Sentier Cathare

  • Roquefixade - © William Mackesy
  • Montsegur - © William Mackesy
  • From near Rocquefixade  - © William Mackesy
  • Gorges de la Frau  - © William Mackesy
  • © William Mackesy
  • © William Mackesy
  • © William Mackesy
  • © William Mackesy
  • © William Mackesy

Key information: Sentier Cathare


    • This track follows the trails between the strongholds of the Cathars - C13 heretics who were brutally suppressed by the Inquisition (which was formed for the purpose) - in the foothills of the eastern Pyrenees.
      • Revel in beautiful scenery (mountains, meadows and gorges), improbably castles, enthralling (if tragic) history: eat superbly at the day's end.
        • Wonderfully varied sections can be tackled individually to suit your taste. 
        • ANYONE GOT ANY GOOD PHOTOS? WE WOULD BE DELIGHTED TO POST THEM!

Walkopedia rating

  • Walkopedia rating86
  • Beauty30
  • Natural interest14
  • Human interest12
  • Charisma30
  • Negative points0
  • Total rating86

Vital Statistics

  • Length: 250km
  • 12 days
  • Maximum Altitude: 1,352m
  • Level of Difficulty: Moderate
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From near Rocquefixade  - © William Mackesy

WALK SUMMARY

 The heretical Cathars of the Languedoc were eradicated with fire and "inquisition" by the early 1320s. 700 years later, however, they still exert a powerful hold on the imagination and the Pyrenean foothills are still littered with reminders of them: the wreckage of extraordinary castles and a network of paths following the old trails by which the Cathars padded from village to village and evaded their persecutors.

The Cathars were dualists, believing in a profound dichotomy between good, associated with the heavenly, light and incorporeal, and evil, associated with the earthly and material, including, fatally for them, the grand and powerful edifice of the Catholic Church, which they regarded as a hypocritical con . In their rejection of the wealth, corruption and venality of the established church, the Cathars were forerunners of the Protestant movements.  The goodness and simplicity of the lives of the Perfects, people who lived lives of extraordinary simplicity and self-denial (they were known as bonshommes, or 'good men'), had a profound appeal for ordinary people, particularly women.

The Languedoc in south-west France, in particular Toulouse, western Christendom?s third largest city in 1200, was tolerant and sophisticated, the birthplace of the courtly Troubadours. This atmosphere, and Languedoc?s relative independence from Rome, made it a fertile breeding-ground for this heresy, which is thought to have been derived from earlier Manichaean ideas, which had been transmitted from the Middle East westward, mutating into movements such as the (weird by any standards) Bogomils of Bulgaria, who had themselves been ruthlessly suppressed in previous centuries. These ideas took hold in northern Italy and southern Germany before reaching the Languedoc in the 11th Century, where they put down deep roots.

The response of the church was a campaign of debate, preaching and pressure on the nobility to suppress the Cathars.  Its lack of success led eventually to the appalling Albigensian crusades (1209-1229), headed by the terrible but inspired Simon de Montfort. One of the least attractive episodes in a Christian history which is littered with horrors, it destroyed the Occitan power structures and the embedded support for the Cathars.  It also led to the birth of the Inquisition and the honing of its procedures which were so infamous over the subsequent centuries - ingenious tortures and executions ? and which over three generations ripped out the remaining roots of Catharism from deep in the popular heart.

As Alan Mattingley says in the Cicerone guide: ?Whether you conclude that they were martyred saints or credulous fanatics, you will surely find their story poignant.

The relatively recently created Sentier Cathare winds, for some 250km, along old paths westward from the Mediterranean coast inland to the pleasing upland town of Foix, taking in great Cathar sites, nine castles in particular, on the way. It is divided into 12 day-stages, although you can take longer and explore more fully, or, as many do, tackles a few days' worth. It is perfectly possible to start in Foix, and indeed, if you aren't going to have time for the whole route, the western end has the best combination of scenery and history. And you can turn south down ancient routes such as is now used in part by GR107 (the Chemin de Bonshommes), and cross the Pyrenees along ways once used by Cathars to escape their persecutors.

While the amazingly sited Cathar castles are the visual and historic highlights of the trail, you will encounter chateaux and churches, farms, villages and vinyards. The Sentier is not just about history, though: it passes through an exciting array of landscapes, from hills and plateaus to gorges and farmland; through desolate limestone hills and karst features, vineyards, forests and meadows; with the high, often snowy, Pyrenean ridge as a regular backdrop.

The Sentier is well planned (with some excellent variants to ensure all tastes are catered for) and marked, although west-east walkers will find wayfinding more demanding. There is plentiful accommodation of all sorts en route, much of it open most of the year but check carefully when planning, so there is no need to carry heavy loads, although you can take a tent and camp if you wish. There are taxi firms that will transport your baggage.

The eastern stages are lower, although they involve more ups and downs than most stages, and are hotter and drier, crossing often broiling limestone hillsides. The further west and up you go, the landscape becomes a mix of forest and farmland, with lovely meadows on the higher ground.

