As pretty as Minerve is, it has a dark, gruesome history. Back in June 1210, it was beseiged by the papal forces in the crusade against the Cathars. It was almost a year after the massacre at Béziers and the capitulation of Carcassonne, bigger towns about equidistant from Minerve. Refugees had fled to Minerve, which must have seemed like a safe place, nearly surrounded by sheer cliffs, the sole access by land guarded by a fortress. It was isolated, in the middle of nowhere, and so had been passed by during the original campaign.The leader of the crusade, Simon de Montfort, didn’t like having a refugee center around. He used Minerve’s natural defenses against it, setting up trébuchets on the opposite sides of the deep ravines that surround Minerve. He ordered Minerve to be destroyed. There’s a reconstruction of a trébuchet, dubbed Malvoisine, or Bad Neighbor, on the plateau opposite Minerve.What broke the Minervois, however, was that their access to their only well was cut off and it was summer–no rain to carry them over. The residents were given a chance to convert but only three did; 140 were burned at the stake, probably in the dry riverbed of the Cesse. It was the first collective stake burning of the crusade. They weren’t tied up but marched down rue des Martyrs (Martyr Street) and had to throw themselves into the pyre.
Good thing we aren’t so barbaric anymore, eh?
Today, Minerve is the picture of calm and charm.The rivers must be something when they are high. Think of the force it took to carve these cliffs.
Not far away, not very well marked, is the Curiosité de Lauriole, which I have been dying to see. I don’t have good photos of it, because it’s something you have to see in person, though there are videos online. The road looks like it’s inclining ever so slightly, but in fact it’s going downhill.
I took a ball, but it failed miserably because of the wind. Then I put my car in the middle of the road, stopped completely and let my foot off the brake, expecting to roll gently forward. Instead, I rolled gently backward. I’m all in for cheap thrills.Back to Minerve. I appreciate a street with an archway. I always wonder about the title to the house that goes above it. How do they deal with the street part? The notaries of France must be very creative. When we were looking for property to buy, we visited a house in a little village where access to a bedroom was via a small door–so small that even a shortie like me had to bend way down. How would you even get a mattress in there? And to get to that room you had to go through another bedroom. Crazy.
But the craziest part was that I realized we were above a neighboring grange. Who owned the grange? Someone else. What if they wanted to tear it down? You couldn’t have the bedroom just hanging there, suspended in the air. That place was nuts in other ways, too. I wonder who ever bought it.
And we also saw a house, just next to la Cité of Carcassonne, where the bathroom was down some steps, kind of a half basement, under the neighbor’s house. I asked about it and the owners said, oh, the neighbors are nice. (My reaction: ?!?!?!?) The owners were a certain kind of French older couple you find in rustic places. They were dedicated smokers, both with voices of gravel. He wore a gold chain and pinkie ring. They loved Johnny Hallyday (the French Elvis) and had posters and “paintings” of him all over. One might have been velvet. I wonder whether they got to hear Johnny’s concert in Carcassonne–his last–just steps from their house. I think they sold before. We never know how close we came to having luck, do we? It’s one thing to be in the right place, but you also have to be there at the right time.
The number of adorable villages in the south of France is nearly infinite. Each is unique, boasting something special–a château or some historic artifact, a location that offers spectacular views, a quirky market–yet they are all, if not alike, then from the same family, with narrow streets that wind between ancient stone houses, built as needs arose, without planning but with a great sense of purpose, many generations ago. They were built to stand for generations, too, and despite the lack of advanced engineering or equipment, they have indeed survived.Saissac is all of those things. Château: check. Sweeping views: check. Streets too narrow (and vertical) for cars: check. Stone houses that aren’t quite plumb: check. I wanted to take some recent visitors to a ruined Cathar castle, but one that didn’t entail a long, vertiginous hike. And so we went to Saissac, which offers gentler access. Just west of Carcassonne, Saissac is in beginnings of the Black Mountains, enough above the plain that sprawls between the Black Mountains and the Pyrénées that you can take in vast vistas. At one time, the castle towered over the village, but after a few ransackings the castle was ruined and the village moved up. That means you get to trundle gently down to this castle, doable even in sandals, not too far for little ones with short legs or elder ones with tired knees, doable with strollers and possibly wheelchairs, though inside there are still ancient bits that require climbing and jumping. The principle of “if you get hurt it’s your own fault” applies here.
