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Cathar Country Road Trip: learn about Catharism and the Cathars in Southern France05/22/2019
The Cathar Country is one of the most fascinating areas to visit in Southern France, with an incredible heritage and a turbulent history of heresy and crusades. The Cathar Country (Pays Cathare in French) in Occitanie region is an ensemble of medieval castles, villages and Romanesque abbeys related to the Cathars and Catharism. These sites were witnesses of the conflict which opposed 800 years ago hunted Cathars with the Catholic Church.
The Cathar castles and villages are best explored by car on a road trip as most of these sites are poorly served (or not served at all) by public transportation.
OUR EXPERIENCE: we have always been fascinated by the Cathar history (more on this later) and their terrible fate plus their picturesque villages and vertigo citadels are a wonder. We have done two road trips in the area, the first one starting from Barcelona and the second starting from Paris.
About the Cathars and the Catharism
The Catharism is a Christian dualist movement that thrived in southern Europe, especially in the Languedoc Region in France, between the 12th and the 14th centuries. The Cathar religion proposes a different interpretation of the Gospels, rejecting in particular all the sacraments of the Catholic Church (baptism of water, Eucharist, marriage, etc.), and the materialistic life full of excesses of its priests and bishops.
Who were the Cathars?
The Cathars take their name from the Greek term catharos, which means pure, because the goal of any man is to reach the perfect purity of the soul. For the duration of his earthly life, considered as a test, the Cathar must through appropriate behavior, break with the physical and material world and the desires of his body. For the Cathars, also called Albigeois (from the region of Albi), all this represents the Evil to which the Good is opposed, that is to say, the purified soul. Those who manage to purify their souls will rest forever in the Good after death. while the others must reincarnate indefinitely.
The Catharism had incredible success in Languedoc, a region with a brilliant and refined civilization, much different from France north of the Loire. Here troubadours, poets, and musicians sang love, but also the honor and the negation of the right of the strongest. The Cathar religion was also supported and protected by influential people in the region such as the Counts of Toulouse.
The Cathars Crusades (1209 -1226)
From the beginning of his reign, Pope Innocent III attempted to end Catharism by sending missionaries and by persuading the local authorities to act against them. In 1208, Innocent’s papal legate Pierre de Castelnau was murdered while returning to Rome after excommunicating Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, who, in his view, was too tolerant with the Cathar heresy. Pope Innocent III declared the Cathars heretics and launched the Albigensian Crusade to exterminate the Catharism. There were two Crusades against the Cathars and it was only at the end of the second Cathars Crusade, in 1226, when the few surviving Cathars capitulated.
Cathar Country Map
The Cathar Country comprises 22 sites spread in the Occitanie region. In this article, we will describe only the sites that we have visited during our two road trips, together with our best tips to get the most out of the Cathar Country. On this Cathar Country Map, we have divided the Cathar sites into three main groups: Cathar castles (green marks), Cathar villages (violet marks) and religious sites (orange marks). The grey marks correspond to those Cathar sites that we have not visited yet.
» Carcassonne – Mirepoix – Château de Montségur – Château de Quéribus – Château de Peyrepertuse – Lagrasse, starting from Carcassonne.
» Carcassonne – Fontfroide Abbey – Béziers – Minerve – Châteaux de Lastours, starting from Carcassonne or Narbonne.
Medieval Villages, Abbeys, and Cathar Castles in Southern France
Carcassonne Castle and Fortress
Carcassonne is a very beautiful city in Southern France, located at 80 km south-east of Toulouse. Carcassonne has a legendary origin and a Cathar past. Indeed, Carcassonne is one of the most important sites to visit in the Cathar Country.
