The Cathars: Their Castles, Swimming Holes, and Nearby WCs

le pays Cathare: Cathar country

I like to read books. I used to read a lot of books because I was copyediting them. When you work on books you get more attached to some than to others, and there was a whole series of books that a colleague and I worked on and simply loved. The series is called the Pagan Chronicles by Catherine Jinks (published in the US by Candlewick). These books may have been aimed at teen boys but I don’t care—go out and find them all and read them. It is the kind of series where you get seriously worked up when you hear that the current book is the closing installment. I had the privilege of copyediting the final book about Pagan Kidrouk, Babylonne, which marginally eased my grief that there would be no others. Anyway—these books are wonderful stories, but you get your history on, too. And when we decided to visit Languedoc-Roussillon and the guidebooks started mentioning Cathars, lights started going off in my memory.

The Cathars were a Christian sect mixing extreme asceticism with vegetarianism with ideas about reincarnation (clear, interesting explanation here) and generally drawing dislike from the Pope and the Catholics. In the early 1200s the Pope ordered a crusade to eradicate the Cathars, considered (by those who consider the Cathars a branch of Christianity) the first crusade against other Christians. In case you completely missed history, the Crusades were not good, and the death and devastation that followed in this region of modern-day France were sweeping, brutal, and ugly. The villain of this particular chapter is Simon de Montfort (and you can meet him in the Pagan Chronicles).

Today, le pays Cathare is a vast, hilly landscape of tiny towns and endless vineyards, dotted with crumbling castles and fortresses punctuated by the intact city of Carcassone. My friends and I were based at a B&B in the tiny village of Feuilla and planned to spend a day hiking around some ruins. Regrettably, we spent more of that day in our rental car than anyone really wanted. The roads are winding and narrow, and about 2/3 of the 90km/hr speed limit was all our nerves could muster. Consequentially it kept taking us longer to get places than we’d been told, especially once we added in the occasional detour or wrong turn (yes, even with the GPS). I had been feeling a little sick that morning, and the drive from Feuilla to the village of Cucugnan nearly did me in.

We took a lengthy pause in Cucugnan, enjoying a leisurely lunch and liters of cold water while local cats took their shade under our chairs. We wandered back down the pedestrian hill out of the village, and right at the base we visited a local honey maker and also popped into the very helpful TI office for some directions and advice. Thus fortified, we were back on our way and decided to content ourselves with ample views of the castle called Queribus rather than trying to summit its hill. If we were only going to storm one castle that afternoon, it had to be Peyrepertuse.

Driving to Peyrepertuse

In the photo above, see all that rocky business atop the hill? That’s the remains of a huge, sprawling castle complex built into a limestone ridge 800 meters above the level ground. Peyrepertuse has been an occupied site since the first century BC, and is mentioned in the historical record as a castle from 1070 on. Today, for an entry fee of around €8/adult, you can drive the terrifying road to the castle parking lot and then continue on foot about twenty minutes uphill to the castle itself. (Think real shoes. And if it’s over 90 degrees F, as it was when we were there, BYO water.)

The final hike up to Peyrepertuse

The castle complex had tourists the day we were there, but not enough that the site felt crowded. In fact, the castle covers so much ground through so many archways and half-standing stairs that my friends and I occasionally lost each other, as we peered out arrow-slits and stood in ceiling-less chapels and gazed out over the valley below.

We spent about an hour poking around and exploring, marveling at the scenery and the work that had gone into building the structures. I can’t recommend the audio guide, at least in English. Two of us paid for it and neither got much out of it. So we left the history, at least at that point, to our imaginations and finally made our way back down to the parking lot.

Earlier in the day we’d talked to a kind woman in the TI in Cucugnan. We’d asked her about swimming, because we’d been told it might be possible to find a swimming spot at the nearby Gorges. Oh, no, she told us; swimming in the Gorges was very difficult to reach and not advisable. However, she took out a map and recommended a different spot, much nearer to Peyrepertuse. I will explain it verbally as she explained it to us.

You’re driving from Cucugnan toward Duilhac on D 14. Just before you come into Duilhac, you cross a stone bridge. This in itself is not the indicator; there are a ton of stone bridges on these roads. However, you cross this stone bridge and immediately on your right is a small, paved road unmarked except for a speed-limit sign (40km, I think). Turn right onto this road and drive about 2 km. On your left you will see a parking area. Park here and you will see people heading to swim.

These were the directions we received and they were completely easy to execute. We found the road; we found the parking area; and we saw people swimming. The swimming area extended back a ways from the road and offered all sorts of spots to swim with friends, pitch a tent, or accidentally stumble upon teenagers needing privacy. The water seemed clean and the rocks were slippery. The natural beauty was stunning.

unnamed swimming spot near Peyrepertuse

Oh, and what about the WCs mentioned in the post title? There were decent WCs at the parking lot of Peyrepertuse, and excellent free public WCs at the parking lot for the village of Cucugnan. If you need them, you’ll thank me.

Bonus material:

2010 NY Times article on this region and accompanying photo slide show

This youtube video is long and slow and has ominous music, but it really gives a sense of the vastness of the landscape and in that way is good for the imagining. Peyrepertuse comes in around 2:50 (Queribus @ 5:10!). Some amazing views via aerial photography.

A strangely concise historical video (if you can read or guess basic French) of the crusade against the Cathars, accompanied by a monk-pop version of Simon and Garfunkel. At 6:17 subtitle “Witnesses of the Drama” you get a slideshow of all the Cathar strongholds—again, great images.

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