The Saissac castle was started around 900 BCE, and it was mentioned in a document in 960 in which the bishop of Toulouse gave the castle to the count of Carcassonne. It got passed around various noble families until the Revolution; it was already in ruins by then and its condition just got worse. In 1864, some bounty hunters dynamited the keep, which didn’t help matters. The village bought the castle in 1994 and started renovations, more to keep what was left from crumbling than to put anything back together.The bounty hunters weren’t wrong in their choice of target, even if they came up empty–in 1979, a treasure of 2,000 deniers, or coins, was found during some repairs. The coins dated to 1250-1270 and are on display in the castle. They’re behind glass, and my photos of them didn’t turn out. You’ll have to see for yourself!
We clambered around the ruins like wannabe Indiana Joneses, looking at details to imagine what it must have been like. Traces. A doorway, filled in. Holes peering to other rooms or cavities or something mysterious. The angled ghost of a staircase. One lower-level room had been set up to look like a medieval kitchen.These castles were never just one thing. At times, they were fortresses against invaders. They often were safe havens against the marauders that plagued Europe in the Middle Ages. At other times, they were elegant residences, and the owners added on rooms or wings. Jean de Bernuy was one of them. He bought the château in 1518 and added a living area with large windows, a couple of fireplaces and a staircase–it was the Renaissance, after all. De Bernuy was an immigrant success story: he came from Burgos, Spain, and made his fortune in the pastel business. He was so loaded that he stood security for the ransom of King Francis I, who was held hostage in Pavia in 1525. Pastel came from woad, and would be ground up and pressed into balls to use as blue dye. The balls were called coques and gave the region the name Pays de Cocagne, which means land of milk and honey. Even Carcassonne had a big textile industry, and this region just to the west made fortunes from the blue dye, especially between 1460 and 1560, when indigo from the Americas started to show up. Globalization.
Saissac’s church also was interesting. It seems to date to 1290, after the crusade against the Cathars (1209). The Cathars and Catholics had lived side by side until the crusade, so maybe the surviving villagers wanted to show allegiance to the church after the Cathars had been exterminated. By 1568, there were other troubles–the Wars of Religion. The church was burned, the priests massacred and the village pillaged by the Huguenots. Only the castle resisted the attack. The village and church were pillaged again in 1591 by the Antoine Scipion, the duc de Joyeuse, brother of Anne (who was a male and whose name is the brand of blanquette de Limoux–the family had a castle nearby, in Couiza). Scipion had become military leader of the Catholic extremists. Why did he attack the church, if he was after the Huguenots, and why did he do to the village the same damage the Huguenots had done? Maybe the people of little Saissac were too live-and-let-live liberal for his tastes? He was known for his brutality, for having the injured executed at Montastruc, and for killing without regard to age or sex.
