The fortified town of Carcassonne. Photo: Alamy
I am driving through the Languedoc region in the southern depths of France, through a taut, spare landscape that the French know as the garrigue after its fragrant vegetation. Crumbling fortresses crown the sharp limestone hills that erupt like blades, an echo of the Pyrenees that rise tomy left. Wine is a staple here and vines inch in parallel across the landscape like fat green caterpillars. Now and again a sign along the roadside reminds me that this is Pays Cathare, the country of the Cathars. Just as the Amish sect shapes Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, this part of southern France has been defined by the Cathars.
The Cathars were an offshoot of Christianity that took root in southern France starting about the 11th century. Cathars saw themselves as true practitioners of the Christian faith, deploring the moral, spiritual and political corruption of the Church of Rome.
They regarded the sacrament of the Eucharist, one of the pillars of the Catholic mass, as a farce, rejected baptism and the adoration of the crucified Christ. They also renounced war, capital punishment and marriage, and attracted a universal following that included landless peasants as well as lords.
Najac, France. Photo: Alamy
In the courts of the Cathar nobles, troubadours, the roaming poet performers of the Middle Ages, sang of chivalry and courtly love, providing a welcome relief from the Catholic Church’s Latin hymns.
Ultimately, the growing influence of the Cathars put them on a collision course with the Roman Catholic Church. Early in the 13th century, Pope Innocent III decided that Enough was enough, and organised the Albigensian Crusade. It was a brutal campaign that raged across the sharp hills on the northern flanks of the Pyrenees and as far north as Najac, where the Eglise Saint Jean was built by villagers as a punishment for Cathar beliefs.
For the crusaders, it was a heavensent opportunity for profit. With the divine authority of the pope behind them, invading princes were given licence to pillage and loot, and to take the Cathar lands as their own. Within 40 years, it was all over. The Cathars were slaughtered to the very last.
Modern-day troubadours in the Mirepoix Languedoc Roussillon region. Photo: Alamy
Catharism now exists only as a memory, a pretty dream. So comprehensively did the Catholic Church wage war against the Cathars that only memories of their faith remain. All that’s left are the crumpled stones of their once daunting forts that stand like rotting molars on the high hills.
Yet even in their decline, the Cathar sites are formidable. Once their cities on the plains had fallen to the papal forces, they retreated to their chateaux, the collective name for their fortresses. Knowing what was to come, they installed strongholds in the sky. On the sharp, ridged peaks on the northern foothills of the Pyrenees they constructed walls, bastions and battlements in places that only a mountain goat would climb.
The way to explore Cathar country is to take a drive along the D117 between the Mediterranean holiday resort of Perpignan and Foix, a distance of about 140 kilometres.
Probably the most spectacular of all the Cathar castles is the Chateau de Peyrepertuse, which lies on the north side of the D117, crowning a high crease that rises 350 metres above its surroundings. From the road that spirals upwards from the village of Duilhac-sous- Peyrepertuse, it is almost impossible to separate the mountainside from the castle, so seamless is its construction. From the parking lot, a 10-minutewalk along a path on the steep north face delivers you to the courtyard of the lower castle.
Peyrepertuse consists of two castles built two centuries apart, starting in the 11th century when this was one of the forts along the border between France and Spain.
Although the chateaux curtain walls and towers are intact, you need imagination to reconstruct the chapel, soldiers’ quarters, interior of the keep and the fireplaces from the toppled masonry – although the latrine apparently still functions.
A staircase hacked from the rock leads to the upper castle, the Chateau St-Georges, from where there are impressive views over the surroundings, including the blunt finger of the Chateau de Queribus, about five kilometres to the southeast.
This was the final stronghold of The Cathars. When it fell to the crusaders in 1255, the remaining Cathars fled, many to Spain where The movement finally died.
A short drive to the east of Chateau de Peyrepertuse is a brooding mountain by the name of Bugarach and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll head there, buy yourself some real estate and wait.
Not tomorrow, not the day after but right now. The reason is that when the world ends on December 21, 2012, the final date of the Mayan calendar, only those living at the foot of this mystery mountain will survive.
Several esoteric New Age groups have identified Bugarach as an ‘‘alien garage’’. Come Armageddon and the aliens –who have ben using the caves and fissures in the limestone peak as a storage depot
for their intergalactic vehicles – will flee our doomed planet, taking the nearest humans with them.
As supporting evidence for their claims of mystical properties for the mountain, the New Age true believers cite mysterious archaeological digs by Nazis in the region and later by Mossad, the Israeli secret service. They also credit Bugarach as the inspiration for Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth (unlikely) and construct hypotheses around the frequent appearance of flying saucers over the mountain (most probably clouds) and the unexplained visit of the late French president Francois Mitterrand to the top of the mountain by helicopter (never happened).
Despite the inconvenience of truth, gullible souls have flocked to the region, installing tepees, gypsy caravans and yurts and annoying the locals by meditating in their gardens and climbing to the top of Bugarach in the nude.
Continue just a few kilometres to the north-west where the town of Rennes-le-Chateau rises on its hilltop, and the plot thickens. Just over a century ago, Berenger Sauniere, the local priest, supposedly found documents hidden in his church, unearthed a tomb in the church grounds and, afterwards, mysteriously acquired a great deal of money. He then set about a lavish restoration project that included the church, his house, a glass orangery and the odd Tower Magdala.
