Languedoc-Roussillon is a region in the Aude department, which is located in the southwest of France. There are many reasons to visit this beautiful part of France – the scenery, picturesque villages, excellent food and local home-made wine all come to mind. If you have more than a passing interest in history, however, this area should be up near the top of your travel wish-list. It simply oozes history wherever you go; ancient, majestic churches towering head and shoulders above all other buildings in tiny little villages; the remains of Abbeys often hidden away in the charming, rustic countryside; and the ruins of awesome, medieval castles lording it atop high hills and mountains.
Many of these castles have now become known as ‘Cathar Castles’, or Chateaux cathares. Cathar Castles is a modern term, introduced as a marketing ploy by the French tourism industry. It encompasses a number of medieval castles in the Languedoc region, but in fact, not all of them are strictly from the Cathar era. Some do still have a connection, but others have actually been replaced by new castles built by the French Crusaders. But let’s not allow a small detail like that gets in the way of our enjoyment of these glorious beasts!
A little bit of history about the Cathars: they are not actually a race of people. They are a group of people who came together in opposition to what they perceived as the many-faceted corruption of the Catholic Church. They didn’t believe in the Sacrament of the Eucharist nor the practice of Baptism by water, to name but two grievances. With their numbers ever increasing, they were inevitably persecuted by the Catholic Church – and it’s true that many did take refuge in the castles of the era.
Now that you have a little background information, let’s take a look at just 5 of these regal gems.
Chateau de Lastours (Cabaret) can be found just north of the stunning city of Carcassonne. This particular fortification actually comprises four castles. They sit at an altitude of 300 meters, atop a rocky spur overlooking the village of Lastours. Surrounded by deep valleys and rivers, this castle (it’s known as just one castle, despite the four different structures) was classified as a historic monument by the French Ministry of Culture in 1905. In the village of Lastours, you can also visit the remains of the original medieval village. Archaeologists have unearthed walls and graves dating back to the 6th century!
Chateau de Termes sits at the summit of a large, natural hill; a lofty and imposing site overlooking the tiny village of Termes, not far from Lagrasse. Visible from many aspects as you approach the village via the long and winding road, this castle is truly awesome. Like Lastours, Termes is also classified as a historic monument, and steps were taken recently to preserve and protect it. A 15-20 minute hike up from the village is all it takes to feel like you are on top of the world.
Chateau de Peyrepertuse is located in the stunning French Pyrenees Mountains, not too far from the Spanish border. In fact, it has associations with the Counts of Barcelona. Built in the 11th century, it’s a fascinating structure that features two separate parts on different levels that are linked by a staircase. The name is a derived from a word meaning ‘pierced rock’, which refers to the crag it was built on. When approaching the castle by road, it’s hard to tell where the rock ends and the castle begins.
The Chateau de Montsegur is probably the best known of all the Cathar Castles. It’s famous for being the last Cathar stronghold, which finally fell in 1244 after a 10-month battle. It’s rumored that a field that lies below this imposing castle houses the remains of over 200 Cathars burned alive for refusing to denounce their faith. So visit it if you dare! Lying in the foothills of the Pyrenees, close to the commune of Lavelanet, this castle – together with a nearby informative museum – is open to the public.
Chateau de Puilaurens is located above the villages of Lapradelle and Puilaurens, some 45 miles south of Carcassonne. It can be accessed by a path from the town of Axat, where the Cathar Red train terminates. In the 12th century, it was acquired by the King of Aragon and thus, as Aragon is a territory in Spain. not France, it does not belong to the group of castles that were ransacked during the Cathar wars. So it provided a safe haven for those fleeing the wars; whichever side they were on.
To this day, it is one of the best-preserved castles from the Cathar period and is fascinating to explore. There’s a large courtyard that is surrounded by high walls and two round towers. The second line of fortifications is also present, with another two towers for support. One of the most intriguing things about this particular Chateau is that it features a ‘speaking tube’ that is embedded in the stonework. This allowed people to communicate between floors. Ahead of its time, you might say!
This is just a small sample of the myriad Castles and ancient Abbeys which remain in this captivating corner of France. For further information on Cathar Castles, check out Aude Tourism. Vive La France!