Things in Saissac eventually got better, and more additions were built onto the church in the following years until the Revolution–the church was closed in 1794, only to reopen in 1795. The back-and-forth could give a person whiplash. Somehow I suspect that the folks of Saissac, which today borders on 1,000 inhabitants, just wanted to live their lives in peace and quiet, tending their fields and animals and focusing on getting enough to eat. I’m sure everybody in Saissac has enough to eat these days, but overall in the world, very little has changed. The worries and crises haven’t evolved much.The village itself is cuteness personified. We passed some residents of a certain age who were outside on the sidewalk/street/their personal patio, seeking a little fresh air and breeze in the shade. We greeted them as we passed, and they seemed resigned to having outsiders traipsing through and cutting into their conversation (which was about when melons would be ripe…). There was only one other family at the château when we were there. It was a delicious luxury having the place practically to ourselves, but I imagine a lot more people come through in the summer, perhaps shooting photos of the quaint locals trying to get cool in the shade. When I lived in New York. I don’t think I ever managed to get a coffee at an outdoor table without having my photo taken by somebody, and I am not, and was not then, a beauty. I was just local color. At least then, the cameras used film and I didn’t have to worry about my mug being on the Internet. Call me old-fashioned. With facial-recognition technology, I have no intention of making it easier for anybody to find me using my face.I live in one of these little villages, not quite as vertiginous as Saissac, but similar insofar as it has little streets that even my itsy-bitsy Aygo can’t squeeze through. Even Google’s Street View car can’t negotiate them. They were built for wheelbarrows. The more a place is authentic, the less it’s practical. There’s another village that I absolutely must show you soon if I can organize myself to get back there; it’s just far enough that every time I think about it I also think, nah. On the one hand it’s paradise–no cars at all. It’s insanely beautiful but WTF for bringing home anything heavy? Actually, it’s so beautiful that it’s mostly gîtes and AirBnBs and B&Bs. The quaint locals might not be locals at all. Who wants to haul groceries from a car park half a mile away (come to think of it, I don’t think there’s a grocery store there). When you’re on vacation in an unspeakably cute village with lovely, delicious restaurants that have jaw-dropping views, then you don’t buy groceries, you eat out and walk home along the stone paths, not having to worry about cars, though you might have to worry a tiny bit about not getting lost, since little villages are crazy mazes but hey, they’re little. You can’t stay lost for long.
It’s late July in 1209. You wake up to yet another cloudless day, the morning fresh but free of dew—it’s far too dry. In the afternoon, the blazing summer sun will turn the stone walls and cobbled lanes of your fortified town, Carcassonne, into an oven.
In the streets, people are worried. Reports have arrived of the massacre at Béziers. Pope Innocent III had called for a crusade against the Cathars, a dualist religion spreading in the south of France. About 10,000 crusaders arrived at Béziers on July 21, 1209, asking for the surrender of the city. When the locals refused, the crusaders the next day slaughtered the population, Cathars and Catholics alike. When asked how to distinguish the Catholics from the Cathars, the knight in charge, Arnaud-Amaury, supposedly said, “Kill them all; God will recognize his own.” Some 7,000 of the dead—the total is estimated around 20,000—had taken refuge in the Catholic Church of St. Madeleine, which the crusaders set on fire.
Similarly, in Carcassonne, Cathars and Catholics lived side by side. If Carcassonne is in deepest France in the 21st century, it is even more the sticks in the 13th. It is on the border with Spain at the time—the border was moved south to the Pyrénées in 1659. It has its own language, occitan. Runners would have required quite some time to cover the 60 kilometers as the crow flies between Carcassonne and Béziers. The crusaders, laden with weapons and supplies, moved more slowly. It’s why fortresses were built on hills—the better to see the enemy approaching.Carcassonne is better fortified than Béziers, even though at the time, it has just one set of walls. Life isn’t too bad. It is a period of troubadours and minstrels singing about love and chivalry. Carcassonne is ruled by the Viscount Raymond-Roger Trencavel, who also ruled Béziers, as well as Razès and Albi, the epicenter of Catharism.The region enjoys peace and prosperity despite the religious divide because the Cathars are a low-key bunch. They are Christians, insofar as they use the Lord’s Prayer and the Bible. But they are also dualists, an idea that predates Christianity, going back to the Persian prophet Zoroaster. Count Trencavel is sympathetic to the Cathars; whether he shares their beliefs himself isn’t known. What’s clear is that Catharism is very popular among his vassals and he goes with the flow. There are plenty of Catholics, too—the enormous church of Saint-Nazaire and Saint-Celse, started around 925, is declared a cathedral in 1096, though it isn’t completed until about 150 years later. Building, especially with elaborately carved stone gargoyles, is a slow process.