Roll forward the years and along comes Henry Lincoln, a British author and television presenter who visits Rennes-le-Chateau, hears the story and is inspired to write The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. This pseudohistorical treatment puts forward the fantastic notion that Jesus of Nazareth did not die on the cross but survived, married Mary Magdalene, had children, migrated to the south of France and established the Merovingian dynasty, and Sauniere had uncovered the truth. Another few years go by and Dan Brown breathes new life into the theory when he writes The Da Vinci Code. Although Brown does not mention Rennes-le- Chateau in his novel, he borrows the name of its priest for his murdered curator of the Louvre, Jacques Sauniere. By several degrees of separation, therefore, Rennes-le- Chateau is associated with a blockbuster novel and becomes a pilgrimage site for the convinced as well as the merely curious.
The main object of attention is the village church, dedicated to St Mary Magdalene. As if to deepen the mystery, Sauniere salted his church with clues suggesting dark forces at work, from the inscription above the door, which translates as ‘‘this place is terrible’’, to the statue of the devil beneath the holy-water font. None of these are exceptional features in Roman Catholic churches of the period, but there’s plenty to ponder in this pretty church.
Continue north from Rennes-le-Chateau along the D118 and you Reach Carcassonne, the classic Cathar site in this part of the world.
Thiswas the main stronghold of Raymond-Roger Trencavel, a Cathar noble, but the city was captured relatively early in the crusade. Carcassonne is the picture book mediaeval fortified city and the largest fortress in Europe, a ring of honey-coloured walls, towers and turrets rising from vineyards where the Canal du Midi meets the river Aude.
Majestic as it is, much of Carcassonne is fake. In the middle of the 19th century, Carcassonne was largely rebuilt in the style of the Loire Valley castles, but so persuasive is the effect that the city is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Inside the city walls, Carcassonne is far more compact than it looks from the outside. It feels a little like a theme park, complete with a miniature train that tours the city, but it’s well worth a visit for the stained-glass windows in the Basilica St-Nazaire and the implements of torture in the Inquisitor’s tower. At the heart of the city is the 12th-century Chateau Comtal, the finest remaining example of a Cathar castle.
To the south-east of Foix, the Chateau de Montsegur stirs the most poignant memories for sympathisers of the Cathar cause. This was one of the last of the Cathar castles and one of the movement’s bloodiest chapters.
After a 10-month siege by an army of 10,000, Montsegur finally surrendered and more than 200 Cathars within who refused to renounce their faith were marched down the mountainside and into a stockade and burned alive.
From the parking lot it’s an absolute slog to get to the castle along a steep, rocky path that climbs the face of the crag. Your reward is a wonderful view, although I wish it was the love songs of the troubadours I was hearing instead of the lonely wind whistling through the tumbled stones.
Blanquette de Limoux
The Languedoc-Roussillon wine region is the world’s largest wine-producing region, responsible for more than a third of total French output. Among this vast produce is a number of specialty wines that are found nowhere else, and one of them is Blanquette de Limoux, which comes from the heart of Cathar country, just south of Carcassonne. In about 1531, some 150 years before the first champagne appeared, the monks of St Hilaire near Limoux started making a sparkling wine from Mauzac grapes. The tradition continues, although these days Blanquette de Limoux contains small quantities of chardonnay and chenin blanc as well as Mauzac. Blanquette sparkling wine comes in dry, semi-dry and sweet versions, but even the dry is typically sweeter than the sparkling wines of Champagne, with a more assertive fruit character. This is a perfect wine for a warm afternoon and Blanquette de Limoux is widely available from the caves, the wine shops found throughout the region.
My temporary home in the region is Chez Dyna, a small guesthouse in the village of Alaigne, which sits among vineyards south-west of Carcassonne. It’s small, charming, full of character and great value. For just €50 ($64) a night, I have a huge room with a modern bathroom with a bath. The breakfast spread is enormous – croissants and baguettes fresh from the bakery, peaches, juice, plunger coffee, a quality muesli and yoghurt. I also have a selection of teas and coffee-making supplies in my room, which is unusual in a French guesthouse, but the owners of Chez Dyna are British. They’re also enthusiastic and genial hosts, a font of information about the region. Alaigne might be small but it’s an Anglo enclave. Just across the road from Chez Dyna is a bistro operated by a British rugby fanatic, which has a regular clientele consisting mainly of expatriates who have taken up residence here. It might be cultural cowardice, but it can also be a great relief not to have to get your tongue around French syllables first thing in the morning. chezdyna.com.
Singapore Airlines operates flights between Singapore and Toulouse via Singapore and Frankfurt. It is possible to travel by train between Paris and Carcassonne. The fastest trains make the journey in just over five hours.
Among the websites with reasonably priced accommodation in the Languedoc region are Logis Hotels (logishotels.com), Chambres d’hotes (chambresdhotesfrance.com), France Voyage (france-voyage.com) and Guides de Charme (guidesdecharme.com).
A car is essential and there are car hire agencies located in gateway cities including Toulouse and Carcassonne.
Another option is the Sentier Cathar, a historic walking trail that links the Cathar sites between Foix and Port-la- Nouvelle on the Mediterranean. The 250-kilometre trail takes about 12 days to walk in its entirety, although it is easy to break this down. Overnight stops are in villages along the trail.
The writer travelled to France courtesy of Singapore Airlines.