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Visit the Cathar Region, France
The Cathar Region, France 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) is an ensemble of medieval castles, villages and Romanesque abbeys related to the Cathars and Catharism. These Cathar sites were witnesses of the conflict which opposed 800 years ago hunted Cathars with the Catholic Church.
The Cathar Country road trip is one of the best road trips in France and a great opportunity to learn about this fascinating chapter in the history of France. The Cathar Country, with its Cathar castles and villages, is best explored by car as most of these Cathar 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 the Cathars’ 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 in France and the Catharism
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.
Catharism had incredible success in Languedoc, a region with a brilliant and refined civilization, much different from France north of the Loire. In the Cathar country 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 Cathar Crusades (1209 -1226)
From the beginning of his mandate, Pope Innocent III attempted to end Catharism by sending missionaries to the Cathar region 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 in the Cathar country. There were two Crusades against the Cathars and it was only at the end of the second Cathar Crusade in 1226 when the few surviving Cathars capitulated.
Cathar Country Road Trip Overview
- Start: Carcassonne
- Finish: Carcassonne
- Duration: 5 to 6 days
- Suggested Route: Carcassonne – Cucugnan – Narbonne – Carcassonne
- Total distance: 370 km in total
- Regions covered: Occitaine
- Best for: history, sightseeing, landscapes, small towns.
If you don’t have your own car for this Cathar Country road trip, you can take a train to Carcassonne and rent your car from Carcassonne once you are ready to leave the city.
Road Trip Cathar Country Map
The Cathar Country comprises 22 Cathar sites spread in the Occitanie region. In this article, we will only cover the Cathar sites and Cathar castles that we have visited during our two road trips, together with our best tips to get the most out of the Cathar Country.
Day 1 | Arrival to Carcassonne
The first stop in your Cathar Country road trip is Carcassonne. Book a hotel for one night (or two nights if you arrived late in Carcassonne) so you have a full day to visit the Carcassonne castle and fortress. Mercure Carcassonne La Cité comes with free private parking, and it has beautiful air-conditioned rooms and a garden + swimming pool with amazing views over the walled city.
Day 2 | Visit Carcassonne Castle and Citadel
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 Cathar sites 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 walk along the walls.
Day 3 | Mirepoix and Montségur Castle
It’s time to hit the road to explore more Cathar sites. Today, this Cathar Country road trip takes us to the medieval village of Mirepoix and the Cathar castle of Montségur. We are going to sleep in Cucugnan, a small village well situated for our explorations the day after. The Logis Auberge du Vigneron, a former wine storehouse with comfortable rooms and an awesome terrace overlooking the valley, is the perfect place for a night in Cucugnan.
Mirepoix was an important Cathar center in the Cathar region. Since 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).
Mirepoix is one of the most beautiful towns in the Cathar Country. 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.
Montségur Castle is one of the most important Cathar sites in the Cathar Country because it 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 during the sacrifice.
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, the castle offers visitors a magnificent panoramic view over the village below and the surrounding scenery.
Day 4 | The Cathar Fortresses of Peyrepertuse and Quéribus
This day is dedicated to the visit to the amazing medieval fortresses of Peyrepertuse and Quéribus. Then we will drive direction Narbonne to spend 2 nights. The Chambres d’hôtes Château de Jonquières, located in the heart of the Fontfroide mountainous area, has parking, swimming pool (so nice to have in late spring and summer!) and it has a great location for our explorations the day after.
Château de Peyrepertuse is one of the most impressive Cathar sites in the Cathar Country. This vertigo citadel watching over the Corbières massif 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 Cathar 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 car park, 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.
The Cathar Castle of Quéribus is one of the most impressive Cathar castles in the Cathar region of Frace. It stands at the summit of a narrow, rocky peak in the heart of the Corbières massif.
Quéribus Castle was another important Cathar refuge in the Cathar region 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.
Day 5 | Fontfroide Abbey and Lagrasse
Fontfroide Abbey 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.
TIP: the visits of Fontfroide Abbey are always guided. Don’t hesitate to ask the guide all your questions about the Cathars!
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.
On day 5 we sleep again at Chambres d’hôtes Château de Jonquières, and we make sure to arrive early enough to enjoy the swimming pool and a couple of drinks in the beautiful garden 🙂 If you are short of time, you can head to Carcassonne after visiting Lagrasse.
Day 6 | Minerve and Châteaux de Lastours
On day 6 we are going to do a big loop to visit two beautiful Cathar sites before heading back to Carcassonne.
Minerve is one of the cutest medieval 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 that 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 is one of the most beautiful castles in France. The site of Lastours is an exceptional ensemble of four Cathar 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 (Cathar priests) 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.
So, what are you waiting for? Book this fabulous Cathar Country road trip today!
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