In France’s Cathar country, hikers track a lost medieval faith
along castle ruins where the Inquisition’s fires once raged.
Solvitur ambulando, St. Augustine advised the perplexed. It is solved by walking.
Maybe, but the saint’s confidence in the strolling cure surely would have been tested had he blistered his soles on the chalky causses and shrouded peaks of southwestern France. In the alluring region once known as Occitania, ramblers who love stepping back into time are finding a rewarding alternative to Spain’s popular Camino to Santiago de Compostela. Yet many return from their treks across this romantic land of troubadours and the Holy Grail still troubled by the question that drew them in the first place: Why, in the 13th century, did the Roman Catholic Church wage a war of extermination there against a sect of pacifist Christians?
Hoping to benefit from the modern revival of medieval pilgrimages, French tourism officials now encourage hikers to come quest for the answers to this question and the many others that swirl around a vanished group of ascetic vegetarians called Cathars, or the Pure Ones. Condemned as heretics, the Cathars rejected the authority of Rome and believed in reincarnation instead of Hell. They saw the world as a battleground between a benevolent God of Light and an evil Demiurge who conspired with the papacy to imprison souls in flesh.
Termes Castle (Credit: Spanish Steps)
When the Counts of Toulouse and other Occitan nobles tried to protect these religious dissidents from annihilation, the Church and the kings of France hammered them with a brutal war of terror and stole their domains during the infamous Albigensian Crusade. Today, the fiercely independent descendents of these Occitan martyrs remain proud of their rebellious heritage. Some even keep the memory of the persecution alive by reading on New Year’s Eve from the papal bull that condemned their forefathers to be hunted like wolves.
Backpackers who now hoof it up in increasing numbers to the vertiginous Cathar ruins should be grateful at least that they don’t have to skulk through dangerous forests at night as did starving fugitives eight hundred years ago. Instead, they can enjoy the well-marked Cathar Sentier (“Way”), a maintained artery of trails that stretches 150 miles from the Mediterranean coast to the castle-crowned city of Foix.
A couple of years ago, legendary Camino guide Judy Colaneri invited me to help lead incursions into the land of heresy for her hiking-tour company, Spanish Steps. I had last traveled to Occitania over a decade earlier to research my historical novel about Esclarmonde de Foix, the Cathar Joan of Arc. I approached the homecoming with excitement and not a little trepidation, worried–needlessly, as it turned out–that I’d find the Pays Cathare (Cathar Country) changed for the worse by the passage of time and the increase in tourism.
Our twelve-day walking itinerary combined historical sites with the most scenic of the Sentier trails (marked on stones and trees by red and blue stripes) and the more ubiquitous GR (“grande randonnée”) trails. Many hikers avoid straying from the Sentier to take advantage of the gites and pubs that have sprung up along the way. Colaneri, however, lodges her clients for two or three nights at a time in stunning villages off the beaten path, then transports them by van to the start of the next day’s hike to avoid the constant hassle of repacking. And rather than be hamstrung by unyielding French restaurants hours, Colaneri, an accomplished chef in Aspen during the hiking off-season, serves up delicious picnic lunches on the trails with produce purchased fresh from local markets.
Our group of veteran hikers included three American couples, a lady from Toronto, and a Catholic priest stationed in Mexico. We met up near the Mediterranean coast in Béziers, a city that witnessed the start of the Cathar wars with one of Christianity’s darkest hours. In 1209, a papal army from the north demanded that the local Catholics surrender their heretic neighbors, but the tolerance-loving Biterrois refused. Enraged, the invaders stormed the walls in an orgy of slaughter that historian Stephen O’Shea called “the Guernica of the Middle Ages,” a comparison to the German Luftwaffe bombing of the Basque town in 1937. Ordered to burn the city’s cathedral with its thousands of refugees, even the bloodthirsty Crusaders hesitated, aware that more Catholic than heretic residents cowered inside. Unmoved, the papal legate reportedly insisted, “Kill them all. God will know His own.”
Today, a few stones from the original foundations that witnessed these horrors can be seen in the reconstructed cathedral of Sainte Nazaire. Modern Béziers remains a bit scruffy and singed on the edges, giving the impression of having never fully recovered from Rome’s treachery. So, anxious to get into the countryside, we strapped on our trekking poles and headed west, where the trail of the Crusaders became even more scorched.
Old Occitania is dotted with villages ravaged by Simon de Montfort, the Catholic knight most devoted to killing in God’s honor. Modern inhabitants of the Languedoc still curse the memory of this ruthless commander who gouged out the eyes of prisoners and threw women into wells. A fellow novelist told me she once made the mistake of remarking to a taxi driver in Carcassonne that her favorite historical character was the son of Montfort, Simon IV, who became a champion of England’s Parliament. The driver was so indignant that he braked to a stop and ordered the woman to get out.
Tiny Minerve in the Hérault region suffered Montfort’s wrath with particular severity. Its population now dwindled to just over a hundred, this sleepy cluster of sun-baked houses is now recognized by Les Plus Beaux Villages de France as one of the country’s most beautiful locales. Hikers can approach it from a surrounding gorge and stare up at what remains of the tower that held out against the Crusaders for six weeks. A modern monument carved with a dove, a Cathar symbol, overlooks the spot where 140 heretics were burned.
Sobered by Minerve’s fate, we headed south to the Cistercian Abbey of Fontfroide, which served as headquarters for the monastic campaign against the heretics. Both St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Dominic preached in the vineyard-laced plains that surround this 12th century enclave of ochre sandstone. Now privately owned and installed with a winery, Fontfroide held a surprise for us that afternoon: a French television company was filming a documentary about the Inquisition, and the cloisters were filled with tonsured monks and menacing soldiers in bowl-shaped helmets. During shooting breaks, the actors lit cigarettes and mingled with ogling tourists. One of my most jarring memories is of a beady-eyed Inquisitor strolling past me while puffing rings of smoke from his death stick.
