, , ,

Driving Through Cathar Country

Vineyard in Cathar Region.
© L Peat O’Neil

Rooting for the little guy, cheering the underdog and supporting the revolutionary ideal are well established American customs .  So it was natural for me to be attracted to the Cathars, who played David to the Goliaths who ran the Roman Catholic Church in the 13th century.

The Cathars were odd birds who denied themselves the pleasures of the flesh for a hypothetical promised land on the other side of the death rattle. So what if their belief system –that humans have a dual nature  encompassing good and evil– was about as murky as today’s psycho-babblers who chalk up adolescent murderers to eating too much sugar.

Mostly, I liked the Cathars because they questioned the authority of the corrupt, lavish empire ruled by the pope and his political supporters, the princes and kings of Europe. Some things never change.

Cathars were Christians, but non-conformists.  They believed in God, but not the doctrine and theology as taught by the Catholic Church during those pre-Reformation, pre-Protestant times.  Who wouldn’t be curious about their romantic, brutal end?

Vineyards unfurl as far as the eye can see. This is wine country, the hot dry rough soil produces a robust grape.  The hearty reds of Corbieres,  Cahors, the Roussillion and all of Languedoc are made to wash down trenchers of food, the kind working people eat. I noticed signs put up by wine makers offering degustation (tastings) along the route and promised myself a stop, but would have to pay attention to timing because many of these rustic cellars close for lunch from noon to 2 p.m. or later. Near Perpignan, the town Maury on the D117 route, is the jumping off place for a wine country tour.“You are in the country of the Cathars” proclaimed a hum-drum brown billboard alongside the autoroute about a half hour east of Toulouse. The sign was gone in a flash. I was speeding at more than 120 klicks per hour, somewhere in the middle of Southwest France, headed for Carcassone and points south, barely holding my own against swifter Citroens, Range Rovers and Mercedes.  The Peugeot “Kid” with blue jeans upholstery sure was cute, but the interior was too tight even for my petite 1.58 meters,  ( 5 foot 2 inches in American measure).  My left foot was jammed against a wheel wall and my right knee was nicked by the dangling keys.  The best feature of the “Kid” was its lack of appetite for that expensive French gas.

I was on my way to visit several Cathar castles, the last strongholds of the mysterious Medieval sect that the Pope and the King of France tried to stamp out in a decades long series of attacks which history calls the Albegenois Crusade. Throughout the region between Toulouse, Montpelier and the Mediterranean, the  Cathars occupied or rebuilt great chateau fortresses to guard neighboring villages and farmland.  It took several decades for the knights from the North to wipe out the Cathars, the last of whom were burned alive at the foot of Monsegur on a cool March night in 1244.

Before that sad ending, the Cathars had developed quite a following.  To gentry and gutter-folk alike, the religion promised an simpler, more meaningful alternative to the glitz, glam and outright corruption of Catholicism. There was also the issue of swearing allegiance — and paying taxes — to the King of France instead of the local Counts of Toulouse, an easy-going lot whose southern ways sprung from a live and let live philosophy. Cathar resistance to Papal law was not just about religious beliefs.  It was an effort to preserve liberty of conscience as well as territorial, political and financial independence.

Cathar country lies east and south of Toulouse, from Carcassone south to Foix in the Pyrenees and Perpignan on the Mediterranean coast. It includes the Roussillon, which  takes its name from the red soil that bakes in the sun and produces a hearty red wine that provides a blue collar alternative to chi-chi Bordeaux. Grapes are bursting on the vine; harvest season is neigh. Wind howls and gusts, fluttering the leaves of the plane trees along the road.

I had already visited  Montsegur, last stronghold of the Cathars. I had trekked upwards through the pine forests to the crumbling stone castle ruin imagining I heard the screams of the massacred heretics burned alive by soldiers of the Papal crusade at the base of the mountain. But no, the yells were French marine drill sergeants urging their recruits to the top.  Running up Montsegur, you see, is still fit work for a grunt in l’Armee du la Republic.

The deep background on the Cathars runs like this. When it became clear to the Pope that his religious emissaries couldn’t persuade the Cathar groups to abandon their simple lifestyle and open disdain for the authority of the Catholic Church,  then the only “Christian” option available to the Pope was to convince them by the sword.

So, in 1209  Innocent III — don’t you love the stage names those Popes cook up for themselves — launched an immense military crusade against the Cathars, calling upon the knights of Northern France to raise arms against those heretics in the south.  As an enticement, the crusaders could keep whatever land and goods they plundered, all in the name of promoting the Catholic Church’s authority, of course. The crusade marked the beginning of the Inquisition which, during  several centuries and through many countries, extinguished or drove underground all forms of healthy dissent.

