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