The talk over salade nioise and fromage de chevre was about ghosts. My English friend Christopher Neville informed me that two of them haunt his house in southern France, on the sunny terrace of which we were now having lunch. I don't normally believe in spirits, but it seemed wise to suspend disbelief for the moment, since I would soon be entering a region of sorcery and hidden Grails, where heretics once marched defiantly into the bonfires of bloodthirsty crusaders: the land of the Cathars. Christopher's ghosts were said to be knights from those medieval times. I don't know whether he began studying the Middle Ages because of the ghosts or whether the ghosts arrived one day because he had taken an unusually keen interest in the Cathars. I do know that his knowledge proved invaluable.
Two days after Christopher drew up an itinerary for us, I joined my friend Catherine Stock, an illustrator from New York, and we headed south to Cathar country. Our starting and finishing points would be two cities that had been famous centers of the Cathar heresy, Toulouse and Carcassonne. Along the way, we would stay at small country inns and take in a half dozen of the castles that had played a crucial role during a little-known era in a little-known part of France that lies tucked in the foothills of the Pyrenees. People lump this unsullied, relatively inexpensive area into the "Midi" that includes the more-famous Provence, but then pass it by to drive to Spain's Costa del Sol. We planned to linger, taking time for me to envision scenes from the Dark Ages, for Catherine to paint and for us both to dine on the region's subtle cuisine.
The Cathars, I had read, were a kind and gentle people who would have fit better into the diverse 21st century than the 13th. While the details of their complex belief system are still hotly debated, several fundamentals go uncontested: They were dualists (man is bad, the spirit good), they viewed the material world as corrupt, and they rejected certain important tenets of the powerful Catholic Church, including priests, the Trinity and the sacraments. The laying of hands, the consolamentum, was thought to transform believers into parfaits (the Perfects, or Good Christians), who were from then on expected to abstain from sex and meat. The popularity of this gnostic faith threatened the reign of Pope Innocent III. In 1208 he sent Simon de Montfort on a crusade against the heretics. The Albigensian crusade took its name from the town of Albi (later the birthplace of someone who couldn't have been less of a Cathar in spirit, the sybaritic artist Toulouse-Lautrec) and was followed 25 years later by the Inquisition. Together, these purges ensured the end of the Cathars, although not until 1321, when Dominican monks burned at the stake the last of them, a larger-than-life adulterer named Belibaste.
Why the Cathars thrived for at least a century probably owed as much to their location as to their strong convictions. Home was the Languedoc region, a center of learning that tolerated freer thought and was sympathetic to the religion. While Carcassonne fell in two weeks, Toulouse held out for years. It came under attack so many times that it now bears no resemblance to its former self. Christopher had told me as much: "Today the city stands for everything the Cathars were against. It's pure materialism."
Materialist or not, Toulouse is a town easy to like. On an early summer afternoon, Catherine and I sat at the Brasserie les Arcades on the Place du Capitole, surrounded by the wonderful deep-pink buildings that helped earn the town its nickname, Ville Rose. We had lunch while the Wednesday market pulsed in front of us: performance artists doing handstands, mimes in multicolored patchwork, and--seeing as it's still home to a respected university--a generous mix of students. It was easy to imagine how another small sect, if you can call it that, had flourished at the time of the Cathars--namely the troubadours. There was no connection, but they were both singularly focused. The one sought pure religion, the other pure love. Sang Raimon de Miraval, one of the most famous troubadours:
From Love come all my thoughts
I only trouble with Love
And all that is done for Love is good.
* The language of crooning was not French but Occitan, or langue d'oc, a related dialect from which this region took its name and that intolerant Parisian rulers eventually suppressed.
After eating a sinful creme caramel and buying olives in the market, we were ready to escape Toulouse's throbbing streets. We drove along the famed Canal du Midi and onto the N20 road, which leads to the counties of Aude and Ariege, the heart of Cathar country. At almost every bend in the road I noticed evidence of a renewed interest in the region's past. The train line of the Midi-Pyrenees has as its official emblem a stylized Cathar cross (the sect had made a point of modifying the Catholic version). Towns are referred to in French and Occitan. Duilhac sous Peyrepertuse, for instance, is also Dulhac-josa-Peirapertusa. Signs pointed out Sentier Cathare, or Cathar Way. Initially, it was strange to think of a region selling itself on what was basically a drawn-out blood bath, and I was half expecting the journey to be bleak and morbid.
By late afternoon we had reached Foix, and I lost no time climbing to the three-towered castle that dominates the beautiful but little-visited town and surrounding hills. The castle was once home to Esclarmonde, one of the more famous Cathars, a parfait and a sister of the count of Foix. Esclarmonde's brother was among the many nobles sympathetic to the Cathars, even if they weren't believers themselves. So when the crusaders invaded, there was no shortage of places where the heretics, who also happened to be pacifists, could take refuge. The castles exploited the lay of the land and were often built high on craggy limestone peaks, called pogs. Most were nearly impregnable, but Foix was an exception. Probably because it surrendered quickly, it is more intact today than most of the famous castles, with a museum of medieval armor and household paraphernalia in one of its chambers.
