In The Footsteps Of The Cathars
Take a trip down Languedocs unique and incredibly beautiful 'Cathar Trail'.
The success of the book and movie of the Da Vinci Code has fed a new awakening of interest in the Languedoc and its fabulous Cathar castles. These 'Castles in the Sky', perched on their vertiginous rock pinnacles, are some of the last remnants of the ill-fated Cathar 'heretics' and the legends that linked them to the Holy Grail.
The Sentier Cathare or Cathar Way, invites walkers to 'travel through time' over 250 kms of breathtaking Languedoc countryside. From Port-La-Nouvelle on the Mediterranean coast across the Corbières and the Pyrénées foothills of the Aude to the historic Ariège town of Foix, the trail links nine of these famous fortresses.
It was at Montségur (to be found on the 11th of the 12 recommended Trail étapes) that the Cathar 'heretics' finally surrendered after a seige lasting ten months and where, according to tradition, the 'treasure' of the Cathars was kept before being smuggled out prior to the fall of the fortress. More than two hundred of those who refused to renounce their faith were burnt on a pyre at the foot of the mountain. A funeral grave marker was built in memory of the Cathar martyrdom in Prat dels Cramats, 'The Field of the Burnt Ones'.
The Cathar faith came to prominence in the twelth century with a Cathar church being established as early as the beginning of the eleventh century in the Champagne region. Catharism spread all over France with many 'heretics' being burnt, but it was in the Languedoc that it had its widest appeal, to noblemen, peasants and merchants alike. It was especially popular amongst the peasants who liked the simple life of the priests or 'parfaits' with their lack of riches and who appreciated the fact that their teachings were given in the common language rather than in Latin. The Cathars had only one prayer, The Lord's Prayer. They rejected the Eucharist and refused to acknowledge the principal of free will, saying that man did not have the ability to choose between good and evil. They also did not accept the concept of a Last Judgement or Hell but believed that eventually through successive reincarnation, all souls could become sufficiently pure to reach « The Celestial Land ».
The Cathar priests or 'Parfaits' were vegans and were also celibate. They lived in the community and had to carry out their share of the work, even sometimes sharing their meals with believers. Interestingly there were also female Parfaits.
It was Pope Innocent III who has gone down in history as having started the fight against and systematic extermination of the Cathars, making a call for a crusade against them to be led by Simon de Montfort - the only crusade ever led on Catholic lands. It commenced at Beziers on 21st July 1209 where the crusaders set fire to the city and massacred nearly all the population, almost twenty thousand of them. The abbot of Citeaux who was the 'spiritual' leader of the crusade was famously reported as shouting out « Kill them all, God will recognise his own ! ». The 'song' of the crusades was even more chilling :
"Any castle which resists, any stubborn town shall be taken by force and reduced to a charnel-house. That no living being should be left, even new-born babies. Thus shall be sown healthy fear and no longer shall anyone dare to defy the Cross of God."
The Trail itself is well marked, the signposts being in red and yellow, the colours of the Languedoc and Catalonia. Each stage averages about 20km over sometimes wild and rugged terrain with rest houses and 'Gites d'Etape' where one can stay en route. Although the trail can be rocky and steep in places (highest altitude 1300 m), it can be walked by anyone who is well-equipped and reasonably fit. It is a challenging walk rather than an arduous mountain trek and is extremely well-maintained. The responsibility for the maintenance being in part due to one of the Trail's instigators, the Maire of Nébias (one of the towns on étape 7), Louis Salavy.
On étape 6, the trail runs between the village of Bugarach and the crossroads town of Quillan on the river Aude. The French guide to the Trail states 'nous pénétrons donc dans le domaine des eaux vives et des forêts' . The route, traverses the village of Le-Bezu with its almost-ruined 10th century chateau - another of Simon de Montfort's spoils - and passes close by the hilltop village of Rennes-le-Chateau. The mysteries associated with this village brought it world-wide fame long before Dan Brown linked it with the Da Vinci Code.
Many books have been written and documentary films made about Rennes-le-Chateau, the most well-known being the book 'The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail' in which Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln expounded their theories (as in the Da Vinci Code) that Rennes was linked with the Cathars, The Knights Templar and the Holy Grail itself. Stories of mysteries at Rennes-le-Chateau first came about though when the 19th century priest Bérenger Saunière was rumoured to have discovered a vast treasure which enabled him to restore the dilapidated village church, build a new road leading up to the village, install new water facilities for the villagers and also to build a large house and library tower (Tour Magdala) for his own use. His expenditure amounted to the equivalent of several million dollars, not an amount a poor village priest would normally have at his disposal. The mystery of Saunière's sudden wealth remains unsolved as he never divulged its origin, whether it was the lost treasure of the Cathars of a 'treasure' of an entirely different kind. He took his secret with him when he died in 1917. According to eye-witness statements, the priest who was called to Saunière?s deathbed emerged from the room 'visibly shaken' and refused (presumably on the basis of Saunière's confession) to administer extreme unction.
There is no doubt that the Sentier Cathare is enriched by the history of the places it traverses but the countryside itself with its fabulous landscape and clean mountain air provides the best of that good-to-be-alive feeling.