Discover Aude, Languedoc-Roussillon
PUBLISHED: 14:00 09 May 2015 | UPDATED: 15:21 04 November 2015
Villages brimming with history, vineyards bursting with grapes and olive groves scattered across the countryside – welcome to Cathar country, says Joanna Leggett
Cathar country stretches across the deepest part of south-west France from Béziers and Narbonne close to the Mediterranean coast, down to the Pyrénées across towards Toulouse. Mainly contained within the département of Aude in Languedoc-Roussillon, it has amazing walled citadels, vineyards and villages, ruined hilltop castles and fortified settlements of cream-coloured stones scattered across its countryside. And then, of course, the wonder that is the Canal du Midi bisects the region.
This is the region of the Languedoc (literally the ‘tongue of the Oc’), home to the old language of Occitan. The area has always been a melting pot of influences: the Crusaders, Arabic, the French and Spanish. Many have been the conflicts between lords, cities and abbeys, and its geographical location allowed new cultures to establish themselves in new and various blends.
So who were the Cathars? A great deal of mystery surrounds them, but we do know that their religion arrived in this corner of France from the Byzantine world around the time of the 11th century and its influence existed for two centuries.
While Cathars shared many of the beliefs of contemporary Christianity, they were in fact Protestant as they neither agreed with the teachings and pomp nor the hierarchy and wealth of the Catholic church. They were also, perhaps, ahead of their time. Strict vegans, they believed women and men were equal – marriage was outlawed – and gave credence to the concept of reincarnation. They also condemned capital punishment, a huge cultural difference at the time.
Their castles are among the most fascinating of any in France, not least for their dramatic hilltop locations. The fortified castles, villages and towns remain a stark reminder to this day of the area’s interesting history; many even predate the period of the Cathar heresy, being originally built as defensive positions along the changing border between Aragon and France.
By the 13th century, a large part of the Languedoc nobility and general population had adopted the Cathar religion, thus distancing themselves from the French and, indeed, from Rome. This led to the instigation by Pope Innocent III (a slight misnomer there, I feel) of the notorious Albigensian crusade in 1209. Nowadays, we would call this a land grab but for the next 20 years, crusaders led by French barons including Simon de Montfort sacked and pillaged the cities of the Cathars, massacring the inhabitants or converting them to Catholicism by force.
Finally, a treaty was signed bringing almost the whole of Occitania within the realm of the French crown, though pockets of resistance held out for another quarter of a century in fortified castles such as Quéribus and Peyrepertuse.
LEGACY OF HISTORY
I’m not too sure about when I first became aware of the walled cities of south-west France. Perhaps it was seeing Kevin Costner riding down from the ramparts of Carcassonne in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, or catching my first sight of this amazing citadel from a distance across the plains.
What does stay in my memory is how this battled land seems to have a castle perched atop every other thousand-foot-high limestone outcrop as you drive along the péage from Toulouse to Narbonne, or cruise the Canal du Midi at an altogether gentler pace.
Carcassonne dominates the landscape. Some 52 pointed towers punctuate the walls around its ancient citadel. Heavily restored in the 19th century it can be seen as somewhat Disneyesque, but standing on its ramparts looking out as the sun goes down is a truly magical experience.
Other famed towns of the Cathar era include Narbonne, Albi, Béziers and Perpignan but perhaps it is the ancient ruined castles of Peyrepertuse, Quéribus and Montségur that really capture the imagination.
Today, Cathar country is a peaceful, sunny paradise – far removed from the persecution and violence of another millenium. It offers its residents a wonderful lifestyle from the foot of the Pyrenean mountains down to the Mediterranean sea.
Food is a particular delight in this part of south-west France: wonderful seafood abounds (let’s not forget the oyster beds dotted along the coast) and don’t worry, you won’t go thirsty either for this area is home to the famous Corbières wine, while Noilly Prat is made at Marseillan at the end of the Canal du Midi.
Your soul will be well satisfied by the local produce and wine on offer, and any potential excess can be exercised off by a dip in the Med or nearby lake, skiing in the Pyrénées, walking, hiking or even cycling – there is everything here in Cathar country. Properties here can be far more affordable than in other hotspots further around the Mediterranean coast too.
And as for your imagination, well, this part of France has enough grandeur, chequered history and scenic wonders to satisfy anyone.
Joanna Leggett is marketing director at Leggett Immobilier
Tel: 08700 11 51 51