Albi was the Cathar capital of the crusade against the Cathar sect, so the decades of pursuit and pillage is also called the Albigenois Crusade. Albi is also where centuries later the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born and passed his childhood.   The Palais de la Berbie houses a museum honoring the artist in the center Albi.

In the 12th c. Catharism was sprouting all over France and indeed through much of Europe.  Remember, back then, Europe was a maze of small principalities, some aligned with the court at Paris or with the Pope, some not. The monopoly religion of Europe was dead against any alternative interpretation of Christianity to Roman Catholicism.

During the 1100’s and 1200’s, artisans and tradesmen were attracted to the religion which criticized the pomp and luxury of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and questioned the omniscient authority claimed by the pope. At first, Cathar leaders did not recruit the nobility to their religion.  But by the 13th c. some of the regional nobles had embraced the path. At the apex of the Cathar movement, it is estimated that half the population of southwest France had left the Catholic church to follow the new religion. No wonder the Pope was worried.

It’s important to remember that the Cathar story has a political root.  The  King of France joined forces with the Pope to crush the heretics. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that France hoped to annex the independent principalities in the heart of rich Languedoc.  As the Crusade advanced, the southern nobles collapsed, though not without putting up a good fight. At Carcassonne, lack of food and water forced the Vicomte to surrender. One by one the regional Counts succumbed.  Their domains now fell directly under the French crown.

I could see the land hadn’t suffered for being French. The vineyards were thriving. Colors had changed and summer was on the run. The sunflowers that glow in the fields all summer had browned and hung their heads. The fields of rapeseed, used for oil, their flowers brilliant yellow under the early summer sun, were now a  mature green.  Wheat, grown and harvested the year around in this mild climate, drooped at the end of another cycle. I saw sweeping fields of ochre yellow, the stalks nearly bent over with the weight of the grain.  The wild flowers had changed too.  The white and yellow pacquerettes (daisy) which dotted the springtime fields gave way to hardier wildflowers in shades of gold and purple and brown.

The fields have changed from spring to late fall, the work has not.  The rows were neat, weedless,  furrowed by tractors that rake the empty fields.  This isn’t agribusiness; some cultivated patches are small enough for one family or cooperative to effectively manage.  While driving past, I saw an ancient rusty tractor, imbedded in the field over which it had surely toiled.  Now it serves as improvised sculpture,  honored for long service.   The wholesale neglect of machinery or the  casual dumping of broken implements is not practiced here.  Tools are used, cared for, exchanged, salvaged, reused, sold, but rarely dumped.  That is the supposed privilege of our North American society where refrigerators, lawn mowers, trucks or cars are junked without a thought.  Perhaps, as the Cathars thought, abundance corrupts.

The trouble with following in the footsteps of Cathars is most of their steps went up.  And up.  Hounded from their farms and villages, they sought refuge in mountain top castles, some owned by the nobles who professed allegiance to the Cathar faith, other loaned to groups of fleeing heretics by sympathetic barons in the region.

Queribus was one of these hilltop refuges, part of a line of defense on the Aragon frontier to the south.  Like most of the castles in this part of Europe, it had changed hands several times, passing through the control of  Barcelona, the Kingdom of Aragon and other local lords.  French King Louis got the fortress in 1258 after the massacre at Montsegur.  After Spain and France agreed on new borders in the mid 1600’s, Queribus was a long way from the frontier and of no strategic use.  It’s been baking in the  sun for centuries.

I forced the Kid upward past rocky violet toned hillsides, through boarded up villages.  No matter what time of day I drove through the villages, windows were shuttered, except after 6 p.m. when men lounged in the cafes and drank Pastis or the young blades roared through town on their motorbikes.

For a while, I followed a lumbering wine tanker towards Queribus castle.  The narrow road had no guard rails and I consoled myself that if the wine truck driver can negotiate the tight switchbacks, surely I can nudge the Kid through them too. Down below, I imagined rusted hulks of vehicles that didn’t make the sharp turns.  Along the way, I did see one recently smashed  guardrail, tree limbs broken, the token ribbons and flowers that have come to memorialize death at the wheel.

Finally, some 2200 feet up,  I parked on a gravel plot spread over a narrow ridge below the Castle of Queribus.  Time for the lunch  acquired earlier in a nameless village.  Ignoring the families piling out of camper vans from Belgium and the couples dressed with artsy attitude slithering out of fancy sedans with the black and yellow license plates of the Netherlands, I prowled out onto the windswept mountainside.  As my feet crushed the vegetation, the scent of anise, lavender and rosemary wafted up.  I strode on, until I could neither see nor hear the parking lot action.

I munched on cheese and bread, yogurt and nuts and stared at the castle perched at the pinnacle of the hill. A steep staircase cut in the rock leads to the entrance which leads to other guard points and even narrower staircases. What kind of people would sequester themselves at the top of nowhere?  The wind was just as vicious then, the lavender scent just as sweet. What did they eat, those Medieval refugees and travelers?  Probably sheep’s milk and cheese, bread and wine,  cured ham and the dry sausage –sauccisson– which is still a favorite in the region.

