The Cathars were a religious sect that flourished in France from the 11th to the 13th century in the area between the settlements of Albi, Toulouse, Perpignan and Béziers with Carcassonne at its centre. This area has now been reinvented by the tourist industry as Le Pays Cathar (Cathar Country).There are lots of books available on the subject of this religion, but very simply, the Cathars believed that the physical world was evil and that it had been created by Satan, who was taken to be identical with the God of the Old Testament and that men underwent a series of reincarnations on earth before reaching the pure realm of spirit, the presence of the God of Love described in the New Testament and his messenger Jesus. The Cathars rejected the practices and teaching of the Catholic Church who came to regard the sect as heretical. When faced with the rapid spread of the movement across the Languedoc and the failure of peaceful attempts at conversion, Pope Innocent III launched the Albigensian Crusade in March 1208 to crush the movement. Christian Crusaders led by Simon de Montfort were sent to the Cathar strongholds to slaughter the Cathar people without mercy. This brutal ethnic cleansing removed the Cathars from history but it is still possible to visit the places where they made their last futile attempts to protect their beliefs.
If you find straight history books a bit heavy going, Kate Mosse captures the historical detail in her novel 'Labyrinth'.
Suggestion for a day out
It is still possible to visit all the wonderful locations once inhabited by the Cathars, which are all set in breathtaking locations. Here is a suggestion for a leisurely day out by car or motor bike visiting some of the Cathar landmarks and local places of interest.
From Domaine des Etoiles join the D623 at the bottom of the hill turning left towards Montréal-Fanjeaux. Keep on this road until you come to a roundabout.
Here is the first land mark - the nunnery at Prouille founded in 1207 by Domingo de Guzman, better known to later generations as Saint Dominic, founder of the Dominican order of Friars. After taking the sighting of a comet as the sign of God (some sources suggest that the Virgin Mary appeared to him whilst he was praying in the small chapel at Prouille), St. Dominic decided to build a monastery for the Cathar women returning to Catholicism. This building was destroyed during the French Revolution and the building you see was built in 1879. St Dominic made it his mission to combat the powerful Cathar heresy and it was St. Dominic who said: "I have preached, entreated, wept -- the rod must now do the work of benediction. Towers will be torn down, and ye shall be reduced to bondage. Might shall prevail where meekness has failed." at the start of the Albigensian crusade. A little later in its history, the Black Prince took holy orders in the octagonal abbey at Prouille.
Take the third exit at the roundabout towards Fanjeaux.
From Fanjeaux there are panoramic views out over the valley in all directions. In this village the Cathars made a stand against the army of the Black Prince but they were overwhelmed. Everyone in the village was blinded except one man who was allowed to keep the sight of one eye so that he could lead the victims to the other villages and towns in the area to show the inhabitants what would happen to them if the sheltered Cathars.
Leave Fanjeaux on the D119 toward Mirepoix, on clear days the Pyrenees suddenly seem very much nearer as you drive towards Mirepoix.
Mirepoix is in the Ariège. It is a 13th century bastide town built on the river Hers. In the 13th century the lord of the town, Roger de Mirepoix, was a Cathar and it was home to many who followed the Cathars. In 1209 the town was besieged and most of the Cathars retreated to the castle of Montségur.
Mirepoix is a great place for a morning coffee in one of the cafés around the Place des Couverts, which has retained its medieval buildings. Probably the best example is the Maison des Consuls with its figures of carved wood. The cathedral of Saint Maurice has the widest nave known in France (22m), and is well worth a visit to see the Gothic architecture and painted decoration. Bring a jumper, as it is extraordinarily cold inside even in the height of summer.
Leave Mirepoix on the D625 towards Lavelanet. The name Lavelanet is derived from the Latin word for "hazel nut" and there is a nut festival in the town each Autumn.
In Lavelanet, take the D117 and then the D109 up the valley to arrive at the Cathar castle of Montségur.
There is roadside parking and it is possible to walk up the mountain to the castle. This impressive fortress is perched on its pog (peak) at a height of more than 1000 m. If you make it to the top of the pog, you can still see the remains of the old castle and village that was inhabited by the Cathar community until 2nd March 1244 when, after a ten month siege the castle surrendered. It is rumored that several Cathar Priests escaped from the castle with a "treasure" the night before the surrender. The remaining Cathars were given 15 days to renounce their faith. The two hundred who refused to convert to the Catholic religion, walked down from the castle hand in hand and singing, on the 16th March, into the fire in the Prat dels Cramats, the field of the burnt ones. A grave marker has been constructed in memory of this martyrdom and visitors leave flowers on it as a sign of respect as they walk past to visit the castle.
