Sunday, April 17, 2016

Not about to trust to fate, I got a fairly early start on Sunday, with a plan to see some of the ruined castles of Cathar country. Again, this was a part of the world I'd never seen, and I had no idea what to expect. But then, expecting nothing usually brings the information to you cleanly.

It was much easier to get out of the Center of the World than it had been getting back into it, and Sunday was much sunnier and brighter than Saturday had been, which meant that the huge mountain one can see so clearly from Perpignan hung in front of me as I drove out, its massiveness still about ¾ covered with snow, which gleamed against the blue sky. Of course, I got lost almost immediately, which is to say I somehow missed a turnoff to the route I'd written down -- hardly "lost," since it's pretty easy to find your way despite the occasional deviation from the route if you're equipped with a trusty Michelin yellow map (#344, Aude, Pyrénées-Orientales in this case) and the navigation system of a Peugeot 2008, which, although I couldn't program it, showed the names and locations of towns. You could just say okay, I'll aim for there, and I'll know where I am on the map.

Plus, the distances weren't as great as they looked on the relatively large-scale map. Somehow, I had headed southwest instead of northwest, and my job was to find the large D117 road. Heading north sent me through some hills on one-lane roads through tiny villages. In one of them, a band dressed in traditional clothing was waiting for everyone to show up, at which point they'd head into the village for a fair or something. Others snoozed Sunday away; the streets were pretty much deserted.

After what seemed like hours, I found the highway and had overshot my destination, a town called Maury, by so much that I had to backtrack, but after missing a turn in Maury and getting stuck in a tiny side-street which took all my driving skills to do a 180º turn, I saw the signs to my destination, Chateau Quéribus. This isn't the most famous of the Cathar castles, but it's probably the most dramatic.

Yes, you do have to walk up there
Calling it a "Cathar castle" is a bit inaccurate. The Cathars were a Gnostic sect, a spinoff of the Catholic Church who believed that people could know God directly, and had no need of priests or saints to intercede for them. In France, they were the first small-p protestants, protesting against the siphoning off of money and resources to Rome, and with a message that resonated with rural communities in the hills and mountains. This, of course, pissed Rome off -- not to mention the French crown, which depended on military and financial support from Rome, and the Inquisition was let loose to rid the country of the scourge of these people, a crusade against the so-called Albigensian Heresy of Catharism. Since Cathars lived semi-communally, entire communities were threatened by the Vatican's thugs, and many people fled to places whose fortifications and remote locations protected them. Chateau Quéribus was one of them: built sometime around 1000 CE, and 728 meters (2388.5 feet) above sea level on the highest peak for miles around, it was intended as a border defense against Spain, but its commander was sympathetic to the Cathars and in about 1244, it gave shelter to a bunch of them, including important clergymen. The castle protected them until 1255, at which point Inquisition forces under French command defeated the knight Chabert de Barbaira, who was defending the structure. The Cathars who'd been living there, meanwhile, sneaked further into the hills to other refuges.

There are a number of other castles nearby, all of which have histories with the Crusade against the so-called Albigensian Heresy, but this one, I'd decided, would be first. The road up there is narrow and twisty, and ends at a parking lot with a wooden shed from which tickets (and walking-sticks, and other souvenirs) are sold. You have to hike up a trail to the castle. So I did.

Fortunately, any good castle has defensive positions where you can catch your breath

Getting closer

Another defensive position. That mountain's the same one I saw from Perpignan, and a sign up here called it Roc de France, which the map locates on the French/Spanish border SSW of Perpignan

Once you finally climb to the top, there's a door. It's pitch black inside, but eventually a pillar and a couple of narrow spiral staircases emerge from the murk, and although I started up one of the staircases, my childhood acrophobia hit bad, and I backed down. Outside, I noticed you could climb the hill a bit to another door, and as I did, a couple came out of it, speaking English. I asked them what was in there. They'd been in the so-called Pillar Room, too, and climbed the stairs, only to come out here. From what I can gather from aerial photos, this means that the largest part of the structure is inaccessible to the public. Which meant walking back down, acrophobia in full effect. 