Instead of trudging up to the castle, I hoofed in high gear, determined to show the other visitors that my hiking boots were made for action not fashion. Wind shrieked through narrow windows where archers must have sighted their bows hundreds of years ago.  Queribus is positioned to defend against attack from all directions.  The Kingdom of Aragon, now a province of Spain, lay to the south.  Cathars were not treated so harshly there.

I wanted to believe that a few Cathars snuck across the border and survived.  But I don’t share the musings of collectors of Holy Grail legends who claim the Cathars secretly fled further into the  heart of the Pyrenees Mountains and buried the golden chalice imagined to have been used at the Last Supper.  I guess those Grail fantasizers overlooked the facts about that clutch of nomadic fisherman breaking their meager Passover bread. They weren’t into gold, any more than the Cathars were.  Over the centuries, Cathars have been on the receiving end of many projections — that they were devil possessed anti-Christs, that they were prototypes for the Troubadours, that they were out to overthrow the Church and the Crown, that they were direct descendants of those  Apostles whose clay dishes became gold over time.

Queribus is just an empty shell tidied up from centuries of decay. The stone blocks have been reset, the mortar restored.  Several dim rooms form the perimeter of the castle.  The focal point is the watch tower and an adjacent barrel vaulted room which opens into a two level room with an arched roof supported by pillars.  I tried to imagine life in these stone rooms–crowded, cold, smelly and smoky.  Where did people go for privacy?  Did they pray all the time?  Did lovers huddle under sheepskins whispering tender support? But the Cathar ideal excluded carnal relations, so the caresses were surely chaste.

On the way down from Queribus, I met  a couple of hard core cyclists pumping up the mountain  in the noonday sun.  I was driving slow enough to see their wild dehydrated stares.  Mad Dogs – must be British. Back and forth I nosed the Kid downward on narrow switch backs, then froze like a scared rabbit when a motor coach plowed by.

By this time,  I was seriously tempted to taste the wine as countless signs invited.  But quaffing the heavy local red at 2:30 in the afternoon would surely hamper my tour of Cathar country.   There was much to see yet- Peyrepertuse, Puylaurens  and  Carcassonne.  Anyway, I was drunk on the scenery, rough craggy terrain with high cliffs in the distance and vineyards on the rolling lowlands. This is Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name type turf, silent, tough enough to sit through a dust storm, soft enough to make gritted teeth pass for a smile.

Westward across the valley and upward again, I headed to Peyrepertuse.  The little Kid’s  engine started to smell angry, so I edged off the road into one of those pull out areas and used the point ‘n shoot.  On the road again,  I nervously followed flatland drivers from the Netherlands and Northern Germany.  What do they know of switchbacks  without guard rails?

I’ve been sweeping through Southwest France since the early 1980’s when I first came to Toulouse.  I love the rolling countryside, easy going people and splendid food.  And the wine.

Few people paid attention to the Cathar history back then, though the castles were open for visitors. Now, Cathar country is packaged for tourists. Road signs point the way to the next Cathar chateaux. Artistic enameled maps stuck on entry booth walls advise of related tourist spots, but oddly don’t refer to the Cathars. At Queribus, for example, the large painted wall map marked a car tour for the “Citadelles du Vertige” (castles perched on high ridges), and at Peyrepertuse a large panel noted the “Route du Cru Corbieres” (route of wild Corbieres) with dots indicating local chapels and ponds for fishing in the Marches de L’Alaric.  Was this an effort to promote non-Cathar points of interest in the region?

A tourist bureau office was set up in the snack bar at Queribus and a charming women of a certain age suggested hotels, restaurants and museums I might want to visit.  I learned there’s even a Cathar museum at Quillan with miniature models of the castles. Just in case hunting down and humping up to the real castles proved too tiring.

At Peyrepertuse, the path upward is shaded by tall bushes with intertwined branches that create  a tunnel up to the chateau. Standing on the narrow stone staircase cut in the rock,  I considered how castles are overlaid with romantic expectations. All those childhood fantasies — the romance of knights in armor, archers on the castle wall,  princesses who needed to be rescued.  The reality must have been a harsh lonely life on these red plateaus with the wind bolting down from the Massive Central clear across Languedoc to the Spanish coast and North Africa. After the northern troops plundered the land and ripped out the vineyards, there wouldn’t have been much wine to ease the loneliness either.  Across the valley, Queribus shimmered in the pitiless sun.  I was getting used to the whine of the wind, my hair whipping through my mouth.