The dankness of Foix the castle is offset by the charm of Foix the town. On almost every lane, antiques spill onto the cobblestones from a brocante or an old house. It is a secondhand dealer's paradise, although no one seemed to be taking any notice. "People just speed past Foix," said the owner of Madranque, the inn we stayed at in the hamlet of the same name, about 10 miles from Foix. "They just want to get to Barcelona." A graying throwback to the hippie era, he'd been out the whole day gathering mushrooms in the hills, while his wife had put together a dinner of green salad, pate de foie gras, pork and Ariege goat cheese. A fire burned in the hearth, a clutch of kittens suckled their mother in a basket nearby, and cushy duvets awaited us in the bedrooms in case we wanted to leave our windows open to let in the misty summer night. After a day on the road, it was perfect.
Madranque is a chambre d'h0te, the bed-and-breakfast-like accommodations of choice in Cathar country. And no sooner had we found it than the champignonier's wife was welcoming us warmly and showing us how much she and her husband had done since buying a dilapidated farmhouse 30 years earlier. At dinner, as is the custom in most chambres d'h0tes, the two of them presided over the table, mixing stories of the region with a healthy dose of gossip about peculiar past guests. Both of us speak French, but many innkeepers can converse in English.
Two of our four fellow guests, all French, said that they hadn't come to Cathar country to indulge in history but to ride horses and hike in the hills. Not that the activities were mutually exclusive. For years, it turned out, our host had made a living leading weeklong walking tours from castle to castle. And he'd always started at exactly the same point: Montsegur. The only castle the Cathars built themselves, Montsegur was where they endured their most famous siege, making a 10-month stand against Catholic troops, and where the final mass execution of heretics took place. More than 200 were burned at the stake.
The steep path to the fortress of Montsegur hugs the pog so neatly that you can't see it from the sleepy village below. Before climbing it, I stopped alongside the field where Catholics had torched Perfects. It was full of poppies and budding flowers, and I found it hard to picture an acreage not of mauve blossoms but of human blood.
Once I reached the tree line, I got a better idea of those medieval times, especially of what it must have felt like during a siege. I kept slipping on the wet earth and stones, and I imagined trying to steal closer to the battlements while arrows and rocks rained down from above.
Catherine had stayed below to paint the castle. I rejoined her, and we followed the D9 road and then the D117 to our next fort of call, Puilaurens. We had decided early on that more than two castles a day would be pushing it. Even so, I feared they would start resembling each other, like so many churches on a pilgrimage through northern Italy. Happily, I was wrong. Each castle has a character all its own.
Puilaurens seemed almost fairy-tale-like as we drove up to it from the village of Lapradelle. As the pine trees started thinning, the sheer walls appeared in bits and pieces like a movie in slo-mo. Catherine set up her stool to illustrate, and I climbed.
I took in the magnificent view through the arrow slits in the walls and the holes in the floor. A sight I found spectacular had probably caused many a crusader untold despair: The surrounding countryside was so undulating and full of gorges and thick, virginal forests of pines and boxwoods that traveling must have been almost impossible in the Middle Ages.
Nowadays a two-lane road winds through the hills like a serpent, making it simple to navigate, not to mention perfect for cruising. So many of the roads are marked on the Michelin map with miss-this-at-your-peril green that it was hard to choose just one route. If we passed any traffic, it was the occasional touring motorcyclist. When Catherine and I stopped at a small cafe for a pizza, we found a Yamaha 900 and a Honda 750 parked outside. With deerskin saddles, they resembled shiny creatures waiting to be stirred into action. Having greeted the men in black leather who owned them, Catherine turned to me and whispered, "They're the knights of today."
In the small village of Sougraigne that evening, we discovered a wonderful chambre d'h0te that had opened only a few months earlier. Le Clos du Serpolet is run by a young Belgian couple; the husband was tending the cherry trees in the garden while his wife, who could have been a model, added the finishing touches to a beautifully set and candlelit dining table at which we couldn't wait to be guests.
Unfortunately, we had made the mistake of booking into Ecluse au Soleil, where Catherine had enjoyed her stay the previous summer. Since then, however, our Dutch host had been ditched by his wife and was now running the place single-handedly. He served the unimaginative French standards of courgette farsi (stuffed zucchini), duck confit and tarte tatin on a candle-less table while the Gypsy Kings and George Michael played over and over in the background. The other guests didn't seem to mind, but they obviously didn't have the chambre d'h0te in Madranque to compare it to. I suddenly longed for the cozy farmhouse outside Foix. It wouldn't be the last time either.
