Châteaux Overdose

With Colin Taylor

If you like visiting ruined châteaux, head north to the valley of the Orbiel. Just twenty minutes from Carcassonne is the village of Lastours. Red and gold Occitan flags flutter from lampposts alongside the river, and high on a ridge above the village, four separate châteaux stand in a line: Cabaret, Tour Régine, Surdespine and Quertinheux.

This stunning location (€8 entry fee) is an energetic visit requiring a good level of fitness.

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The hillside is riddled with caves, one in particular has an unusual entrance to the main site. A 35-metre long tunnel called le Trou de la Cité  took us through the side of the mountain, and when we emerged at the far end, we were able to enjoy our first full view of the four châteaux. They stand in a line atop a rugged hillside dotted with cypress trees.

During the Albigensian Crusade, this part of Occitanie was the home of two Cathar lords: Pierre-Roger de Cabaret and his brother Jourdain. After the fall of Carcassonne in 1209, the brothers provided a safe haven for Cathars and dispossessed knights. Together they carried out numerous attacks on the crusaders and their supply trains.

The Albigenian Crusade

Named the Albigensian Crusade because of the strong Cathar following in the town of Albi, this 20-year war of terror to eliminate the Cathars was launched by the unsuitably named Pope Innocent III, supported by the king of a very Catholic France.

Both Catholics and Cathars, men, women and children, were massacred indiscriminately. “Kill them all. God will know his own” claimed the religious leaders of Catholicism! It is estimated that up to 1,000,000 people were massacred in Languedoc Roussillon between 1209–1229 in the name of religion!

Many of the Languedoc lords  tolerated and even supported Catharism. The ‘crusade’ was originally directed by the church against the Counts of Toulouse, who were wrongly accused of the murder of a papal legate.

Using this excuse to wage war against the potential spread of Catharism, these tolerant leaders and their allies were dispossessed, humiliated, and  replaced with any French nobleman willing to fight for the church!

The Crusade has been described as an act of genocide against the Cathars.

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Carcassonne

Did you know that Carcassonne is the largest intact walled town in Europe,  unique in the world?

Only 170 years ago, it was in ruins, scheduled for demolition. Luckily, the Commission of Historical Monuments gave its backing to the enormous task of reconstructing this historical jewel and today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

carcassonne

By 1211, Pierre-Roger de Cabaret realised that he was too isolated to resist indefinitely and he negotiated surrender terms with Simon de Montfort: he would give up his possessions at Cabaret/Lastours in exchange for a quiet life on an estate near Béziers.

Both sides respected the agreement until the death of Simon de Montfort in 1218 prompted the Cabaret brothers to return home. Before long, they were once again sheltering communities of heretics within their walls, including the Cathar bishop for the Carcassès.

The Cathars

The Cathar religion flourished in Southern France during the 12th and 13th centuries. Originally known as “bons hommes” “bons chrétiens” and “parfaits”, this gentle cult was advanced for its time, treating men and women as equals. They believed that the Catholic church was corrupt. The results of the Medieval Inquisition to follow was to prove them right.

Catharism spread through southern France in the eleventh century in a region known for its policy of tolerance,  at a time when many Catholics were questioning their beliefs. Some of the church’s own priests became Cathars. The new religion  began to present a serious threat. Pope Innocent III quickly proclaimed the religion heretic.

The Medieval Inquisition, infamous for their “robust” interrogation and conviction methods of torture, was also set up to eradicate the last vestiges of Catharism.  Simon de Montfort, one of the catholic church’s most zealous psychopaths, was given the top job, besieging strongholds, starving their inhabitants, torturing, burning and annihilating – a final solution.

It has been suggested in some modern fiction and non-fiction books that the Cathars could have been the protectors of the Holy Grail of Christian mythology. Cathar Christianity does still exist today in the form of various Fellowships scattered around the world and who knows what treasures might have been passed on through the generations!

During the second, royal, phase of the Albigensian Crusade, the Cabarets found themselves besieged once again. They resisted for two years, but in 1229 they surrendered and the king’s seneschal, Humbert de Beaujeu, destroyed their châteaux and villages.

Like many visitors to Lastours, I was disappointed to learn that the four ruins I was visiting had nothing to do with the Cabarets or the Cathars. They were all built during the 1230s to create a royal fortress that was garrisoned up until the time of the Revolution. So where did Pierre-Roger and Jourdain de Cabaret live? Probably in a fifth, older château lower down on the north-western slope of the mountain.

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Below it, a medieval village was constructed on terraces which led all the way down to the banks of the Grésilhou. During the last thirty years, this village has been gradually excavated by archaeologists, and visitors can wander around the foundations of houses, stables, a forge and other buildings.

In some homes, the archaeologists found the remains of the occupants’ last meal, half-burned firewood in the hearth and various household items which led them to conclude that the village had abandoned in a moment of panic, probably when the Cabaret brothers surrendered in 1229.

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After trudging up and down the steep, rocky slopes, why not round off your visit with a light lunch just outside the museum entrance? Le Diable au Thym is a café whose food comes out of the same kitchen as the Michelin-starred restaurant next door.

Still hungry for chateaux? More ruined pleasures await you further up the valley of the Orbiel. Climb the grassy terraces of the Château de Mas-Cabardès, take a peek at the Château de Roquefère (now a private residence), marvel at the surprisingly extensive ruins of a thirteenth-century church abandoned in the middle of nowhere, and finally, seven kilometres further up the valley from Lastours, climb the castle mound at Miraval-Cabardés, once the home of a famous troubadour*, Raimon de Miraval, who wrote love songs about the wives of Pierre-Roger and Jourdain de Cabaret.

*A troubadour was a poet, songwriter and performer of Provencal and Occitan verse. The word actually comes from the Occitan word ‘trobar’ meaning ‘to compose’, or ‘to invent’
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Colin Taylor is a local writer based in Occitanie. You can find out more about him at  www.colinduncantaylor.com

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