Castles around every curve

On the trail of the medieval Cathars in Languedoc-Roussillon, France.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    The castle of Peyrepertuse was one of the Cathars' last sanctuaries.
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    The Cité of Carcassonne is the largest fortress in Europe. In the 13th century, the Roman Catholic Church lay siege to the city to eliminate the Cathars, a religious group it considered heretical.
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As we drive southeast of this restored medieval village on the narrow, two-lane D611, triangular signs with images of falling black boulders line the route. I'm never quite sure how to guard against these rock slides, but the signs do cause me to grip the wheel of our gray, puttering Ford Fiesta with both hands.

This is windblown, hardscrabble country with outcroppings of crumbling rock and trickling canyon creeks reminiscent of the dry eastern slope of the Colorado Rockies. Although France has a dozen times more people than Colorado in a land mass less than twice its size, here in the Aude region of Languedoc-Roussillon, you can drive for miles and see little sign of life other than patches of thirsty vineyard or the odd hand-lettered sign admonishing drivers that "Jesus t'aime (Jesus loves you)."

Riding shotgun, my wife, Kathy, pores over the region's road map. "I love these little roads with no center line," she says.

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Sure thing.

We turn west onto D14 and the land gets hillier, more forested, more dramatic. This is the land where, in the first half of the 13th century, Christian Crusaders massacred members of a breakaway religious group called the Cathars, and where, during the four centuries that followed, French garrisons guarded against invasions from the south.

Here, on cliffs and outcroppings rising hundreds of feet above the valleys below, besieged Cathars and, later, French knights peered toward the horizon from slits in thick, cold, stone castles whose ruins dot the region, commanding the valleys below.

Today we are on the trail of the Cathars, scrambling up hillsides to massive monuments dating back nearly 1,000 years.

We've chosen the longest of eight routes of the Cathar Daisy (search "Carcassonne area" at www.carcassonne.org), excellent tours for those seeking castles other than the magnificent but back-lit Disneyesque reconstruction of Carcassonne's citadel, the largest historic fortress in Europe.

It was in Carcassonne, in 1209, that a besieged citizenry surrendered to knights of what is known as the First Cathar, or Albigensian, Crusade. They had been sent by Pope Innocent III to suppress the breakaway Cathar religion and punish those who had allowed its adherents, considered heretics, to live peacefully among them.

There is no backlighting – no special effects – on the twisting, narrow roads away from town, just hairpin turns and more signs warning of falling rock. But we feel more at home in this rugged land of unreconstructed stone than within the tourist-filled confines of the contemporary citadel, rebuilt in the 19th century to the detailed, but less than historically accurate, designs of the renowned architect Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.

Our journey seems fittingly austere. After all, drawn from the Greek word for "pure ones," the Cathar Church had rebelled against what it considered the decadence of the Roman Catholic clergy. Its leaders, according to our Michelin guide, embraced "poverty, chastity, patience and humility." Between the cities of Carcassonne and Toulouse in the 12th century, the church thrived. But the Crusades followed, the Cathars making their last stand in 1255 at Quéribus Castle, our first stop today.

Our goal for the day is to cover about 120 miles and to visit three fortresses used first as Cathar refuges and then as French border outposts until a 1659 treaty with Spain ceded Roussillon to France.

But we're coming to realize that the twisting roads and the rugged paths to each fortification make even that modest distance ambitious. It is easy to see why Quéribus, perched on a rocky outcropping 2,400 feet above sea level, was the Cathars' final refuge. Today, rope banisters aid the ascent. After 150 steps, I lose my breath and the count.

It's a hazy day so we can just make out the shadow of the Pyrenées mountains to the south, where contemporary France meets Spain. But my imagination is clear as I look out at the rock and scrub surroundings: This would have been a harsh and lonely place to live – and die – in the Middle Ages.

The second stop on our journey is the more sprawling, two-level Peyrepertuse Castle, which fell to the Crusaders in 1240. Larger and somewhat less austere, its parapets look down on green vineyards and hillsides dotted with tall, yellow wildflowers. An estimated 10,000 tourists are expected to flock here Aug. 11-14 for a medieval festival, complete with sword fights, archery, falconers, and music (www.chateau-peyrepertuse.com).

Even without festivities to take part in, we leave with heavy legs after climbing dozens more steps. But this is no time to relax. Kathy, I learn, has planned an even scarier route back. As we approach the Gorges de Galamus on D7, she giggles and reads from our guidebook, "an impressive gorge overhanging an abyss."

"I like that," she says.

I watch the road signs: Two upside-down triangles show a red exclamation point against a yellow backdrop. No words. Then comes the sign warning of violent winds and the one forbidding trucks and campers.

We pass a gap in the stone retaining wall. Someone, it seems, didn't complete the turn.

And no wonder. The next mile or so is as much like spelunking as driving. Arches of blasted-out rock form a low crescent over the road's single lane – one with cars moving in both directions. Only periodic pullouts over the narrow gorge with a roaring river way below prevent head-on pileups.

Thankfully our last stop is the gentler, almost alpinelike ruins of Puilaurens Castle, its path strewn with flowers, its surroundings hillsides covered with fir forests. And best of all, the road from there back to our apartment seems practically a superhighway – two lanes with a white line painted down the middle.

I crawl into bed early: Who knows what route my map nut will conjure up tomorrow.

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