Castles of the Cathars

Thursday 14th May 2009, Carcasson
We have now moved on, well into Cathar country. When we stayed at Ambre-les-Espagnolettes we became absorbed by the Cathars, their strange religious beliefs and the tragic persecution they suffered during the Albigensian Crusade because they were seen as a threat to the Catholic faith back in the 13th century. At the time we visited several of their mountain fortresses where they held out against the attacks and tyranny of both the Pope and the so called "St. Louis", Louis IX of France. Not far inland from the coast and Perpignan we discovered the hilltop castle of Quéribus and declared it to be the most exciting and atmospheric castle we have ever visited. (See the entry for 13th January 2006) It is matched, on the mountaintop on the opposite side of the valley, by another Cathar stronghold, that of Peyrepertuse. They are known as châteaux de vertige because of their unassailable positions, welded to the highest and most inaccessible summits of rock for miles around. Ever since we discovered Quéribus we have hankered to explore Peyrepertuse and today was the perfect opportunity.

We drove inland, leaving the flat coastal plain behind, skirted round Perpignan and made our way up into the mountains at the end of the Pyrenees. The road ran along a steep-sided wide valley between two limestone escarpments and eventually Quéribus came into view on the skyline, seeming to grow out from the bedrock on which it was built, so that it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began.

As we turned off into the mountains at the little village of Maury we noticed that the car park had been taken over by a travelling circus. As usual in southern France the public toilet was unusable, on this occasion it had been requisitioned to serve as a temporary stable, surrounded by assorted circus animals, ankle-deep in llama droppings and performing dogs – and they were!

Our route climbed steeply upwards in a series of hairpin bends, past the little village of Cucugnan and on through the isolated hamlet of Duilhac-sous-Peyrepertuse. Here the rain that has been threatening for days arrived in a rush. Soon the road was a ribbon of water and we pulled in for an early picnic lunch in Modestine as we waited for it to pass. Eventually we arrived just below the castle, Modestine puffing her way up the narrow, winding road in first gear. One of her greatest assets is her ability to reach the places camping cars find hard to access.

Peyrepertuse from the road below

We were warned that the path up was slippery and dangerous but after Quéribus we knew what to expect. We'd reckoned without the rain which promptly returned as we struggled up the steep rocky path, permanently stopping to gaze, awestruck, at the swirling clouds around the surrounding mountaintops and rising in white whisps from the valley 800 metres below. Unpleasant as the weather was, it was very atomospheric and greatly enhanced the sense of mystery surrounding the castle which dates back to the 12th century. Across the valley stood Quéribus, on the same level as Peyrepertuse, and beyond that, the eastern end of the Pyrenees. Sections of the limestone escarpments on which the fortresses seemed to grow were moulded and twisted like plasticine while down in the valley between them there appeared to be signs of volcanic eruptions with conical shaped wooded hills very unlike the surrounding rugged limestone crags.

The rain eased and we splodged and slithered up and down broken steps, skirting rockfalls and clambering down into deep, dark ruined rooms. While not quite as inspiring as Quéribus, it came a close second and there was perhaps more of the original castle remaining.

Path up to Peyrepertuse hiding in the mist

Ruins of Peyrepertuse

Inside the walls of Peyrepertuse

Inner keep, Peyrepertuse

Cleanest communal latrines in southern France, Peyrepertuse

Lower castle seen from the very summit, Peyrepertuse

Looking up to the summit from the lower castle, Peyrepertuse

Growing on the walls of Peyrepertuse

Castle walls and our route up, Peyrepertuse

Looking down the valley from the walls of Peyrepertuse

Flowers beside the footpath up to Peyrepertuse

Flowers beside the footpath up to Peyrepertuse

Eventually we returned to Modestine and crawled cautiously back down to the valley floor. Further along we turned off down possibly the most spectacular gorge we have ever seen – the Gorges de Galamus. The warning stated the route, cut into the twisting contours of the cliff face, was only two metres wide and 2.7 metres high. Modestine is 1.7 metres wide and 2.4 high so off we set. We made it through okay but it certainly caused an adrenalin rush with the ravine dropping away, far below and way out of sight. Above us the rock-face was just inches from our roof while the cliff face on the other side of the ravine was at times so near it hid the sky far above us! The wind was funnelled through the gorge and was really violent and to cap it all, the rain returned.

