Since childhood I have wanted to visit the Cathar castles, “les châteaux cathares”. And thankfully, the vertigo citadels, high on the Corbières’ peaks, were up to my expectations.
The Corbières are the hills which link the Pyrenees to the Massif Central; in the wider valleys grow wines, but the hills are covered in Mediterranean garrigue. This dry forest challenged me. The heat would crush me for most of the day; in the evenings, the dry warm wind from the South East would provide little relief, and turned the forest into a tinderbox.
I knew none of the plants around me. The glossy leaves, scaly barks, gnarled trunks, everything spoke of drought. The grass and leaves rustled under foot. Lizards, butterflies and grasshoppers were the most common sights; I heard sheep’s bells in the evenings, but never saw them. Rare hamlets are tightly packed in the relative shelter of the narrow valley bottoms, where rivers trickle still. Lime trees and narrow streets provide welcome shade.
And high above it all, vertiginously perched atop cliffs and outcrops, as if in defiance to gravity and the burning sun, the Cathar castles. Their walls and towers prolong the hills skywards.Those incredible citadels look at first like a figment of the imagination. Then, as you start believing your eyes, astonishment turns to wonder and awe.
The Cathars, or “the perfect” as they were called in their time, rejected the dogma and authority of the Roman Catholic Church. As a result, they were declared heretics, and became the targets of the first crusade inside Christendom. But political considerations were just as important as the religious ones, though. The crusade was the hostile takeover of the Midi – now the South of France – by the feudal lords from the North of France, encouraged by their overlord, the King of France, keen to counteract the King of Aragon.
Simon de Montfort, fresh from his ransacking of Constantinople during the fourth crusade, led the crusade. It started with the siege of Beziers in 1209; when the city was taken, it is estimated there were forty thousand dead. It set the tone for a particularly vicious campaign of subjugation, which went as far west as Toulouse and Agen, and rolled on for twenty years. In the end, Simon de Montfort became Count of Toulouse, imposing a new culture and a style of governance that was alien to pays d’Oc.
Each Cathar castle has its impossibly steep ascension under the blinding sun, its sweeping panoramas over the hills and valleys, and also its own story to tell of resistance, siege, and massacre. As a Parisian, I sense my perspective is shifting as I travel through the South of France. I had never realised how much blood has been spilled in the building of my country, how many rich and strong cultural identities had been pushed, willingly or not, into the mix that makes up modern France. I guess I had only seen history from the victors’ perspective.