Here’s the deal. If you love medieval art and architecture, or just love really old things, you’d love this trip. If not, you might still love the landscape, the wine and the food. And then, there’s always chocolate. Tons of it, literally. Like in the store below (yes, those are huge slabs of chocolate).
Continuing our French journey back in time, our wanderings brought us to the Château de Peyrepertuse, in the foothills of the Pyrénées. Accessible only via very narrow roads that meander through tiny medieval towns, the approach to the castle is as dramatic as the short history of the Cathars themselves.
Catharism took hold in southern France in the 11th century; the foundation for their sect is said to have originated in Persia and then spread west into the Byzantine Empire, Italy and France. Cathars (aka Albigensians) strongly believed in good vs. evil, in the same way people believe there is a good Christian god and an evil Satan. They considered themselves Christians, but the Catholic Church considered them heretics. Adherents of Catharism were firmly against what they perceived as the excesses of the Catholic hierarchy. They also believed in reincarnation and were vegetarians, and didn’t have a particular problem with sexual intercourse for the sake of sex (as opposed to intercourse for the purpose of making babies, which they were firmly against). Women were not universally considered inferior, either. Cathars were relatively tolerant for their time and their beliefs were extremely popular, which angered the Catholic Church to no end. And those Catholics should know better than anyone that jealousy is a lethal sin.
The Pope and subsequently the French Catholic kings took up arms against the heretics in the form of two crusades that decimated the Cathars. Most people have heard about the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century, but the Inquisition inflicted upon the Cathars and other French minorities in the 12th-13th centuries so that the Catholic Church could reassert its dominance was violent and devastating. For more interesting facts about the Cathars, click here.
Peyrepertuse was one of several strongholds that remained under the control of French nobility sympathetic to the Cathar cause. It fell to the French in the 1240, after which it served as a defense against the Spanish along with several other several fortress-castles in the region.
Peyrepertuse sits atop a cliff and requires some steep climbing in order to fully appreciate the drama of the setting and the insane conditions in which people lived almost 1,000 years ago. Let’s face it – after our minimal exertions, we had the luxury of stopping at a delightful little snack stand on the way down from the site to fill our stomachs and enjoy the incredible scenery. I highly doubt the poor souls who lived back then ever had time to contemplate the beauty that surrounded them. They spent all their energy on avoiding the enemy’s flaming arrows, praying that they wouldn’t be sent to Hell, and finding water to drink and food to eat.
After taking in the somber story of Peyrepertuse, we headed to Carcassonne, where we enjoyed our introductory visit to the walled city (and the ice cream, too). We will be returning at least once before we leave the region on Saturday. I will write more about Carcassonne in a future post, but will leave you with this photo of the ramparts to whet your appetite.
Final thought of the day (and totally off-topic). I am proud to say that I have not had many occasions to feel like either of the sculptures below during our vacation so far. My husband and the girls are behaving admirably well, all things considered, and I’ve only had to throw up my hands in frustration and scream to the heavens a handful of times.