The Cathars believe there are two creations, good and evil, with evil being the material world. So the Cathars try to have the least contact possible with the world. The name comes from the Greek word catharos, or pure. They don’t call themselves Cathars; they prefer bonshommes (good men). The Cathars keep their heads down and work. I haven’t found academic support for this but I suspect one reason the region of Languedoc (which means language of oc—the way locals said “yes,” vs. oil, which clearly turns into oui) was so prosperous is the Cathars. They reject the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, as well as its sacraments. The church otherwise has a vise-like grip on every aspect of people’s lives. In her book, “A Distant Mirror,” Barbara Tuchman writes in detail about how the church both brought order, charity and protection to the poor as well as corruption. Certainly it wasn’t the proudest period for the church.
It’s hard to know exactly what the Cathars believe because everything that’s available comes from the depositions in the Inquisition (the first Inquisition was in France, against the Cathars). The Cathars consider that since life on earth is living hell, they shouldn’t have children. They fast often, are vegetarians (almost vegans—no milk or eggs, but they do eat fish, which don’t count as animals because they live in water) and reject materialism. They are forbidden all forms of violence, including slaughtering animals. They reject hierarchy but have a loose one, with sympathizers, then believers, then parfaits—perfects—who are like priests. Pope Innocent III doesn’t like the holier-than-thou Cathars. The local lords, including Trencavel but also the King of Aragon, are showing too much tolerance toward the heretics. Raymond VI, the count of Toulouse (yes, there are many Raymonds and Raimonds and they all name their sons Raymond and Raimond as well), is especially egregious. The pope sends an emissary to knock some sense into Raymond, but one of Raymond’s aides kills the guy, and Raymond just shrugs. This is in January. The insult is too much for the pope, who calls for a crusade against the Cathars. By summer, Languedoc is under siege.
Raymond of Toulouse is quite a character. As the crusade mounts (it takes time to organize!), he tries diplomacy. Then he tries to link up with Trencavel, who turns him down, to fight the crusaders. Then he gives away seven fortresses to the pope, says he’ll fight the heretics, which he never quite gets around to, and swears he’s Catholic. But when the crusaders come for Raymond’s own land (plundering was one way to finance the crusades), he fights against them. In a sign of either how wily or how powerful he is, he manages to be excommunicated by the pope twice.
On Aug. 1, 1209, the crusaders reach Carcassonne. Raymond-Roger Trencavel, the 24-year-old count, is in command of the city. It’s hot and dry and that gives the crusaders leverage over Carcassonne. La Cité is next to the Aude river, but above it, on a hill, and the crusaders cut off access, despite a stiff battle with Trencavel’s troops. There are some wells inside the fortress, but the city is crowded with refugees. Everybody knows what happened at Béziers.
The siege is on.
The crusaders offer a deal—everybody leaves, with nothing but the clothes they’re wearing—with the spoils for the crusaders, and nobody gets hurt. Promised safe passage, Trencavel leaves la Cité on Aug. 14 to negotiate surrender. It’s a trap. He’s immediately seized and thrown in a dungeon of his own castle.
On Aug. 15, 1209—a Catholic holy day, the Feast of the Assumption, a national holiday even centuries later—Carcassonne falls without a fight.
You pass through the gates of la Cité into the unknown. It’s an era of roving gangs of bandits, why the towns had walls. Maybe you’re a Cathar or maybe you’re Catholic; it doesn’t matter. Life is shattered, and it won’t stop for decades.
The crusaders move on, to Lastours, Minerve, Termes, Puivert. Toulouse and Castelnaudary are attacked. Albi, the hotbed of Catharism that gave the crusade its name (Albigensian Crusade), falls in 1215.