Hiking near Chateau Peyrepertuse
© L Peat O’Neil

Peyrepertuse is larger than Queribus and there’s a green area between the two donjons (towers).  I lay in the sun and drifted between consciousness and the Middle Ages.  Peyrepertuse sheltered Cathars from Carcassonne.  In 1240, Trencavel, son of the ruler of Carcassonne, fled here after failing to retake his father’s city from the crusader forces.   Revolts and skirmishes continued for several decades, and some surely emanated from this castle.  Neighboring towns prepared to succeed from France, but the plots were found out and their founders executed.  In the end, the Cathar leaders died out, fled or went underground.

Friends had recommended the Gorges de Galamus.  The faint of heart better consider this excursion carefully  and those with fear of high narrow places should not proceed.  The Gorges lies generally north west of Perpignan, just a few miles west of Peyrepertuse, and north of the D117.   Essentially, you are driving on a wide bookshelf above a deep narrow gorge.  There’s one lane and it’s about wide enough for a motorcycle, as long as it isn’t a Harley Hog.

French people seem to enjoy driving this bookshelf. The rest of us pray the other drivers are slow and aware of what’s going on and coming on.  Find the horn, which on a Euro rental car might be on the turn indicator, or a button on the floor, for all I know.  I discovered this after slapping the rampant lion, Peugeot’s emblem in the center of the steering wheel, and getting silence.  I shouted at the oncoming driver, hoping to snap his attention, and he braked and inched his car past mine.  I could see his fillings when he grinned.  This is how the French play chicken with tourists.

So there you are nosing along this French built donkey track with hubcap high guard rails and you think:  What if the engineering team was having a bad day.  What if they mixed the cement while they killed a crate of wine.  What if another driver freezes in fear; I’ll have to back up on this curving bookshelf for miles.  I puttered along and tried to gaze with interest at the pink walls of the canyon and a gorgeous color display an hour or two shy of sunset.  Deep shadow alternated  with rose and gold patterns.  Then awareness of where I was intruded. I carried on, but what choice did I have.

Out of the Gorges de Galamus now, I really needed to rest.  At a wine tasting booth overlooking the Gorge, I couldn’t penetrate the proprietor’s comments –the local accent is beyond me –but I nodded gamely. I lived in the region several years ago and knew enough to shrug off what I didn’t understand.  He might have been telling his pals to watch the dumb American woman drink the harsh hooch.  Or maybe he was calling his friends to watch the sunburned British family drive off in a Volvo station wagon with the back door still wide open.  Tourists, after all, are the rolling sitcom for southern France.

Refreshed, I headed to Puilaurens fortress, further west along the D117.  The castle is folded between mountains, in a deep green forested corridor. Like Queribus, Puilaurens was a guard post along the Aragon frontier.  Cathars are said to have hid there.  We might suppose that every fortress within striking distance  of Toulouse, Albi or Carcassonne sheltered Cathars at one time or another during the decades of siege.  The citadel was ceded to France in 1256, or 1258, depending on which source you read.  Students of history recognize that this region lies far from the royal centers in Paris or Barcelona or Madrid, so the complete facts are smudged by time.  And true feelings about the northern crusade against the Cathars are likely still kept quiet.

The area is still separatist in spirit.  Catalan is spoken here and there.  Town signs are posted in French and Catalan.  The distinctive flag of Occitane flutters proudly.  I’m told there’s a resurgence of  Langue d’Oc in the classroom.  Apart from the occasional graffito suggesting the supremacy of Occitane, no violent outbursts and little overt political distention of the sort experienced in Corsica or Basque country mar the smoothness of daily life.   Men gather in village squares to play petanque, rolling the heavy metal balls against their mates’ metal balls.  Scores are kept seriously.

If you’re lucky, you’ll be in a village when the sardanne is danced– a folklore dance, roughly

like clogging combined with square dancing to a high pitched tune with dissonant tones that remind me of North African sheep herders songs. One time, as I passed hastily through the twirling dancers, I was reminded of Quebec country dancing with its intense individual social interactions overlaying the group effort. People talked as they clumped and swayed. They’re French people on the fringe of France, but still show their regional allegiance, even though the homelands of Catalan, Aragon, Occitane, are part of other larger countries– Spain, France, Canada–now.

At the end of the day, I studied Carcassonne’s crenelated towers against the reddish bloom of sunset.  Dinner beckoned, so I gave the Kid its rein and we landed in Villefranche-de-Lauragais for the night.  Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow would  bring other Cathar sites.   Lastours, where there are four Chateaus open for visitors.  Or Minerve where ruins of the ramparts and a hexagonal tower remain or Villerouge-Termenes or  Puivert or Arques.  Tracking the traces of the Cathars could be a lifetime pursuit.

Map of South West France, 17th c.
Languedoc is shaded green in lower left area.


Tourism – Albi     Tourism – Cathar Country

Pyrenees Pilgrimage by L Peat O’Neil, 2010.