Cathar country: an epic destiny

Cathar country: an epic destiny

The epic of the Cathars is a spectacular part of the fierce rocky landscapes of the Corbières and the Pyrenean foothills.

Ruins of castles perched high on hilltops, with their air of mystery and their bewitching atmosphere, are scattered between Toulouse, Foix, Albi and Carcassonne. They bear witness to the troubled history of the Albigensian Crusades...

The crumbling ramparts of Peyrepertuse, the solitary keep of Queribus and the wild scenery of Montsegur: these very moving Cathar sites (among some forty others) narrate with a certain sense of drama the lives of a whole Catholic population which advocated austerity and exemplary virtue in religious and social life in the 13th century. These communities were immediately and mercilessly hunted down as "heretics". They were mainly settled in the Occitan region, between the Minervois area and Lauragais, between the hills of the Corbières and the Pyrenean foothills, which corresponds to the modern day departments of Aude and Ariège, the Tarn and the Pyrenees Orientales.

This was the time of the Crusades, those armed pilgrimages encouraged by the Pope. Armies of knights and chevaliers commoners were raised to set off eight times to deliver the Holy Land from the Muslim yoke.

But in 1209, this was a different crusade, against the inhabitants of Albi, or the "Perfects" or the Cathars (a term derived from Greek meaning "purity"). This punitive expedition led by the Pope was a forerunner to the Inquisition. This "crusade against the Albigensians" was therefore not aimed at only the citizens of Albi but a much wider community.
This repression was to divide the feudal lords of the region. Each person chose his side: Simon de Montfort and his dynasty decided to hunt down the Cathars whereas the Trencavel and Mirepoix families sided with them. The family of Raymond, Count of Toulouse, tried to compromise but was urged to join forces with the Cathars.

The city of Toulouse was taken over and over again by the two warring parties, and this Occitan region was ravaged by war until the fall of the Cathars, which coincided with the "stake" at Montségur in 1244. Tradition has it that nearly 200 people (including noble families) preferred to be burned at the stake than to deny their religious beliefs. But it was really the fall of the strategic citadel of Quéribus, in 1255, which marked the end of this tragic and troubled period.

The narrow winding roads in the departments of Aude and Ariège lead to various places where the "old stones" tell their story: solitary villages, caves used as refuges, fortresses full of ghosts. Taking refuge in the bottom of gorges or on steep promontories, the Cathars sought protection in the steep, rocky landscapes. But it is also true that several of these ruined fortresses do not tell only of the Cathar period. These strongholds (which are sometimes also called "vertiginous citadels") were originally built to prove the power of some lord's fief. That said, these sites perched on high often mean some difficult climbs for our modern-day tourists. And themed hikes, lasting several days, are ideal for exploring in detail this thrilling region, where mystery still reigns supreme...


Montségur, for plenty of thrills...
A local association explains the emblematic site of the ruins of Montsegur, in Pays d'Olmes.

Peyrepertuse, an emblematic site  
The official website of a important village, Duilhac-sous-Peyrepertuse, located between Narbonne and Perpignan. The place receives some 100,000 visitors a year. A temporary refuge of Cathars, its famous medieval citadel was used especially to control the border between the kingdoms of France and Catalonia.

Musée du Catharisme, (Cathar Museum) in Mazamet (Tarn)
The town of Mazamet (south of Albi and Castres) is home to the Maison des Memoires, a museum devoted in particular to Catharism.

Cathar country, around Carcassonne
This association groups some twenty Cathar sites, with a "collection" of abbeys and inaccessible castles, which look as if they are perched precariously on their rocky hilltops.

Other Cathar castles
A documentary website with information about Cathar history and places.

Ariège, Pyrenees and Cathar country
An unofficial website full of interesting information about Catharism in Ariège.

L'Aude, Cathar country
An unofficial website highlighting the tourist attractions of the Aude, between Narbonne and Carcassonne, the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees or the Montagne Noire.

The Ariège Tourist Board
The official tourist site for the Pyrenees department with its Occitan accents.

The Aude Tourist Board
The official tourist site for the Aude department highlights its Cathar heritage.

The Pyrénées Orientales Tourist Board
This Catalan area, between the Côtes du Roussillon and the Pyrenees (massif du Canigou) lies on the edge of Cathar country.

The Tarn Tourist Board
In the north of Cathare country, these regions have plenty of charm and lots of things to see.

Cathar Lands, a dedicated website
This informative territorial website portal has all the information you need about the historical heritage of the Aude and Ariège departments. Basically, Cathar country is located in a triangle bordered by the three main roadways: N20 – A9 – A61. The site also reminds us that the ruins of the castles and the destiny of the Cathars still remain something of a mystery today.

Suggested 4-day themed hike, by the specialists of la Balaguère
Programmed in 2010 (March to October), this hike on the theme of the Cathars is organised by one of the leading travel companies specialising in hiking and trekking: luggage transport, accommodation in 2-star hotels, log book supplied, unguided.
The "Escapade en liberte" ("Free escapade") hike, between Perpignan and Foix, Queribus and Puivert: from €435 / person.

Things to see