Raymond of Toulouse keeps fighting and gets back his land before dying. The crusaders abandon Carcassonne in 1224, then recapture it with no resistance in 1226. Can you imagine the mess? The commander of the crusaders, Simon de Montfort, is killed in Toulouse in 1218 by a bunch of women who drop a rock on him, shattering his skull, as he attends to his wounded brother. Are they Cathars or are they Catholics sick of the invasions?
It gets worse. The new pope, Gregory IX, establishes the inquistiion in 1234. The Cathar parfaits are easy to find—while they abandon their black robes in favor of a simple string that can be hidden under their clothes, they refuse to take oaths. That is the first thing the inquisitors demand. To get lower-level Cathars (or just anybody), the inquisitors offer to split the possessions of any Cathars with informants.
Still the battles continue. Montségur burns in 1244, Quéribus falls in 1255. And the last parfait, a guy named Bélibaste, is burned at the stake at Villerouge-Termenès in 1321.
What happens to the refugees of Carcassonne? Coming soon!
Saint-Hilaire is a pretty village of ancient stone buildings and a more-ancient abbey, nestled in the first hills that rise from the plain of Carcassonne until they become the mountains of the Pyrénées. The Benedictine abbey began early in the 9th century, when King Louis I, son of Charlemagne, granted it a charter. Louis was nicknamed “the Fair,” “the Debonaire” and “the Pious,” which is an interesting combination indeed.The abbey is mostly famous for having claim to the first documented existence of bubbling wine, which was made at the abbey but which is known as blanquette de Limoux, after a nearby town. Despite the abundance of bubbly, life wasn’t so good for the monks. You would think that, being monks, they would have come out well in the crusade against the Cathars in 1209, but instead they got into a fight against the formation of a Dominican abbey down the road in Prouilhe–the “cradle of the Dominicans.” By the 1300s, money was tight, but the plague, the 100 Years’ War and roving mercenaries called routiers forced the monks to fortify the abbey into a military outpost. A real litany of threats that make a person happy to be living in the 21st century.
Things went from bad to worse: by the 1500s, François I persuaded the pope to let the king appoint the lead monk instead of the monks themselves. Such monks usually were aristocrats and didn’t have to follow any of the order’s rules or even live at the abbey. The money problems worsened. I didn’t find out whether the monks sold their wine, but the idea that prices would naturally go up wasn’t accepted any better than the idea that gravity pulled objects to the ground or that the earth revolved around the sun. Prices were considered to be immutable, and you weren’t allowed to raise them.By 1748, the monk left. The abbey’s church was used by the village and its cloister used as the village square. The abbey was sold off before 1800, as were many religious institutions after the Revolution.There’s a legend that outside Saint-Hilaire, the monks had a little country getaway, which fell to ruin and disappeared after 1748. On a Christmas night centuries later, before the Great War began, a local man passed through the moonlit domaine and heard bells ringing. But no bells were within earshot. Then he heard singing, and witnessed a procession of ghostly monks.
It does seem like the kind of place where, if ghosts exist, you might find them.The abbey is really pretty and open for visitors all year. A peaceful haven.
The castle ruins bristling atop hills are reminders of the religious and geopolitical strife that once tore at southern France. The Château de Puilaurens is one of the “Five Sons of Carcassonne,” built to defend France from Spain when the border was farther north of today’s line.The first mentions of the château date to 985, when the site held the abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa. Around 1241, it became a harbor for Cathars–Carcassonne had already surrendered in 1209 in the crusade against the Cathars by Pope Innocent III. Catharism was a dismal religion that espoused that everything on earth was evil and who were ascetic to the extreme–quite the juxtaposition with the corruption in the Catholic church.Eventually, though Puilaurens surrendered, though nobody knows exactly when, possibly around 1255. The fortress then was fortified by King Louis IX, aka Saint-Louis, to stand up to the Kingdom of Aragon (Spain wasn’t united until the 1700s). By 1659, though, the Treaty of the Pyrénées made it obsolete by moving the border south, into the Pyrénées. During the Revolution, it was abandoned completely.It’s easy to see why. It’s in the middle of nowhere!