If you don't have the inclination of a mountain goat there is a super museum in the modern village of Montségur which exhibits the finds from the archaeological digs that have been performed over many years on the castle site. The castle that you can see from the road is a later addition constructed to defend the boarder region between France and Spain.
From the castle follow the road on to the small town of Bélesta.
Keep on the main road and look out for sign posts to the Fountain of Fontestorbes. There is roadside parking on the right hand side of the road just after the bridge.
This is a very special place to visit. This natural wonder is one of only 11 examples of intermittent springs in the world. It spills out from a cave on the white limestone cliff face in at a spectacular gushing torrent of 1,800 liters of water per second and then reduces to a trickle of around 50 liters per second and back within an hour.
The effect is caused by a natural siphon and was first recorded in Roman times. Legends abound with mythical tales of magical fairies explaining the fountains' powers. The cave is large enough to walk into and explore, but this is only advisable when the spring is dry!
There is a lovely café on the opposite side of the roadway if you are in need of a drink/snack/toilet.
From Fontestorbes continue towards the village of Belesta.
Belesta has been inhabited since Neolithic times and the castle-museum is well worth a visit. At the time of the Cathars Belesta was a small mountain hamlet. A little later the hamlet found its self strategically placed on the boarder between France and Spain and was extensively fortified in the 14th century.
From Belesta continue on the D117 to Puivert. Look out for signs for the castle which is on the left hand side of the road.
The castle you can see today dates from 14th century boarder conflicts, at the time of the Cathars, the castle was much smaller and more primitive. This castle was completely destroyed by Simon de Montfort after a three day siege in November 1210.
In the small village of Puivert, the Quercorb Museum describes the customs and traditional activities of this region. On the top floor is the instrumentarium: a reconstruction of medieval musical instruments based on the instruments that can be seen on the carved column capitals in a room in the Puivert castle.
The lake at Puivert is a good place for a swim and a pick nick.
From Puivert take the road to Quillan.
At the time of the Cathars, Quillan was a significant town on an ancient winding road linking Carcassonne with Perpignan.
Take the D12 to Espéraza and Couiza (from Couiza it is only ten minutes to the hill top village of Rennes le Chateau, well worth the detour just for the views even if you aren't interested in the "mystery").
Rennes le Chateau and the mystery of the Cathars.
The tiny hill top village of Rennes le Chateau has had a long history of settlement. In 563 it was the Visigoth city of Rhedae. After the Saracen invasion it became less important, until it was given to the Counts of Carcassonne by Charlemagne. It later became one of the last Cathar strongholds eventually destroyed by fire by the forces of Simon de Montfort. It was gradually redeveloped but was pillaged by soldiers of fortune and besieged by Count Henri de Trastamarre of Spain during the boarder hostilities of the 14th century, and then ravaged by plague. At the end of all this misfortune the population was so reduced that the city became the tiny village of Rennes le Chateau and nothing noteworthy appears to have happened until 1891.
In 1891 an impoverished village priest called Béranger Saunière is said to have discovered two parchments found in a sculptured Visigothic pillar of the altar in Rennes le Chateau Church. It is suspected that these parchments were brought to Rennes-le-Chateau by Cathare Priests who had escaped the Christian Crusades. The parchments' secret had been kept and handed down from priest to priest until they were considered too dangerous to carry and were secreted in the pillar with clues left to their whereabouts.
After finding the parchments, Béranger Saunière became fabulously wealthy.There is great speculation as to what these parchments revealed.
More on the mystery can be found in Holy Blood, Holy Grail and Key to the Sacred Pattern, the untold story of Rennes le Chateau. The Da Vinci Code mixes fact and fiction and Simon Cox's Cracking the Da Vinci Code shows how Rennes le Chateau and the historic area around Couiza is tied to its plot through coded links and riddles. The book shop in Rennes le Chateau has a huge selection of books on the subject, in English, if you just can't wait until you get home to know more.
To explore Rennes le Chateau properly takes at least half a day, but if you just want a quick look allow at least an hour and do take a look inside the church. There are places to eat and drink and there are public toilets in the car park.
From Rennes le Chateau return to Couiza and take the D118 to Limoux.
Limoux is a medieval market town and was one of the first prizes to be taken by Simon de Montfort in the Albigencian Crusade. As well as for the Cathars, the town is famous for its 3-month long carnival and its numerous Blanquette wine cellars, wine tasting and buying. Park for free by the river Aude and enjoy some of the locally produced wines at one of the many cafés in the town square, and if your trip has filled the day, why not stay and have dinner?