Soaring mountains, deep valleys and lonely castles atop rocky outcrops, all easily explored from Carcassonne. Author Michael Hillier reveals all about this untamed region of France
Cathar Country, just south of Carcassonne, is a fascinating area to explore. Named after the followers of a heretic sect in the 12th Century, It is a world of deep-forested valleys, rivers rushing with melt-water from the high mountains and sharp rocky peaks and ridges. Using Carcassonne as a base, the visitor can see these important sites in just a few days.
The Old City of Carcassonne was restored in the nineteenth century and now presents one of the most perfect medieval settings. Inside the encircling walls there is an ancient atmosphere which the visitor can wallow in. There are only two easily defended gateways into the city and you feel you are walking back into history as you enter. Visit in the evening and choose one of the large number of good, but pricey, restaurants for your meal.
Head south through Limoux and soon the spreading vineyards gave way to steep forested hills. The winding road plunges into the deep valley of the Aude River, looking down on the wild waters and overhung by spreading trees. When you reach the little town of Cuiza, turn off the main road and take the winding side road to the hilltop village of Rennes-le-Chateau.
Here you will find the semi-ruined chateau once owned by the Blanchefort family who were prominent Cathars. In the 1880s, the local priest suddenly became fabulously wealthy. It has never been explained where his riches came from.
Today you can visit it and marvel at all the strange decorations and statues he had installed in this little building, including a near life-size replica of the devil carrying the holy water stoup on his shoulders. From the outside you can also see there is a secret room on one side of the building. However the Church will not allow anyone to even try to find a way into it.
Resuming your trip up the Aude valley, take the winding side road to Le Bézu where there are the remains of a castle, marked on the maps as the Chateau des Templiers. At the bottom of the rough path up to the castle there is a sign telling visitors a little about the place and giving a part plan of the original layout. Nothing is left of the ancient building now, except for a few walls perched on top of a vertiginous ridge.
I was involved in my own strange little mystery up at the castle. On our first visit, I climbed to the eastern gateway to the chateau and found a Templar cross, carved into the granite threshold in the doorway. I had no way of knowing whether this was a modern carving or whether it went back centuries. Certainly it didn’t seem to have been done recently. When I returned a couple of years later I discovered that somebody had been up to the place and cut out the cross, leaving a bare hollow. Why should anybody do that?
After passing the little town of Quillan and the deep gorge known as the Défile de Pierre-Lys, you’ll find the castle of Puylaurens, just off the main road beyond Axat. This spectacular chateau, set atop a rocky outcrop, didn’t surrender to the French army until fourteen years after the main Cathar heresy had been eliminated. When you get to the top you’ll understand why.
The chateau at Montségur is the place where the main body of the remaining Cathars made their final stand. On the way, make sure you stop at Prouille, the monastery where Saint Dominic founded the Dominican Order of Friars and began his preaching against Catharism. From there continue to Mirepoix and Lavalanet before turning off on a minor country road towards Montségur.
After about ten kilometres you will spot the small stronghold perched on top of its great dome of rock. This was where the main surviving group of about two hundred parfaits (senior members of the Cathar faith) retreated to when they were pursued by the French armies which numbered about ten thousand men. When you climb up to the simple little citadel on top of the rock, it seems amazing that so many people could have held out for so long in such a small place.
The Secrets of the Cathars by Michael Hiller is available to order from online retailers including amazon.co.uk and to order from all good bookstores. For more information please visit mikehillier.com