Which is charming in its own way.Puilaurens makes for a nice day trip from Carcassonne, a chance to mix nature and history and to get the very different feel of the mountains.
It’s not for the weak of heart, or of legs. The path is rugged, and the last bit is the steepest, the better for archers picking off invaders. Not being a bird nor having a drone, I don’t have the bird’s-eye view, but you can see some here and others here.
One of the towers is called the White Lady tower, after Blanche de Bourbon, the granddaughter of Philip IV (aka the Fair or Handsome, but also known as the Iron King), who stayed in Puilaurens, but it’s hard to say when. Maybe on her way to be married, at age 14, to Peter the Cruel, king of Castile, who abandoned her three days after their wedding and had her locked up. So much for the alliance with France, which was the reason he married her at all. Blanche died eight years later, supposedly on orders of her husband, either by being poisoned or shot by a crossbow (but she might have gotten the plague). She supposedly haunts the grounds of Puilaurens as a white, misty apparition. However, it is often misty at Puilaurens. It’s at an altitude of more than 700 meters (2300 feet).
I don’t have good photos here of the castle’s modern conveniences–latrines and a speaking tube cut into the stone that allowed people to communicate between different floors of a tower.
The châteaux of Lastours are among the Cathar castles the closest to Carcassonne. The site consists of four ruined châteaux, perched on hills in the Montagne Noire, or Black Mountains.
Looking at the steep, rocky terrain, you wonder how they picked this spot to live. Life must have been rough, with good views. The Orbiel river runs at the bottom of the valley, providing an occasional flat and fertile spot for gardens.
The visit starts in a former textile factory, with a great archaeological exhibition—the site has been inhabited since the Bronze Age.
The climb winds around the hill, which makes it longer but safer than trying to go straight up. Still, it’s challenging. Not handicapped accessible or stroller accessible or even out-of-shape accessible.
But the vistas are fabulous. On a clear day, you can see all the way across the Aude plain to the Pyrénnées. Lastours has only one road, which just goes further into the mountains and thus isn’t heavily traveled. As you climb, you don’t hear cars but birds and the wind whistling through the low brush. You also pass through a mostly open cave, which tends to be unbelievably exciting for kids.
The four castles that make up Lastours (which is Occitan for “the towers”) are perched close together on a ridge, so once you’ve climbed, you’re good.
My fireman brother was fascinated (not in a good way) by the spotlight wiring, bundled haphazardly and running right across the trail for everybody to step on, and the guardrails (as in, lack thereof).
Those who can’t hike can get a bird’s eye view from an even higher spot on a hill across the valley, where a belevedere is set up with benches for an evening sound and light show. Entry is included in your châteaux ticket, or reduced if you just hit the belvedere.For a village of under 200 people, Lastours punches above its weight gastronomically. Le Puits du Trésor has a Michelin star, thanks to Jean-Marc Boyer, who is a real sweetie besides being a great chef. The restaurant is situated in the same factory as the entry to the châteaux and is open for lunch and dinner. Boyer also has a less-expensive bistro, Auberge du Diable au Thym (Thyme Devil’s Inn) next to the restaurant, with a terrace next to the fast and clear Orbiel.
A five-minute walk away, still next to the river, there’s a little bakery with homemade ice cream and tables in a little garden. And at least one shop sells local products, meaning local FOOD products.
You can’t get out of Lastours without eating, I’m telling you.
You need a car to get to Lastours. Maybe a Tour de France biker would take on the steep road (no shoulders, no guardrails). Anyway, follow the signs for parking. Do not think you’ll find something closer. You’ll end up driving through town and then you’ll have to keep going until you find a spot wide enough to turn around. The town is vertical, with the road at the bottom next to the river, and there isn’t room for a sidewalk let alone parking, aside from the little parking lot.