Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Cathar Country

Not far from Perpignan in the foothills of the Pyrénées Orientales (eastern Pyrénées) are several Cathar ruins perched on remote mountaintops in remote countryside.   The Cathars, a Christian sect, occupied these parts for about 100 years practicing their nonviolent, vegetarian and celibate way of life. They were all the while in a power struggle with the Catholic church in Rome to whose allegiance they did not subscribe.  As a result, the Catholic church gave its support to all who would help to rid the area of those they considered to be heretics.  In the 14th century, the Inquisition combed through these parts and slaughtered and burned tens of thousands of Cathars.

The remains of the Cathar strongholds are impressive examples of both their ability to create sanctuary in a most inhospitable environment and the tenacity of their enemies to root them out.

We drive first to Força Réal to see l'Ermitage de Força Réal.
View from Forca Real

Força Réal with sculpture

Built in 1692 as a place of prayer and introspection, it was left in ruins in 1817 after republican soldiers plundered the place.  It was then restored in 1899 and remains today the location for periodic religious celebrations.  From the top, one can see to the Vermeille Coast (where we are staying), l'Etang de Salses (northeast of Canet-Plage) and le Canigou in the massif des Albères.  At this time of year, there are few other visitors allowing us to have a better sense of the peace of the place. While this is not a Cathar ruin, it is in the Cathar country for which this blog is named.

North from Força Réal lies Quéribus.
Queribus from below
Quéribus is the smallest Cathar château and is perched at approximately 728 meters high.   It was built between two valleys where the wind is ferocious and would have made its construction conspicuously difficult and dangerous.  The château looks out over the Roussillon valley, and we can see both Força Réal and Peyrepertuse, another Cathar château.
View of Peyrepertuse from Queribus

When faced with the task of making the climb up to the castle, we opt to commit to the climb at Peyrepertuse as two castles seems formidable.

We move on to Peyrepertuse by snaking back down the mountain through Cucugnan and snaking up another mountain to arrive at the monumental and remarkable château.
Peyrepertuse from below
From a great distance, the limestone spur is discernible, making it all the more impressive up close.  The scale of this castle is oversized.  It is at about 800 meters (about 2600') high, 60 meters wide and 300 meters (just under 1000') long.  Shaped a little like the Queen Mary, it is a monster.

We buy our tickets, gird our loins and start the climb.  Warnings suggest the need for proper footwear (not that I am wearing any) and extra precautions in the wind (for fear of flying over the precipices to certain death).  We need more than girded loins for this climb.  We also need psychological resolve.
The easy part
 Throwing all caution to the wind (no pun intended), we begin our trek down (yes, down) rocky paths littered with roots and mud and here and there a gnarled trunk of a bushy tree blessedly located within grabbing distance for the needed push.  Naturally, we have to go up as well.  And up.  And up.  Mostly climbing on paths that take us both close to the edge and hugging the limestone--the position I prefer.

About half-way there, an English woman passes us going down and cheerily urges us on by saying, "You're almost there."  She is lying.  There is no "almost" to it.  I'm sure her motivation is benevolent.  Phil considers it spiteful--likely from years of eating English boiled meat.
We have reached the bottom of the castle.
Nonetheless, we finally arrive at the chateau itself.  On one end of the spur, there are several men doing construction work.  One stonemason works by himself in a trench shaping and laying large stones.  In other areas in that end, the southeast triangular end, access is denied because of the work.   While we are there, we watch a man build a scaffolding out over the end of the chateau with sheer cliff face below.  It doesn't seem like something OSHA would have approved.  

St. Mary's church
The donjon and St. Mary's church are in the same general structure, which seems an odd juxtaposition of prison and worship.

At the other end of the spur is the staircase about which we had been warned below, the "Stairs of Saint Louis" giving access to San Jordi's chapel.
Looking down the stairs

The staircase comes with a rope "bannister" to assist all but the most confident climb through the howling wind knowing that the consequences of a misstep could be irreparable and what looks like a newly-constructed railing of wood.
At the top of the stairs

At the top of this staircase are a tower, a window and bench and a fireplace in one room, San Jordi's chapel and a view to what seems like the end of the earth. After Força Réal and Quéribus, I thought the view couldn't get any better; and yet, here at Peyrepertuse, I am speechless.
Looking back to the lower part. 

But then we have to descend the same challenging path on the same inappropriate shoes and the same apparent death wish with which we started the climb in the first place.  Phil couldn't help offering his motivational "almost there" to passing climbers.  I can only hope those climbers break the chain of that misdirected encouragement.

These ancient sites were built in impossible conditions and geographically remote areas.  But the most impressive site in toto is Carcassonne, near Toulouse and the greatest of Europe's walled cities.

Carcassonne sits just above the Aude River, and because of its location between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic was a stopping point on the Romans' journeys from Rome and the Iberian Peninsula to parts northwest.  The Romans established the town in the 2nd century B.C. and built the inner walls.

Much later in the 12th century, the town was controlled by Trencavel who built the chateau and the cathedral.  He gave sanctuary to the Cathars in 1209; but they were rooted out by the Inquisition in the 14th century.  In the 13th century, King Louis IX--the only king to have achieved sainthood, built the outer walls.

Carcassonne was restored to close to its current glory in the 19th century.  And glory it is.  As one approaches, the walled city looms out of the land like something out of a fairy tale.  Heavily touristic, it is nonetheless architecturally and historically fascinating.
Approach to Carcassonne

Outside the walls

The moat is grassy and inviting.  The ramparts are complete.
Entrance to Carcassonne
Between the ramparts and the outer wall

On our first visit here, we stayed at Les Remparts hotel, which is inside the walls.  We parked our car on the grass and were allowed to drive in after 6 p.m. when the streets were nearly empty.  Then in the morning we had to drive out before 11 a.m. in order to miss the crowds.  That was my first experience driving along a street narrow enough that the boys could reach out their arms and touch the walls.
Sculpture dedicated to person responsible for restoration

Next tour group entering the portal
Despite the madness of the crowds, Carcassonne is the frosting on the Cathar cake.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

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