (and there are many around there) including some passing near our Solar Furnace building. We even went for some short hikes during the lunch time (remember that we have 2 hours break).
Some of our friends went to play soccer few times there (when the snow had already melted) and it was fun.
If you like hot springs, there are 3 famous spots there: Les Bains de Llo, Les Bains Romans de Dorres and Fontpedrouse Les Bains.
The options for bar and nightlife in Font Romeu are rather limited. During the season is possible to find many options of bars, but outside this period, from the few available, we used to go to a bar called Le Dahu, which closes around midnight during the off season, and Cafe Rue Maillol (that we called Irish Bar), this one staying open on Fridays and Saturdays until around 2 am.
Trips to do in the region
There are many places to visit around the region. I particularly recommend going to Mont Louis where was installed the first solar furnace built in 1949. The citadel was constructed in a fortress style, quite small, walkable and has impressive views of the mountains and the valley that leads to Perpignan. Besides Mont Louis, there are several other medieval villages to visit such as Angoustrine, Err, Llo and Les Angles.
The solar furnace in Mont Louis
A good option for traveling is to take the 1-euro bus going towards Perpignan on the road N116 and stop in one of the villages on the way. The bus line runs in both directions so it's easy to plan even a half day trip. On that direction, my favorite place is Villefranche-de-Conflent, a really beautiful medieval town originally built in 1098 at a junction of two valleys almost at the edge of the Pyrenees. The town was strategic for the Catalonians and was disputed by the French and Spanish during the middle ages. There's an impressive fortress called Fort Liberia built in the 17th century on a hill behind the town, around 200m above the valley that was used as a defense point. It's possible to do a self-guided visit to the Fort paying only the entrance (7 euros).
Some views of Villefranche bridge (left) and Fort Liberia with the valley (right)
Another amazing trip not to be missed is Andorra. From Font Romeu, it's only 90km that can be done over the Pyrenees on the French side, like I did by bike with spectacular scenery on the way, and the return can be done in the Spanish side, where is possible to see the contrast of landscape and vegetation from both sides. Andorra is famous for being a tax-free country so most products are cheaper there when compared to Spain or France. There are many small towns in the Andorran valley where the capital Andorra La Vella is the largest. The best way to go is by car because public transport is scarce in that direction.
Crossing one of the passes on the way to Andorra
Another must do is to take the train on a Friday after class and go to Barcelona. I did it few times and really enjoyed every place I've been in the Catalan coast with my girlfriend, not only Barcelona itself. Barcelona is also a huge city that needs more times to explore.
Perpignan, like a mentioned before, is another place to spend a weekend, or you can also go there and rent a car to travel along the southern French coast. Several nice beaches can be found there, the closest one being only 15 km from Perpignan.
If you are like me with friends doing the specialisation semester in Zaragoza, I would definitely recommend going there... such a nice city with good vibes and friendly people. There are options of bus and train from Barcelona and it takes around 3-4 hours.
Toulouse is another tourist destination that unfortunately I didn't have time to visit but it's possible to take the train from LaTour de Carol.
During our stay in Font Romeu, the weather was actually nice. We expected more snowy or rainy days, but the heavy snow days happened basically in December/January and the first week of February. However, the snow (and ice) formed during this time stay for a long period on the footpaths and surroundings (backyards, forests, etc).
The snow cleaning system works very well in the urban area and the streets are clear few hours after a snowstorm. We had some days of snow in March (I think no more than 5 days in total) and other few days in April.
The sun was quite constant during our period there, although still cold. By the end of April and beginning of May, the transition of the spring to the summer takes place and is common to have some rains by the end of the afternoon, especially after 3 or 4 pm.
In some weeks the weather can change few times like I captured in this image below with our heliostat field as background.
The heliostat field in 3 different days of the same week at the end of April
Shopping and supermarket
There is only one supermarket in Font Romeu, a Carrefour located in the town center. The prices are a bit high but they have a good range of options. To save some money you can consider going to Lidl in Egat, around 3km from the city, but better to go by car. Another option is Super U, which is basically in front of Lidl and has a wider range of products although a bit more expensive. The cheapest option in the region is a Carrefour in Puigcerdá. Because it's in Spain, the prices are notably lower.
Bakeries and butchery can be found in the town center where the traditional French bread can be found, as well as good quality meat.
In Font Romeu there are some shops for clothing, shoes and other department items, but many of them close after the winter season ends. Probably it’s a better idea to buy these things when needed in Perpignan or Barcelona. By the end of the season you'll
find many options of winter clothing for sale. Good time to get some good quality/price items for the next winter.
Overall, the experience of studying and living in that region was really remarkable. Sharing that time with my friends of the specialisation semester gave me fond memories that I’ll carry for the rest of my life. If you are planning to study there, please don’t miss the chance. Or even if you aren’t, the region is definitely worth a visit.
Our farewell party in Le Dahu