Carcassonne, Castles, Cassoulet & Cathars

I’ve driven Elyse to the point of overload with all things medieval over the last few days. We’ve had a couple nights in Carcassonne getting “in on the action”. That’s an in-joke for my brothers and whilst it sounds sleazy it really just relates to the Carcassonne tile-based board game we all play at Mum & Dad’s… Usually with a fair bit of sledging to put the others off their game.

Carcassonne is one of the best restored castles & medieval villages around and being such a fan of the board game that takes it’s name it was really exciting to visit. In addition we’re now in cassoulet territory, not far from the self proclaimed home of cassoulet, Castelnaudary. We were lucky enough (Elyse may not agree) to get the coldest day of our trip so far right at the time I planned to eat a hearty cassoulet!!

Back when we were in Venice our couch surfing tour guide, Adriano, started telling me about an interesting part of history in this region involving a group called the “Cathars”. The story he told me was about the crusade called against the Cathars (as heretics) and some lost treasure that is supposedly still hidden in the mountains somewhere. I think the treasure part of the story is mostly legend and maybe even played up a little by the French tourism people but the history is very interesting.

Basically the Cathars were a strange offshoot of Catholicism that grew strong enough to be a real threat to the church… At which point the Pope offered some tidy rewards to the northern French guys if they sorted it out for him. There was a huge massacre at Beziers, estimated at some 20,000 people put to the sword… A siege at Carcassonne… And then they slowly finished off the remaining strongholds over the next few decades.

Today we visited three interested places that sit somewhere into the story; Rennes le Château, Puivert & Montségur.

Rennes le Château is a little village with a chapel and nice little castle from the 19th century that was built by a renegade clergyman. The local bishops had no idea how he was funding the impressive construction works… nor the lavish parties he would throw with his live-in maid (pseudo-wife). He died without revealing the secret, as did everyone else who might have known. It’s widely speculated that he had found some sort of treasure.

Puivert was an awesome castle to visit, it’s had only a small amount of restoration work done and is largely untouched and feels very authentic. We really enjoyed exploring this one even though Elyse had to close her eyes whilst I drove up the perilous road to reach it.

Montségur was the last major Cathar stronghold to fall some 30 years after the massacre at Beziers. Perched high at the top of sheer rock face it was virtually impenetrable (although the existing defenses are more modern than those of the time) however there isn’t a fresh water source or food source and a 10 month siege through a bitter winter resulted in the 300 or so inhabitants submitting. Around 200 of these refused to renounce their faith and were burnt to death in a field below. There is a monument there now as a memorial.

It took a little coaxing to get Elyse to climb up the fortress but it was worth it for the views and a taste of what it must have been like for those poor people stuck up there starving under siege.

On our way back to Carcassonne we stopped off at Mirepoix, a charming little town with buildings in pastels and similar to Tudor style. We had a couple espressos and I had a Leffe blond which really hit the spot.

I’ve promised Elyse some shopping in Toulouse and maybe a break from castles for a while 😉

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6 thoughts on “Carcassonne, Castles, Cassoulet & Cathars

  1. Looking at your photos made a lump in my throat. My dad always wanted to see Carcassonne and never did. i had wanted to go with him, but as time would have it, I went instead with my husband. Such memories. Such good food!

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