France’s Cathar Country
The force of gravity had pressed me back so far that I felt I was at a 90 degree angle to the world. Heart pounding, I closed my eyes, clenched my teeth and gripped my car seat. Concentrating on my breathing, I said a silent prayer.
For someone afraid of heights, I had picked a hell of a place to spend a vacation. How could I, normally such a meticulous planner, have overlooked that this land of abbeys was at the foothills of the Pyrenees? Had I been so starry-eyed about following in the footsteps of knights and troubadours that I overlooked that their castles were ensconced on cliff tops?
The Languedoc-Roussillon region of France is located in its southwest corner, bordered by Spain and Andorra to the south, the Mediterranean to the east, Bordeaux country to the west and the Black Mountains and country’s center to the north. My husband Tom and I were staying in the tiny village of Magrie located in the Aude department, as part of a home exchange with another couple. Also known as “Cathar Country,” the area encompassed five pays, or counties, steeped in rich history. The landscape’s jagged ridges and deep gorges were blanketed in old growth forests, studded with ancient architecture and enveloped in eons of intrigue.
My body heaved forward as the car lurched onto level ground and, almost against my will, my eyes popped open. In a heartbeat I went from abject fear to utter delight, and my cheeks stretched into a grin. The spectacle of Chateau de Puivert was worth the proverbial price of admission, the sight of it actually sweetened by the 30 seconds of adrenal surge I felt as we climbed the steep incline. Looming larger than life, its immense white stone façade straddled the 2,000-foot heights of the verdant hilltop.
Ours was the only car in the lot, and we had the run of the place. Crossing the chateau’s threshold through a set of massive archways, we found ourselves in a grassy, football field-sized expanse. To our left was a vista of the valley below, afforded by a huge gap in the fortress exterior where a section of wall had been taken down by the forces of time. I admired the patchwork of green, yellow and brown acres stretched out to the next mountain ridge, through the middle of which snaked a line of leafy emerald trees. A herd of cattle appeared as though miniature, and gave me perspective on the immense altitude of my vantage point. Two small bi-planes swooped into my line of vision. They danced gracefully with each other for several minutes, their shadows partners in the performance, and then glided off into the horizon.
On one of the remaining walls enclosing the chateau’s open-air interior, I saw a plaque that proclaimed a bit of the site’s history: In 1170, as she was traveling across the country, Alienor d’Aquitaine and all her court put up at the castle. Then there was one of the greatest gatherings of troubadours. In order to please her the most famous thirteen contested. Until 1199, Puivert was Spanish, it then became Occitan and belonged to the Congost family, converted to the Cathar faith. Bernard de Congost, his wife, and their son died “consoled.” The daughters were burnt to death at Montsegur. In 1210, a column of 6,000 men led by Pons de Bruyere took the castle in three days and four nights. Puivert Castle is a landmark of the end of this first military conquest since it is situated at the meeting point of Spain, the Toulouse county, the Foix county, and the Carcassonne vicecounty, on the commercial route Perpignan-Bayonne.
This was a summary of what I had already learned about the Cathars, a name which came from the Greek for “purity.” The Cathars were Gnostics, and their beliefs are thought to have come originally from Eastern Europe and the Byzantine Empire by way of travelers as they journeyed along the trade routes. The movement had flourished in the Languedoc region in the 12th and 13th centuries. Occitan or langue d’oc is a Latin-based Romance language in the same way as Spanish, Italian or French; it is from this tongue that the region gets its name. Catalan is a language very similar to Occitan and there are quite strong historical and cultural links between Occitania and Catalonia.
The Cathar sect believed there existed within mankind a spark of divine light, which had fallen captive to the prison of the material world. The path to spiritual liberation meant breaking those enslaving bonds, a gradual process accomplished in a unique way by each individual.
“The region has always been a melting pot of influences—Christian, Arabic, French and Spanish,” said Christine Barrely, my home exchange partner and hostess in absentia. “As a result, most places were open to new ideas and doctrines. There were a lot of conflicts around here, between lords, cities, abbeys and so forth. Sometimes it was violent, but as a whole it allowed new cultures to establish themselves in a new and original blend. The Cathar movement is an example. Coming from the eastern countries, it found a home here.”
Cathars were perhaps ahead of their time—vegans, they didn’t eat anything that came to life as a result of sex. Referred to in some quarters as “Western Buddhists,” Cathars gave credence to the concept of reincarnation, believing that those who were unable to achieve liberation during their current mortal journey would return to continue the struggle for perfection. Anti-marriage, they believed women and men were equal. Cathars also condemned capital punishment, an abnormality in medieval times.
Many of their beliefs were diametrically opposed to those of the Catholic Church. In 1208, with politics and feudal land grabs fanning the flames, nobles from northern France instigated the Albigensian Crusade, accusing the Cathar population in the south of heresy. The ensuing war essentially exterminated the Cathars and their allies in the Languedoc region.