In the foothills of the Pyrenees, often perched atop rocky outcrops, a series of spectacular castles tell the tale of a 12th century religion, hounded by Catholics under Pope Innocent III.
The Cathars were a gnostic Christian sect, who believed humans were angels sent to earth to renounce material comforts and make their way back to heaven. For them, men and women were equal and possessions were to be shunned. They criticised the greed and lechery of the Catholic Church and unsurprisingly, were denounced as heretics to become the target of persecution. With the support of sympathisers in south west France, they fled to strongholds, but hundreds were burned alive and the Cathars were eventually exterminated.
Their castles (or vestiges which have been partially restored) are open to visitors, offering poignant insights into how the Cathars lived and died, as well as breath-taking views across Languedoc’s hills and valleys. The best-known is probably the Chateau and fortified town of Carcassonne, but as a former resident of this beautiful part of the world, here are my selected insider highlights from the region.
1. Quéribus Castle
The Chateau de Quéribus is named for the Occitan ‘box-tree’, and many still grow wild nearby. This is one of the last Cathar fortresses, where Cathars fled after the fall of the Chateau of Montségur, surviving here 11 more years before they were forced to surrender. Sitting on the highest peak for miles, Quéribus juts into the sky, 728 metres above sea level. Seen from the road that cuts through the valley below, it’s like a jagged tooth, hewn out of the rock itself.
Visitors can drive almost to the ruin, needing to walk just the last hundred metres, but beware – access is difficult through the narrow, defensive entrance. Like many of the Cathar castles, riddled with broken steps and crumbling pathways – this is not for the faint-hearted. But the atmosphere and views are incomparable. In the distance, across valleys patch-worked with vines, you’ll see another Cathar Chateau, called Peyrepetuse, and below, the village of Cucugnan, made famous by writer Alphonse Daudet.
2. Gorges de Galamus
The clear (and sometimes hot!) mountain waters of the river Agly (River of Eagles), whose natural carbon dioxide reacts with limestone, forged this 500-metre-deep canyon, where a succession of hermits found a natural retreat until the 1930s. The heart-stopping winding road through these rocky foothills, inaccessible until the 1890s, is worth the visit itself.
The gorge is a protected natural heritage site, so visitors are encouraged to visit on foot, but however you approach you will surely marvel at the idea that men suspended on ropes, bearing only pick-axes, cut this route at the end of the 19th century to facilitate trade with the town of St Paul de Fenouillet. Descend steep steps to visit the cool and tranquil Franciscan chapel, its walls the natural rockface. And for a more high-octane activity, canyoning is possible between April and October.
3. Rustic lunch at La Taverne
After visiting the Gorges, why not stop for a spot of lunch nearby? The tumbledown villages clinging to these hillsides will welcome you into cool, thick-walled cottages and shady courtyards. Sometimes it almost feels like being invited into someone’s home for an impromptu meal, as was the case at La Taverne in tiny Cubières-sur-Cinoble. We sat outside and ate a simple but delicious plat du jour, while the owners cats snoozed in the sun nearby.
4. Little Red Train of the Pyrenees
In open-topped or closed carriages, depending on the season, visitors can take this historic railway between Rivesaltes, near Perpignan, and the village of Axat 56km away to the west, rising nearly 400m over the journey. Travellers will see Cathar castles high on the mountainsides, and maybe a Golden Eagle or Eurasian Eagle Owl overhead, as they pass through the afore-mentioned Agly valley. Pleasing bright red autorail carriages from the 1950s and 60s will be your home for the ride.
5. Hike the Forêt d’en Malo
Setting out from the village of Caunil, this 13km circular trail will take you through dense pine forests and garrigue fragrant with wild herbs, up to high escarpments overlooking the Cathar Chateau de Puilaurens and the village of Axat. An estimated completion time of 5 hours will give you an idea of the walk’s difficulty, but regular walkers will cope fine with the 630m height gain, and be rewarded with stunning vistas for their efforts.