By Terry Cudbird
Steve has just completed the Sentier des Cathares. I walked much of it a year or two ago with some English friends, who unanimously rated it one of the best treks they had done. A French randonneur we met on day one turned his nose up when we described our plans. He though the Cathar trail was designed for tourists, not real free spirits. That’s a harsh judgement. For me it was a great combination of attractive landscapes and historical sites, in this case linked to the Cathar heresy of the twelfth and thirteen centuries.
You visit many of the so called Cathar castles, some of which are in very dramatic locations. Montségur from one side looks like a pimple on top of a ziggurat of limestone. From the uppermost keep Peyrepertuse hovers like a helicopter over the valley below. Quéribus reminded me of a German blockhaus in the Atlantic Wall. These castles were on the frontier of France and the medieval Kingdom of Aragon and that’s why the French kings wanted to control them. Standing on top of Peyrepertuse I imagined medieval soldiers huddled around a fire to keep warm and dying of boredom.
The connection between these castles and the core of the Cathar heresy was a bit tenuous. I thought the best place to discover what it was like to be a Cathar heretic was the tiny village of Montaillou. This seems to be cut off from the outside world, surrounded by hills on the tiny plateau of the Pays d’Aillou south east of Foix. The remains of the medieval village which Le Roy Ladurie uncovered in his seminal work Montaillou, village Occitan, lie underneath the bare slopes below the ruined castle. The modern village is further down hill. Two of us had read a book by René Weiss, The Yellow Cross and, armed with his map, spent a frustrating hour running up and down to find the outlines of the houses and the square. We thought we could make out where the centre of the village had been although we weren’t quite sure. A more dramatic moment of discovery came when we went into the churchyard of Notre Dame des Carnesses and saw the same family names in the graveyard as we had found in Weiss’s book. A man in the village came round to let us inside and his name was Georges Clergue. Pierre Clergue in the fourteenth century led a double life as priest and Cathar Perfect and seduced the chatelaine in the church. The history of these Cathars beats East Enders any time.
I have two other favourite Cathar stories. The first concerns Sybil, the wife of a certain Raymond Peyre of Arques, who related to the inquisition a sermon the well-known Cathar Perfect Pierre Authier had once preached. The Cathars did not believe in the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Mass. Sybil then said that Pierre Authier “added derisively that if the body of Christ was in the sacrament, and if the body was as big as the mount Bugarach, there were so many priests that they would be able to eat it all and still not be satisfied.” After this it is not surprising that Pierre was burnt at the stake in front of St Etienne’s cathedral in Toulouse on Thursday 9th April 1310. Today Bugarach which we climbed seems to be a favourite location for new agers, a bit like Stonehenge.
The second concerns Guillaume Bélibaste, one of the last of the Cathars and a particularly colourful character. Cubières was his native village. There is no plaque to record his birth, but in his way he became famous.
Guillaume was one of the last of the Cathar perfects. Imprisoned at Carcassonne, he escaped in 1307 and fled to Catalonia. There he met a number of other Cathar refugees. It seems that Guillaume enjoyed a fling and did not agree with some Cathars that all sexual intercourse is wrong. According to the records a woman called Blanche Marty surprised Guillaume in a missionary position with her sister Raymonde:-
“I saw Raymonde on the bed with her knees bent as if he were about to have sex with her, or as if he had just had sex with her. After entering I exclaimed “O madam-the-misbegotten-bitch, you have compromised the entire cause of our holy church.””
Guillaume survived across the Pyrenees and seemed totally unaware of the trap being set for him by Arnaud Sicre. Arnaud appeared to be another refugee but in fact he was a double agent, working for the Inquisition. He came from a well to do family in Ax-les-Thermes which had lost lands because it was tainted with heresy. Arnaud offered to work for the infamous Bishop of Pamiers Jacques Fournier and bring back heretics from Catalonia, providing the family holdings were returned. He successfully lured Bélibaste to the County of Foix where the latter was arrested. Subsequently poor Guillaume was condemned and burnt at the stake at Villerouge-Termenès not far from his native village.
Much of the underlying rock of the Cathar country is limestone and the massive gorges are one of its most attractive features. The Gorges de la Frau near Montaillou must be 1500 feet deep. It was like walking into the jaws of a nutcracker. I could see why smugglers used it as a secret route to Spain. The Gorges de Galamus near St. Paul-de-Fenouillet are just as awesome. The hermitage of St. Anthony clings to the cliff.
A lot of the countryside seemed pretty deserted. There has been considerable rural de-population in the last fifty years and many villages have a lot of second homes. One elderly resident told me that, when he was a boy, the village was so poor that the crows flew over on their backs because they knew there was nothing worth taking! We saw plenty of sheep however, including one flock near Belcaire doing a mini transhumance. There are also the remains of old industries which used to exist in the countryside. Axat has an industrial past even if the main industry today is tourism. A few miles to the South the first hydro electric station in France was built in 1900. Nearby at Sainte-Colombe there is still an open cast mine which produces a mineral called dolomite used to line furnaces and in the manufacture of paints. It was partly the presence of these minerals that encouraged the Compagnie du Midi to plan a railway line from Rivesaltes on the coast up the Boulzone valley to Axat. Walking up the hill beyond the Aude we crossed the railway in its loop around the village. The line was closed in 1939, one year after the creation of the nationalised SNCF. In 2002 a new tourist railway service started during the summer months.
Everywhere I found friendly hospitality. I was lucky enough to turn up at one gite d’étape in Tuchan where the only other guests were nine French ladies trying to escape their husbands. We had a fun evening!
Terry Cudbird, is the author of Walking the Hexagon, an escape around France on foot, published by Signal Books May 2012. His web site also describes the walk
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