Castles around every curve
On the trail of the medieval Cathars in Languedoc-Roussillon, France.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.