I finally hit the parking lot, rather disappointed by everything but the view: besides the defenses, I had no insight into life at Quéribus, which had gone on until 1659, when it was abandoned as no longer necessary. It was a good walk, I suppose, but I didn't feel particularly enlightened. In fact, I realized upon thinking about it, what I felt was hungry. The village which had existed to serve the fort, Cucugnan, was still there, and was a short drive away and, more importantly, the only place for miles where I could get lunch. Surely it was a tourist trap -- they have you, and where else are you going to go? -- but I drove there anyway. There was parking at the base of the village, and a restaurant/hotel nearby. One glance at the menu meant I wasn't going to be eating there: tourist food, probably largely frozen, but cheap. I walked on to the more settled part of the village and saw signs for a restaurant called L'Auberge de Vigneron, which also rents rooms. Their menu was also cheap, but the food looked edible: and so it was. Much as I wanted to dig into their cassoulet, there was a 30-minute preparation time and anyway, I was wary of eating too much at lunch and getting logy on the remaining drive. There was a terrace, populated largely by middle-aged British women, and I sat out there and enjoyed a selection of local charcuterie -- sausages, hams, a little pâté, local bread, a tiny glass of cold creamed asparagus soup, and the most perfect accompaniment to all of this possible, a little jar of shredded pickled apple. There was no reason to expect anything this good, and suddenly the hike up the mountain was worthwhile. I ate slowly, enjoying the sunshine, the view of Quéribus in the distance, and a sound like the world's most boring gamelan orchestra, which was made by dozens of belled sheep below us, grazing in their field.

Not exactly the view from the terrace, which was around the corner

The road out of Cucugnan gave me the choice of two more Cathar strongholds, Chateau de Peyrepertuse to the west and the Chateau d'Aguilar to the northeast. I'd already been disappointed by one, and I'd lingered over lunch too long, so I decided to start heading to Narbonne, although on back roads. The signs alerted me to something I hadn't realized: I was in the Corbières, a small mountain range that, at its lower altitudes, is one of France's great secret wine-growing appelations. And so, as I twisted along the narrow road, signs for wineries began to appear. 

Random Corbières landscape: note vines.

I was still pretty high up, and at one point passed a place where a wind-farm was going in, its entrancce marked by a warning to the trucks bringing in the parts: MANOEUVRE IMPOSSIBLE. In other words, get it right the first time. And now I was really glad I'd picked Sunday for this trip: I didn't want to share the road with these guys at all. 

I could well have stopped at the Chateau Aguilar, and in retrospect probably should have. I've also been chided for not hitting Peyrepertuse. My response is that I'll do both of them next time, now that I have at least a basic idea of what the terrain is like. And the map told me I'd be on minor roads all the way to the outskirts of Narbonne, so who knew what rockslides or other problems might await. It was awe-inspiring all the way, and scary enough that I couldn't pull over to shoot photos. 

In contrast to Perpignan, the approach to Narbonne was easy, and parking was, too -- plus, it was free until 9am on Monday. I had no problem finding the hotel, and announced to the lady at the desk that I had a reservation and gave her my name. Turned out she was British. But she knew the town well, so she had a couple of ideas about restaurants that would even be open on a Sunday. A late-afternoon stroll renewed my orientation of the city (I'd been here before in 2009) and at a decent hour I had a good dinner of présalé lamb (the animals graze near the ocean on grass made salty by the wind off the ocean, and their meat really is "pre-salted"). 

Narbonne's historic center from near the market

Narbonne's cathedral, which you can see in the distance there (the tower on the left is the bishop's residence, the grey one to its right is the cathedral) was the last stop of the Catholic bishop who once ruled from Elne, and as such, is the easternmost stop in Catalan France, a cultural boundary evident in the fact that there are almost none of the signifiers of Catalan culture around in the food, the language (we're switching to French here, but up in the hills it once was Occitan not Catalan), or the religion (not many Cathars to chase here, I think). 

I felt a certain foreboding. Tomorrow I'd drive the short distance to Montpellier, where I'd lived for five years. Friends were expecting me, and memories were potentially about to ambush me. I'd booked four days; too many or not enough? 

Next: Montpellier: You Can/Can't Go Home Again

1 comment:

  1. Your philosophical backstory suggests that your are practicing a new form of "Vitalism," the school of medicine born in Montpellier.


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