The next morning, we ventured out past a looming turret that overlooks the spot where the last known Cathar holy man was sent to the stake. Eight miles later, at the castle of Termes, we emerged from a mud-slicked forest into a sunny pasture guarded by sheep dogs more vicious than Crusader mastiffs. Each segment of the Sentier has its own quirks and character; depending on the weather and the condition of one’s feet, a day’s worth of ground covered can cast one into a state of bliss, or bring understanding why the Cathars deemed the world to be a vale of suffering.
Farther west up the trail, a cylinder of stone called Queribus reaches for the heavens like a space capsule about to be launched. Across the valley stands its sister castle, Peyrepetruse, which tests the visitor with an ascent of slippery footstones diabolically slanted to cast intruders into the abyss. Those tired of craning their necks skyward can find relief a few miles south in the Galamus Gorge, a plummeting gash once inhabited by Christian hermits. A single car lane through the rocks with its hairpin turns instructs even the most ardent of atheist car drivers on the purpose of prayer.
As the days of walking hurried by too quickly, each with its own fascinating tale of medieval woe and mystery, we veered northeast to spend two nights shadowed by the tallest peak in the area. Bugarach has long been associated with UFO sightings and underground colonies; the science-fiction writer Jules Verne was said to have based Journey to the Center of the Earth on his experiences here. The village at the foot of the heights has even become a haven for those convinced that the world will end in 2012.
There must be something in the water of the many underground streams around Bugarach. Another local village, a mere eight-mile jaunt through grazing cattle and kissing gates, is not about to relinquish its title as conspiracy capital of the world. Rennes le Chateau became a tourist magnet with the exploding popularity of The Da Vinci Code. When a local 19th century parish priest began throwing large sums of money around, the Church attributed his sudden wealth to the unlawful sale of masses. But others suspect the priest found something of incalculable value—perhaps the Ark of the Covenant, a Cathar treasure, buried Visigoth gold, or even the remains of Mary Magdalene.
A wet June snow reminded us that we were gaining altitude as we trudged northwest toward Tarascon-sur-Ariege and the white peaks of the Pyrenees. Our next destination was Niaux cave of prehistoric fame, one of the many natural underground cathedrals in the Ariege that gave refuge to heretics. Local historians have claimed that ancient hermetic teachings, hinted at in the Holy Grail legends, were preserved by the Cathars in these haunting caverns.
“From the dawn of time, early humans were drawn to Occitania for its powerful natural energies,” explained popular guide and author, Anneke Koremans. “The entire region is sacred.”
With our journey nearing its end, we circled back down the Ariege valley toward the ruins of Montsegur castle, the ultimate goal for many pilgrims to Occitania. On this fortified peak that became the Cathar Masada, the heretics maintained a seminary and doled out blessings and what donations of food could be spared. Hundreds of believers came here to die, carried to the top by mules at the night to avoid capture. Only a few skeletons have been found on the mount, leading some to speculate that an undiscovered necropolis may lie deep within its bowels.
A heavy rain on the evening we arrived had turned the switchback path up the mount into a treacherous stream of mud. My fellow hikers decided to postpone their climb until the next morning, but I slogged on up the western face alone. A half-hour later, I stood three thousand feet above the valley and leaned against Montsegur’s ancient wall to catch my breath. The sun broke through dark clouds to welcome me with a hug of warmth. Maybe, I thought, the legends about mystical occurrences here were not so far-fetched.
Thousands come to Montsegur each year to remember the 220 Cathars—including a grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter—who were burned here in 1244 after a brutal nine-month siege. Terraces excavated on its slope reveal where the malnourished refugees huddled in huts while praying for a good death. Surrendering Occitan soldiers were allowed to avoid execution by offering their allegiance to Rome, but several chose to die in the fires with those whose courage they had come to admire. Legend has it that on the night before the burnings, four defenders escaped down the mount with a mysterious treasure.
On our last morning in Occitania, we walked into the reconstructed medieval city of Carcassonne, once heralded as the Paris of the South. I meandered through the old basilica of Sainte-Nazaire and was greeted by a sign announcing that the church had been home to the “Roman Catholic Cult” since 1096. Was this a clumsy English translation, I wondered, or had some unbowed Occitan docent insisted on having the last word?
On a wall of the nave, I found the famous slab that had once been part of Simon de Montfort’s tomb there, before his remains were removed north to more hospitable surroundings. No epitaph marks the spot, so I whispered one of my own, a line from Shakespeare in The Winter’s Tale that best summed up my feelings about this magical land seared by tragedy: “It is a heretic that makes the fire, not she which burns in it.”
If You Go: Southwestern France can be reached from Paris, London, or Barcelona. From Charles de Gaulle Airport, take the TGV train to Toulouse or Avignon and transfer to Béziers or Carcassonne. From London, Ryanair has direct flights to Carcassonne. Those preferring a southern approach can take the train up the coast from Barcelona to Perpigan or Beziers.
Spanish Steps (www.spanishsteps.com) and Camino guide Judy Colaneri offer an escorted “Cathars, Castles and Cassoulet” hiking tour with small groups. Support vans, lodging and most meals are included.
Barinka Travel (www.barinca.fr). Local guide and author Anneke Koremans provides a variety of services to English-speaking travelers in old Occitania.
Glen Craney is the author of The Fire and the Light: A Novel of the Cathars.