One of the chief sightseeing delights of southern France is visting the Cathar castles.
The Cathars, also called Albigensians, were a renegade branch of the Christian church in Europe early in the second millenium CE. Though at one time they could be found in many places, including Italy and eastern Europe, the fullest flowering of Cathar religious and architectural expression came in the 13th century in the mountain fastnesses of what is now the French region of Occitanie.
Visiting a Cathar castle always makes for a good cardio workout. Because their faith was more or less constantly under siege from the mainstream church, wealthy Cathar lords built their strongholds high atop the most unapproachable crags they could command. It’s a testament to human will and ingenuity that these fortifications could be built at all. Whether you’re a medieval soldier in chainmail or a tourist lugging a backpack and camera, you’re wheezing by the time you make the outer gates.
During our months living in Reynes, Carol and I explored three extensive castle ruins associated with the Cathars — Queribus, Peyrepertuse, and Montsegur.
Famous among the Cathar castles, Montsegur, seat of the Albigensian faith, is most remembered for the manner of its downfall. After a nine month seige beginning in the spring of 1243, the garrison surrendered to Catholic crusaders dispatched by French religious and civil authorities to crush the heretical movement. Roughly 500 Cathar knights, dependents, servants, and other believers were caught in the crusaders’ net. More than 200 of them refused to renounce their faith and were burned to death in a field at the foot of the mountain, beneath the walls of their erstwhile stronghold.
In the aftermath of the seige, the Cathar fortress was pulled down and few traces of it remain. Later medieval fortifications were built on the site, and it is those ruins that you see when you climb the hill of Montsegur. They are impressive in their own right; but it is also still possible to see foundations and other traces of Cathar dwellings that clustered on the slopes skirting the original castle.
When Montsegur fell, many of the survivors fled to the castle of Queribus. Originally constructed in the 10th or 11th century as a Spanish possession, by 1244 it was held by a knight with Cathar sympathies. Ultimately, Queribus in turn fell 11 years later when the residents abandoned it ahead of an attack by the crusaders. It is regarded as the last bastion of the Cathars in France.
Queribus is the smallest of the three castles we visited, and my favorite. Its white bones bleaching atop a lonely eminence, the ruin provides glimpses of a citadel that must have been lovely in its heyday. Because of the confined space on the hilltop, the castle is piled up vertically upon itself; after climbing from the parking lot to the front gate, you continue to ascend the various levels of the site until you reach the top of the keep, earning a spectacular view far down to the valley floor.
Just visible from Queribus on a clear day, the castle of Peyrepertuse is the most extensive of the Cathar fortresses we explored. It was built in the 11th century by the kings of Aragon, and was never attacked by the crusaders. Instead, it was surrendered voluntarily multiple times between French and Albigensian forces as local allegiences shifted.
Tapering to a point on its narrow ridge, the castle’s curtain wall looks for all the world like a tall ship, cresting the heights like a prow carving the ocean swell. Perhaps because it was spared the deadly strife that afflicted other Cathar strongholds, there is a spirit of peace that infuses Peyrepertuse. You feel it in the warm hue of the stone, the wide-open space of the yard, and the contemplative quiet within the chapel walls.
Remarkably, the afternoon we visited Peyrepertuse, we ran into our friends Mari and Greg and their son Ayden, who had hosted us months earlier in Toulouse. (In fact, in one of the last pictures in the photo gallery, you can see Greg [light green jacket] and Ayden in the background, seconds before Carol and Tamsyn recognized them.) Together, they numbered about half the people we knew in France at the time.
France. It’s a small place, really.