The Cathar religion had many followers within Carcassonne’s walls. The Cathars were protected by Raimond-Roger Trencavel Viscount of Carcassonne and soon the city became a land of heresy in the eyes of Pope Innocent III. As a result, Carcassonne was one of the main targets during the first Cathar Crusade in 1209 led by Simon de Montfort. The two burgs around the citadel fell quickly and they were burned and destroyed while the fortress resisted the attacks well. It was drought and thirst that made the Viscount of Carcassonne capitulate after two weeks of siege. On August 14th, Raymond-Roger and nine of his subordinates were given safe conduct to discuss the terms with the besiegers and they accepted them. But then, in breach of the safe conduct, Raymond-Roger was seized and immediately thrown into prison where he died in mysterious circumstances.
Today Carcassonne Castle and the Citadel with its winding alleys are the city’s main sights while the Lower City, built after the siege, is a totally different atmosphere. It is a good idea to do a guided tour with a knowledgable guide to learn about Carcassonne’s terrible past. Also, it is possible to do the full walk along the battlements.
Mirepoix was an important Cathar center since in 1206 a great Cathar council gathered up to 600 perfects (kind of priests in the Cathar religion) in town. Mirepoix, originally on the right bank of the Hers-Vif River, was destroyed by a violent flood in 1289. A new town was rebuilt on the other side of the river following a regular plan typical of the 13th century (bastida town).
Visitors will find in Mirepoix a very rich heritage. From its medieval past, Mirepoix has preserved a 14th-century fortified gate and a stunning market square surrounded by beautiful half-timbered houses. The café terraces, shops and the traditional market on Monday mornings make it a lovely spot to visit. Make sure you stop and admire the old facade of the Maison des Consuls for its typical medieval wood carvings and the Gothic cathedral Saint-Maurice.
Montségur Castle is one of the most famous castles in France and an important site for the Cathars. Indeed, Montségur Castle was the last focus of Cathar resistance against the Crusaders. Montségur fortress is perched on top of a rocky spur at an altitude of 1,207 meters and overlooking the village with the same name. The Castle was under siege four times but the Crusaders could only take it in 1244. The stronghold was besieged for 10 months before being taken by the royal army in March 1244. After the surrender, all the Cathars who refused to deny their Cathar beliefs perished at the stake. In all, two hundred people, all volunteers, perished in the fire. It was reported that some Cathars sang.
Before visiting Montségur Castle we read that this is a place with a lot of energy. We could feel this energy already on the road when the silhouette of the castle appeared to us on the horizon. However, inside the fortress, the atmosphere was quiet and peaceful. In addition to its medieval remains, this French château offers visitors a magnificent panoramic view over the village below and the surrounding scenery. Two hundred meters above the castrum, a headstone with a Cathar cross (one of the best known Cathar symbols) was erected to commemorate this terrible episode.
OUR TIP: spend the night at the foot of Montségur Castle in this charming traditional house
The Cathar castle of Quéribus stands at the summit of a narrow, rocky peak in the heart of the Corbières massif. Quéribus Castle was another important Cathar refuge and it was the last stronghold of Cathar resistance to fall into the hands of the Crusaders in 1255.
Today the medieval fortress of Quéribus consists of a keep surrounded by three successive walls. It is a beautiful place to explore, with fabulous panoramic views over the Roussillon plain, the Mediterranean and the Pyrenées.
Château de Peyrepertuse
This vertigo citadel watching over the Corbières massif is one of the most beautiful Cathar castles in France. Because of its location, it is sometimes called “celestial Carcassonne” because it is as big as the famous citadel and from its position, it seems to touch the sky.
The lower part of the castle was built in the 11th century on a strategic location by the kings of Aragon. At the time of the Crusade against the Cathars, the castle was the fiefdom of Guillaume de Peyrepertuse who, not wanting to submit, was excommunicated in 1224. Guillaume did finally submit after the failure of the siege of Carcassonne, and the castle became a French possession in 1240. It was King Louis IX who built the higher part of the castle, with the Sant Jordi Dungeon. Both castles are linked by an external staircase.
From the carpark, there is a 20-minute walk up to the castle. On-site, visitors can still see evidence of military architecture from the Middle Ages and enjoy fabulous views.
