Montségur, The Last Stronghold Of The Cathars
It was said that it could never be taken, and in truth it almost never was. It was a stronghold, the shining star of the Cathars, a refuge, a village, and the site of multiple legends that create intrigue and drama to this site, even today.
Some things we know for certain. That over 600 people once lived in this place, and that a tremendous siege was held here in1243-44, a tragedy that ultimately led to the demise of Cathars, their final sacrifice the burning alive of over 200 believers at the base of the hill. A bloody and brutal event.
But some things we don’t know. Rumors that the Holy Grail, the cup that received the blood of Christ from his crucifixion on Mount Golgotha was in the stronghold, and perhaps smuggled out? Or perhaps some other great treasure which was hidden nearby (it’s said 4 perfecti survived by escaping through a secret route to reclaim it)? Whispers that this was a refuge of the Templars? And questions why, every solstice, the light shines with such mathematical precision through the axes of the castle?
Oh, what stories these stone walls could tell…..
All of this races through our minds as we stand in the ruins of the castle that was built on the fortress grounds, perched almost incomprehensively at ~3000 ft (1,207 metres) on the top of a steep, rocky peak. The valley falls sharply to all sides around us, fog lingering in-between and fall colors blanketing the hills in brilliant waves of oranges and reds. The thick stone walls are cold to the touch, and the air is crisp and perfectly silent, our presence the only life here apart from the lizards that slither in and out of the walls to bake in the sun.
Even nature lies in reverence of what happened here.
We are on the Cathar trail, a history that runs deep in this region of France and this is the most important site from that time. It’s quite a monumental place.
The Cathars & Southern France
Cathar history is superbly interesting. The Cathars were a heretical Christian sect that flourished in western Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries.
The religion came from the East and is based on ancient Gnostic Dualist beliefs that there are two principles in life, the good (the spiritual world) and the evil (the material world). A simple set of ideas really, which meant that Cathar priests (Perfecti) lived frugally and as celibates. They had no possessions, and their whole purpose in life was to renounce the pleasures and enticements of the world so that (through repeated incarnations) they could make their way back to heaven.
They had some fascinatingly progressive ideas too.
They believed that God was both male and female, so there was equality between the sexes, a very unique belief for the times. And they were vegetarians that held the dignity of manual labor in high regard. Basically they worked, lived and shared possessions with each other and those around them, eating what the land provided. They often lived in groups with sympathizers, people who were not Cathar, but aided & supported them. Their inclusive approach gained strong support with the peasantry in both Italy and Southern France.
All of this would seem rather benign from our modern point of view, except the Cathars were not friends of the Catholic Church. They strongly criticized the Church as it stood at the time, especially the greed and lechery of its clergy, as well as their drive to acquire land and wealth. And they rejected most of the books of the bible. In those times, those were serious concerns.
So in 1209 Pope Innocent III called for a crusade against Southern France, to purge the heretics. Thus started the 20-year Albigensian Crusade, followed not long after by the Inquisition, massacres of epic proportions that crushed the Cathars and are thought to have killed up to a million people. A significant portion of the southern French population perished during that time.
For the Cathars, the siege of Montségur was one of the last, great strongholds and battles of the era.
The Cathar Trail in Languedoc
Between our house and Mediterranean coast lies the Languedoc area of France.
It’s a wonderful wine region, that spreads from the foot of Pyrénées to the sea, and it’s also the heart of old Cathar country. This is where the religion once flourished, but it’s also where much of it was lost. Many of the original strongholds or walled cities of the time are gone, the sites replaced by “modern” castles built by the lords to which the lands were given after the Cathars were disposed.
In some spots such as Carcasonne and Foix, parts of the fortress still date from Cathar times, but for most of the others everything is gone. Even Montségur itself, or rather the ruins that you see today, are from the castle built in the three centuries after the fall of the Cathars.
Still, the allure of the Cathars is powerful, so much so that throughout the region you’ll see references and signs to Cathar castles. And for those motivated to walk it all by foot, a 250km trail (GR 367 – Le sentier cathare) runs from Port-La-Nouvelle on the Mediterranean coast to the historic town of Foix, crossing rugged terrain and no less than 15 significant sites. It’s quite the monumental trek.
Or, if you’re lazy like us you can just drive it….
We’ve traveled parts of the trail in LMB, and it’s a spectacular route with few tourists and gorgeous views. Very worth doing.
The Trail To Montségur
Montségur specifically, is only about an hour from our house. It’s a wonderful little drive to the base of the Pyrénées and then into a valley which winds beautifully up the foothills to the site. As with most French places, it’s 100% dog-friendly, and you can park your motorhome at the base for free, if you so wish. The site is open most days and costs a mere EUR 5.50 to visit (details HERE). Plus the nearby village has dining, lodging and a museum too.
We chose Monday morning for the trek, and decided all three of us would attempt the climb. It’s a good 40 min walk, steep and rocky so a smidgen too much for Polly (she stayed at home this one time), and a push for dad (I was darn impressed he did it), but with gorgeous views and WELL worth the exertion to see. Plus we landed a sunny, crisp day with a dusting of snow on the mountains. Pretty much hiking perfection.
We took our time going up, pausing at the turns and admiring the fall colors. And once we got there we found ourselves wonderfully alone, the entire castle just for us.
It’s a strange feeling being on the rocky clifftop, thinking about the massive siege of 10,000 troops that surrounded the few hundred people here in the 13th century. The long months that they survived, isolated and bombarded by trebuchets (catapults), and the 202-225 or so that were burned alive at the base of the pog (peak) after surrender, for not renouncing their faith. The walls are different now (the ruins that stand today are from the the Castle that was built afterwards), but terraced dwellings from the Cathars are still visible (on the north-eastern flank, outside the walls) and the weight of that time still lingers in the ground.
It was our outing for the week and a fine one at that, delving us deep into some fundamental history of the area. We have many more Cathar sites to explore, and much more to learn, but as a start this was a tremendous one. What a history we have right next door, and how lucky we are to be able to see it. Profound experiences that we can carry with us as we go through these crazy 2020 times.
A historical blog this week my friends, just for a change, and I hope you enjoyed it. Did you know about the Cathars? Or perhaps you’ve traveled some of this route yourselves. DO share in the comments below!
All alone inside the ruins of Montsegur…what an experience!