LE PAYS CATHARE
One of the strongest memories of my time there was a visit in early April from my friend Andrew. After a couple of days showing Andrew all of my new discoveries around Le Gard, my host, Annette, suggested we take a couple days and visit the Pays Cathare - the region in which the heretical Christian sect, the Cathars, massacred in the early Thirteenth Century during the Albigensian Crusade, lived and guarded the Franco-Spanish borders, (not to mention themselves,) from their towering castle-fortresses.
Many of the castles still stand, (although most stand in some degree of ruin.) Many of them sit atop the towering mountains of the region. To get to them, Andrew and I, (but mostly me, as I did the driving,) had to navigate the trecherous roads of the region - which I have been told were actually built along the original Roman roads, which may explain the perilous "two way roads" with hundred meter drop offs to one side, and mountain slope to the other. The countryside surrounding these castles is so unbelievably beautiful, and the sites themselves are intimidating, beautiful, mysterious, and charged with incredible energy.
The combination of the perilousness of the trip there, not to mention the steep hikes upward, then coupled with the incredible beauty of the ruins and the views, made this tour intense and unforgettable.
In our three days and two nights, we visited 4 sites: we started with the Chateau Lastours, then making our way to a rental just outside the Medieval city of Carcassonne. we spent two nights in Carcassonne, then went further south to Peyrepertuse, then Queribus.
A funny story that stands out in my mind, that really encapsulates the intensity of these visits is our last stop, Queribus. As anyone who knows a little bit about the South of France might know, the wind there is no joke. The mistral is said to drive people mad, and the crime rates supposedly rise during continuously windy periods.
So, Andrew and I battle the wind at all the sites. No big deal, but it's there. It's noticeable. We carry on. It adds to the drama of the experience. Above my red, flea market hiking boots, I am dressed as a fairy princess. I sing a Kate Bush song in the rain on top of Peyrepetuse and feel I have crossed something off my bucket list. We arrive shortly after that, at Queribus, where we gird our loins for cars coming down in the other direction, (we later watched a tour bus descend, clutching our pearls in horror and anticipation.) We stop into the little cabin at the bottom of the trail, next to the parking lot, and try to pay the 6€ entry fee. She shrugs and tells us no one that's come - not a one - has made it to the top. You can't scare us, we say, proudly. She laughs and tells us we can pay on the way down... if we make it to the top.
She wasn't kidding, it's pretty windy. But we make our way up the first part of the path, no problem. The path drops off to one side, but there's a rope to hang on to on the other. When we get just about to the castle, the other side drops off. But that's only a few more steps. The wind is much stronger now, so Andrew and I crawl across to the steps of the castle. There is also a rope there - mind you, there are about 10 steps up to the castle itself. We sally forth, and about three steps up, the wind picks up so much that we cling to the rope, sit down on the stairs, and hide behind the wall. My fairy flower crown flies off. Miraculously, Andrew catches it in his hand before it flies away forever. As the wind is howling, and we are praying we don't get blown away, we look south and realize we are looking at the Pyrenees. We can see for miles. It is incredible.
However, not wanting to die, we wait for a small respite from the wind, crawl back down, exchanging knowing, amused goodbyes with the lady in the cabin.
This is, without question, one of the most incredible things I've done. I am not likely to forget it in my lifetime. Definitely something I'd recommend, and definitely something I'm planning on doing again.
See you on the next installment, when I tell you about my beau. 💘
P.S. If anyone knows of any good books - historical, or really good historical fiction - about the Cathars, I'm all ears. That shit's FASCINATING.
This blog is Part 2 of 9 about my year in France. Check out the other chapters here!