The finest days are perhaps:

  • Stage 3, which passes remarkable Quéribus castle in dramatic limestone scenery.
  • Stage 5, which views three castles and swings through the deep Saint-Jaume Gorge, all the while in rocky limestone scenery, gradually entering forested countryside.
  • Stage 9, Espezel to Comus, which get the the route's highest point, commanding superb views, including looking across the deep, deep Gorges de la Frau to famous Montségur castle.
  •  Stage 10, Comus to Montségur through the magnificent Gorges de la Frau.
  • Stage 12, fantastic Roquefixade castle (Walkopedia's favourite after Montségur) to charming, inviting Foix beneath its great castle, home of the famous eponymous counts much of the time on a particularly delightful meadowed ridge with huge views north across farmland and hills to the high Pyrenees ridge.

As is so often the case, the essential book is Cicerone's The Cathar Way.

WILLIAM MACKESY'S ACCOUNT
of this walk

The Sentier Cathare as we walked it starts or ends at Foix, home of the doughty eponymous count, Raymond Roger, whose mother and sister were Cathar “perfects”, as was his son. A later count, Gaston, was one of the heroes of mediaeval chivalry. The high towers of the castle still dominate this pleasant, relaxed upland town.
Part of the delight of this walk is that meanders between atmospheric and interesting towns and villages where full French meals can be had at leisure while the pleasures of the day are contemplated.
An ancient path zigzags up through beech woods and flower-filled.....

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Other accounts: share your experiences

Your comments on this walk, your experiences and suggestions, and your photos are very welcome. Where appropriate, you will be credited for your contribution.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

See also expedition planning, including our universal expedition checklist. Walkopedia encourages responsible travel.

Books and Maps

Suggest books and maps

Books on this walk     

The Cathar Way - Alan Mattingley, Cicerone - A bit light on Cathar history, but a fantastic guide nonetheless.

Other books

Moutaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village 1294-1324 – Emmanuel Le Roy Laduire- Superb, thrilling window into the mediaeval world and its mindset.

The Perfect Heresy, The life and Death of the Cathars: Stephen O’Shea.

Walks in the Cathar region – Alan Mattingley, Cicerone. A bit light on Cathar history, but a fantastic guide nonetheless.

 

Maps

Maps can be bought locally, fairly easily.

Stanfords: A good online specialist source of worldwide maps (it is also good for guidebooks). Also try Maps Worldwide and www.trektools.com

Best times to walk/weather

Best times to walk

Spring and Autumn are the best times to walk; Summer is hot (but not intolerable) but more crowded.

Weather

The weather is hotter in Summer near the coast, but variable, so come prepared for wind, cold and rain and thunderstorms in Summer.

For detailed weather information, have a look at: www.worldweather.org or www.bbc.co.uk/weather/world/country-guides.

 

Getting there/transport/permits/fees

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Skyscanner is an excellent (relatively new) site for finding the flights you need; otherwise try Lastminute.com, or look at what’s available on Tripadvisor.

Those on organised expeditions are likely to be transported from/to arranged start/departure points.

Route(s)

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See Walk Summary above.


[Route Map]


Interactive Map

Possible problems, health, other warnings

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·         Variable weather: rain, cold and wind are possible in the hills at any time of year and the weather can change rapidly. Come prepared.

·         Heat and strong sun. Carry enough water and protect yourself.

·         Heights: can be dangerous; not for those who have difficulties with heights.

·         Harmful animals, including snakes, stinging/biting insects and plants. Take all appropriate precautions..

See also the websites in our useful links page for more detailed, and up-to-date, information.

Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and problems can arise on any walk. Many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks and possible problems. This website cannot, and does not purport to, identify all actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to a walk or a country. Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.

Make sure you have appropriate insurance.

Guided or independent?

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Independent

You can do this walk independently.

Guided/supported

Some people form or join organised/supported expeditions, and travelling here with a knowledgeable guide has real advantages.

An excellent option is “slackpacking” – ie, having your bags carried from one night stop to the next, and walking with a day pack only.

Expedition organisers include:

Have a look at Infohub to see if they have any good deals for this expedition.

Check Tripadvisor for some reviews of this walk and walk organisers which may prove helpful.

PLEASE HELP Walkopedia by recommending any reputable tour organizers that you know of – local or otherwise. 

Accommodation

The guidebooks have a selection of possible accommodation.  

There are various relevant accommodation websites. Search “Sentier Cathare accommodation”.

See what the commentary on Tripadvisor is on possible places to stay – although do take their reviews with a pinch of salt, as they can be “interested”.

A good range of hotels can be found on the unimaginatively but effectively named Hotels.com.

If you’re on a budget, Hostelbookers usually has a good selection of cheaper-end accommodation; or perhaps try for some bargain luxury on Lastminute.com.

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Other information and tips

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Useful websites and information

There are many websites with relevant information. Here are some that we think are useful or have been recommended to us.


·         See if  http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/ has any relevant pages

·         www.wikipedia.org  As usual, a good starting place. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catharism

·         Try www.flickr.com for pictures of this walk.

·         Have a look at Tripadvisor – there are tens of millions of reviews, so you may get good, current views on this walk.

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Other things to do in the area

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Other walks

The Cathar area has a huge variety of great walks. There is likely to be a good walk within range wherever you may be. The Cicerone book Walks in The Cathar Region has a multitude of ideas.

Other activities

Endless, for cultural and historical to the physical.

 

© William Mackesy

OTHER ACCOUNTS
share your experiences

Add your experiences, suggestions and photos. We would be delighted to receive your writing and ideas (which will be attributed appropriately where published).

Anyone planning an expedition to this place should see further important information about this walk.

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Gorges de la Frau  - © William Mackesy...
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