Road through the Gorges de Galamus cut into the rock

On the way through the Gorges de Galamus

Road and ravine in the Gorges de Galamus

Gorges de Galamus

Once clear we decided we'd best start to seek out a campsite for the night. There was nothing so far up in the mountains and the nearest one on our ACSI list was a good sixty kilometres away near Carcassonne. The drive seemed endless in torrential rain and once we eventually arrived it was to find the site closed and barred despite a sign proclaiming it to be open. The only other remotely possible site on our ACSI list lies way across the next range of mountains along twisting, flooded roads as darkness began to fall. We were though, fortunate enough to chance on what seems a pleasant site along the way and have been very grateful to pull in here for the night.

It's strange being back in the Languedoc region again. It became so familiar to us when we spent a couple of months sheltering from the winter in our friends' house near St. Chinian. Then, when the weather was bad, we had somewhere to return to, to shut out the cold and enjoy the warmth of the cottage kitchen along with a glass of the local wine. Now we find ourselves on familiar roads but with no home to go back to. Modestine is a treasure but when it's cold, dark and wet outside it can be very crowded in here with a couple of folding bikes, four very wet and muddy hiking boots, wet jackets, umbrellas and our ever expanding library of maps and guidebooks!

Friday 15th May 2009, St. Pons, Languedoc
Last night the temperature dropped to 6 degrees! Not so long ago in Spain it was up as high as 38. It has remained wet and chilly all day with a strong and gusty wind. Ian though never lets such trifles interfere with dragging me up to high castles. When he phoned our friends Lesley and Ivor this morning, currently staying in their house in Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, mentioning that we were near Carcassonne they suggested we should visit the nearby site of Lastours with not one, but four castles on its hilltop site! We found the village tucked deep in a little valley after a long and meandering drive through lovely green woodland. The castles of course were way up on the skyline, each on its own rocky outcrop. We struggled up the steep, uneven path, much like yesterday's, clambering over and around the rocks and even through an underground cave, stopping frequently to regain breath, admire the spectacular scenery and, for me, to peel rain-drenched hair out of my eyes. Our umbrellas were really far more useful than hiking sticks today. Not only did they offer some protection from the horizontal driving rain, but they helped enormously when held at a jaunty angle as we wobbled our way precariously along the tops of the walls linking different sections of the castles together! There was always the risk though, of a gust of wind carrying us off like Mary Poppins.

There is evidence of occupation on the site back to the Bronze Age, about 3,500 years ago. In the cave named the Trou de la Cité, which forms the entrance to the castle complex, the burial of an eight year-old girl was found, adorned with jewels which demonstrated trading links with Egypt and Mycenaean Greece.

Trou de la Cité, Lastours

In the 6th century the Languedoc-Roussillon area was invaded by the Visigoths and this area of the Montagne Noir marked their boundary with the land of the Franks. Three of the four castles, Caberet, Surdespine and Quertinheux were built in the mid 11th century. The lords of Caberet had Cathar sympathies and during the "crusade" against them, provided shelter and protection. They held out victoriously against attacks by Simon de Montfort between 1209 and 1227 when Caberet finally fell and the castles and village were destroyed by the forces of the king. The castles were later rebuilt, and King Louis IX ordered the fourth one, Tour Régine, to be constructed at the same time as a symbol of his power.

Eventually the castles fell into decay and were finally abandoned during the French Revolution when they became the property of the State. They are now classified as historic monuments.

Tour Régine and Caberet, Lastours

Caberet, Lastours

From left to right: Surdespine, Tour Régine and Quertinheux, Lastours

It took us two or three hours clambering up and down to each castle, sheltering from the rain on broken spiral staircases with the wind howling in through the long, narrow window slots. Not surprisingly we seemed to be almost the only people daft enough to be up there! Once down in the village we rejoined Modestine and drove to the top of the far side of the valley from where it was possible to see all four castles, along with the entrance to the huge cave below Quertinheux. It was gone 4pm before we even found time for any lunch.

Drafty window, Lastours

View from the belvedere above Lastours. From left to right: Cabaret, Tour Régine, Surdespine and Quertinheux with the Trou de la Cité cave below

So I don't know whether to bless or curse our former "landlords" for their bright suggestion. Ian cannot resist hilltop castles and at least we got four of them over with on one hilltop. I have to admit too, that they were superbly located and the wild plants, flowers, shrubs and cypress trees were alone worth the climb.

Leaving Lastours behind we drove steeply up through wet, winding, empty, woodland roads, along beside fast-flowing, rock-strewn rivers, passing through isolated rural villages until we eventually rejoined the main road through to Mazamet, once apparently known as the "wool capital of Europe." The only obvious signs today are a proliferation of wool and textile museums in the town and surrounding villages. Eventually we found ourselves back on very familiar ground as we reached St. Pons where we are now camped on a pleasant family-run site, surrounded by cherry trees and Dutchmen. Both make for a very agreeable atmosphere.