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Medieval Meanderings in Southwest France

Montségur, Mirepoix and Carcassonne
Story by Karoline Cullen, Photography by Cullen Photos

The rocky trail angles steeply upwards and demands all my attention. Looking at the ruin above, I find the cool, gray weather an appropriate match for this foreboding place. I tackle the trail once more, clambering over roots and rocks to finally arrive, huffing and puffing a bit, at the entrance.

In the Languedoc region of southwestern France, I am meandering through a medieval hit list of sights. From a remote Cathar outpost to a busy market town to the stunningly restored walls of a major fortified city, these places ooze atmosphere. It is not far to drive through rolling vineyards from the ruin of Montségur to the market in Mirepoix to Carcassonne, but each offers a distinct glimpse into the past.

The ruin of Montségur is perched on a hilltop in the foothills of the Pyrenees. My arduous climb to this lonely crag is rewarded with panoramic views of lush green hillsides, purple with blooming wild sage and dotted with sheep. All that is left of the castle are crumbling walls and part of a keep. The only sound is a sighing wind as it whispers over the walls. It takes no time at all to walk around the inside, trying to imagine how hundreds of people survived months of siege in such a small space during the Albigensian crusades of the 1200's. The crusades were mounted against the Cathars, whose beliefs mixed Christian and Middle Eastern philosophies. All across the Languedoc, Cathars took refuge in hilltop fortresses such as this, but to no avail. Many were martyred and the faith destroyed. I take my time circumnavigating the hilltop outside the walls. The restful views of soothing green hills are a fine antidote to the somber history of this windy place.

In contrast to the desolate loneliness of Montségur castle, Mirepoix is a bustling market town. Pastel coloured, half-timbered houses above wood frame arcades line the main square. Gargoyles on the church supervise the goings on around the curlicue adorned market hall. At the other end of the square sits the 14th century town hall. It is amusing to study the decorative wooden beams, each with a different carved head, demon, or animal. As it probably has since medieval times, vendors and shoppers jam the streets on market day. Mouth-watering aromas from meats cooking on rotisseries perfume the air. Sellers compete for customers with raucous cries extolling the virtues of their melons, strawberries or asparagus. A cheese maker brandishes a long saber and deftly cuts a sample of his goat cheese. I am happy to tell him it is marvelous and buy a piece. In a country where markets are an art form, this ranks as one of the best.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Montségur's crumbling castle are the immaculately restored walls, bastions, and towers of Carcassonne's Cité. Viewed across vineyards, the fortress stands as if from a fairy tale. It had been a fortification since Roman times and was a Cathar stronghold in the Middle Ages. Viollet-le-Duc imaginatively restored the double walls and the chateau they shelter in the 1800s. When so many of France's monuments were being neglected, he rallied for restoration. The project took fifty years and he did not live to see its glorious completion.

Inside the fortress, crowded narrow streets are lined with souvenir stands, restaurants, and half-timbered houses. I wander past patrons dining at tables under a leafy canopy, tourists painting watercolours and children in crusader outfits, brandishing plastic swords. Two falconers, with their beady-eyed charges gripping their leather-gloved arms, add to the medieval atmosphere. The real magic is on the grass lices between the inner and outer sheer rock walls. There, I stroll in relative solitude along the longest walls in Europe with their black slate roofed towers and square cut bastions. Carcassonne is a World Heritage Site and the fortress, while impressive by day, is stunning at night. As the evening sky fades to a dusky blue and the spotlights come on, the fairy tale towers and walls glow golden. I can imagine a centurion slowly patrolling the walls.

René Descartes said, "Travelling is almost like talking with men of other centuries." In the medieval Languedoc, their stories are as varied as the places they lived.

For information on the Languedoc:

Montségur to Mirepoix is a 40-minute drive and Mirepoix to Carcassonne is about the same distance.

Photography by Cullen Photos

1 Montségur castle on its lonely peak
2 Montségur walls
3 Mirepoix houses
4 Mirepoix market
5 Inner and outer Carcassonne walls
6 Author between Carcassonne walls
7 Carcassonne at night


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