Sentier Cathare

Pyrenees, France

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 meadows to a long west-east ridge, with wide views south across pastures, villages and rising ridges toward the grand, snowy peaks of the Pyrenees, and north across diminishing hills to the farmland of the Toulousain plain.

The route follows the ridge for a stunning couple of hours’ walk to the extraordinary castle of Roquefixade, perched dizzily on a tremendous spike of rock above its sleepy village.  The castle didn’t play a major role in the history of the Cathars and their suppressors, and was deliberately destroyed by the French in later centuries, but enough survives to make it an exceptionally inspiring and exciting place. Far away, on a pale blue ridge, is a square speck: the great Cathar stronghold of Montségur, tomorrow’s destination.

From here the track winds through meadows and mixed forest of beech, oak and fir along the ridge, down to Conte, across another ridge to Montferrier, and then up a long valley of field and forest to a high col from which Montségur, the castle-heart of Cathardom, first appears close at hand, hunched on its great crag above fierce grey cliffs.

Montségur was the Cathars’ impregnable place of last resort, secure in the remote Pyrenean uplands, around which more than 200 Perfects lived in caves and huts.  While it remained untaken, the Cathars could cling on.  Once it finally fell, in 1244, after a 10 month siege defended by only 98 fighters – its 200 Perfects could not participate – it was only matter of time and sufficiently ruthless persecution.  The last known Occitan perfect was burnt at the stake in 1321.
When the castle surrendered, its occupants were given two weeks to recant their beliefs or be burned.  None did so, and some 220 Perfects were burnt in the meadow below the castle, including some 20 men and women who chose to become Perfects and share their fate.

Towards the end, four Cathars slipped out with a sack of treasure, which has since become the subject of legend, both as the Holy Grail, and as ancient knowledge in the romance of Parzival and Wagner’s Parsifal and Lohengrin, and indeed of clever fantasy in the best-selling The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and the dreaded Da Vinci Code. Mystics and new-agers, as well as the Nazis, have since been drawn to Montségur and Catharism more generally.
Montségur is certainly one of those places with a numinous otherness.  When you sit beneath its walls, high above the surrounding ridges, fields and forests, you can’t help but muse on what happened 750 years ago.

The next day leads over a ridge with wonderful views back to Montségur, high above its sleepy, ancient village and down to the Gorges de la Frau (Gorge of Fear), a dramatic chasm which winds, under crazed limestone cliffs up to 400m high, up through a range of hills to another area of sleepy villages and tranquil pasturage.  It is a beautiful and thrilling place, with mixed forest and stream beneath the sheerest of grey limestone cliffs which are in places so close together that the sky is almost squeezed out.

South of the gorge’s head is the village of Montaillou, nested beneath another Cathar castle.  Its whole population was arrested and examined by the Inquisition in 1308. The villagers’ “evidence” was meticulously recorded and has survived, providing an extraordinarily detailed picture of mediaeval village life, down to family quarrels and the amorous escapades of the priest. 

The Sentier Cathare heads east from Comus at the top of the gorge, toward other great Cathar strongholds such as Puivert, Peyrepertuse and Quéribus, and eventually the Mediterranean.

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