Lagrasse Medieval City and its Benedictine Abbey
Lagrasse, near the Corbières massif, is a picturesque village classed “Most Beautiful Villages in France”. Wandering around Lagrasse is like a step back in time, with its medieval houses, a beautiful 14th-century covered market with stone pillars, and the old humpback bridge over Orbieu River.
The Benedictine Abbey of St Mary of Orbieu was founded in the 8th century and it had a considered intellectual influence in the area. During the Cathar Crusades, the Abbey had a role of appeasement. It was thanks to Lagrasse that the cities of Béziers and Carcassonne finally found peace with the King and the Church.
OUR TIP: get the most out of picturesque Lagrasse by staying one night or two in this beautiful stone house with private garden and terrasse
Fontfroide is a Cistercian abbey located at 15km from Narbonne. The abbey was founded in the 11th century and it had an important role against the Cathars. The monks of Fontfroide failed to convince the Cathars to abandon their beliefs by the mere use of preaching. Actually, Pierre de Castelnau -the Pope’s legate to negotiate with the Cathars- was a monk of Fontfroide. The assassination of Pierre de Castelnau was the triggering action of the Crusade against the Cathars.
Fontfroide still keeps the former, typical Cistercian plan with the church, cloister and chapter house. Visitors can also see other constructions like the monks’ dorm, kitchens, and canteen. Later additions include lateral chapels around the church and a cour d’honneur.
OUR TIP: the visits of Fontfroide Abbey are always guided. Don’t hesitate to ask the guide all your questions about the Cathars!
The medieval city of Béziers was an important stronghold of Catharism. During the Crusade, Béziers was the first place to be attacked. Béziers’ Catholics were given an ultimatum to hand over the heretics or leave before the crusaders besieged the city. Finally, they decided to refuse and resisted with the Cathars. With the words “Kill them all, God will recognize his own” by a legate of the Pope of Rome, the Crusaders gave free rein to the “grande boucherie” (big butchery) in Béziers: the city was burned and all its population, Cathars and Catholics, were massacred.
Today people come to Béziers to visit its impressive Saint-Nazaire Cathedral, built in the 13th century atop a steep rock face from which there are breathtaking views of the French countryside. The city’s Romanesque bridge over the Orb River (12th century) is also a wonder. For many centuries this bridge was the single river crossing point from Provence on the way to Toulouse. Béziers is also a great place to explore Canal du Midi by boat or by bike.
Minerve, located between Narbonne and Béziers, is one of the cutest villages in Southern France. Indeed, Minerve is classed as one of the “Most Beautiful Villages in France”.
The Cathar village of Minerve is best known for the siege it underwent in 1210 during the terrible Crusade against the Cathars. In Minerve, Simon de Montfort and the northern barons exploited the most advanced military technique of the time, the siege machines. Four catapults were built on site, surrounding the walls of Minerve and ready to throw stone balls and dead animals to spread diseases. Today, visitors can see the reproduction of one of those catapults, la malvoisine, still threatening Minerve.
Minerve is a small medieval village which is easily visited in one hour or two. Still, its beauty and good wines deserve a shortstop on the way to Lastours.
Châteaux de Lastours
Châteaux de Lastours are our favorite medieval castles in France. The site of Lastours is an exceptional ensemble of four castles (Cabaret, Surdespine, Quertinheux, and the Régine tower) built at the top of a rocky spur 300 meters above the village of Lastours, isolated by the deep valleys of Orbiel and Grésillou.
It seems that the lord of Cabaret, Pierre Roger de Cabaret, was very close to the Cathars. Between 1223 and 1229, the Cathar activity in Cabaret was intense and the castles were besieged by the Crusaders several times. Finally, in 1229 Cabaret surrendered and the last parfaits escaped. After the Cathar Crusade, the King of France took possession of the goods and territories of the defeated lords, Cabaret included. The king destroyed the village and built the fourth tower, la tour Régine, on the top of the three primary structures.
Châteaux de Lastours is a fabulous place to visit, especially with the fall colors. From Belvedere Montfermier you can get the view of the whole site with its beautiful castles.
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