The following night we stayed at another of Catherine's earlier discoveries, L'Abbaye de Capservy, a converted abbey outside Carcassonne. It had, in the interim, appeared in an issue of the trendy magazine C0te Sud and had gotten carried away with its own cuteness. After driving and walking the whole day, we were looking forward to a swim and a nice dinner, but the owner told us on arrival that she hadn't cooked. Even though we eventually found a good restaurant (Le Vieux Panier in St. Denis), the two nights taught us an invaluable lesson about chambres d'h0tes: Last year's gem might have lost its luster, so it pays to experiment.
The castles, on the other hand, didn't disappoint. Whereas Puilaurens was something out of Cinderella, Peyrepertuse was breathtaking and huge, its expanse covering an entire hilltop. I was annoyed at first that the road took us almost to the top, for I found that the 10- to 15-minute climb to these medieval giants gave me a chance to reflect on the solitude that both crusader and heretic must have had to endure.
If Peyrepertuse spreads, then Queribus juts. Despite its unimpressive size, it quickly became my favorite castle. Again, the road edges close to the fortification, but there remains a steep walk to the top, where, at 2,390 feet, the structure seems to balance on its compact pog. Inside, you are immediately confronted by the elements of battle: deadfalls, embrasures, a blockhouse with a view on a clear day to the coast beyond Perpignan. But none of these defenses could hold off the most relentless enemy: the weather. Before I reached the main portal, the wind began whipping around the fortress, and it only got worse once I was near the walls. How many people, I wondered, had been blown off as they were manning a tower or aiming at the attackers below?
At the small curio store, an array of books detailed the age of the Cathars. These included everything from Umberto Eco's novel "The Name of the Rose" to children's titles trumpeting Cathar heroes. Posters also advertised something called the Catha-Rama spectacle in Limoux, the first indication we'd had that the religion of old was being sensationalized for tourists.
Like Toulouse, Carcassonne is hard not to love. The old turreted fortress town, or Cite, sits on a rise overlooking the newer town below and epitomizes what many of us today think of as a medieval castle (although most of it was restored in the mid-19th century, and not with complete authenticity). Once you pass through Porte Narbonnaise and a phalanx of curio stores and restaurants ("Traditional food and magic potions," read one banner depicting a witch on her broomstick), the crowds thin and you can find the town of yore. After visiting the Gothic-looking Chateau Comtal, finished before the crusade was even a glint in Rome's eye, I walked to several places that were more cathartic than Cathar: the shaded, cafe-filled Place Marcou; the luxe, newly renovated Hotel de la Cite; and the basilica of St. Nazaire, a paean to Catholic ritual and heroes, with stained glass, organ music, candles and incense, not to mention a tombstone thought to be Simon de Montfort's.
Back on the cobbled streets, I followed cardboard cutouts depicting dour-looking Dominican monks, only to find that they led to the Museum of the Inquisition and Instruments of Torture. The heavy black cloth covering the entrance should have warned me that I was about to enter not so much a museum as a haunted house. Behind it I discovered an array of tortures once used on the Cathars, although they weren't the only victims. There was a metal mask clamped onto talkative women, an interrogation chair used against witches accused of trading with the devil, a garrote, thumbscrews, a pillory, even an object with which to punish bad musicians (one of whose eerie contributions was playing in the background).
Many of the instruments, quite bizarrely, were being demonstrated by (and on) mannequins that wouldn't have looked out of place in a storefront window. The women wore lipstick and showed off perfect thighs in modishly slit medieval smocks, while the long-lashed men had biceps that strained at their Hessian cassocks. Even more bizarre was an unfortunately graphic video depicting how, in olden days, one might find out if a woman was a sorceress by piercing her breast.
It struck me then that the morbid bleakness I had expected to find in Cathar country had finally turned up--in a 21st century enterprise. This says more about modern man than it does about the Dark Ages, but it made me eager to escape this spooky place and reclaim my newfound faith in the medieval, back on the streets of Carcassone.
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Guidebook: Cathar Country
Telephone numbers and prices: The area code for France is 33. All prices are approximate and computed at a rate of 6.7 francs to the dollar. Room rates are for a double for one night with breakfast.
Getting there: Air France, KLM and Lufthansa have connecting service from Los Angeles to Toulouse. Or fly to Paris via any number of airlines and travel to Toulouse on Air France or Air Liberte. In Toulouse, where most major rental agenices are represented, rent a car for the Cathar country tour to Carcassonne.
* Where to stay: Madranque in Madranque, telephone/fax 5-6102-7129, Not far from Foix, Madranque has four rooms with private baths. Rate: $36. Nearby in Benac, Le Chateau de Benac, tel. 5-6102-6520. A chateau that's seen better days but is full of charm and set on beautiful grounds with wonderful views. Rate: $45.
In Sougraigne, Ecluse au Soleil, tel. 4-6869-8844, fax 4-6869-8157. Designer pool and rooms that look to the hills, but the reception and food are so-so. Rate: $82, includes dinner. The four-room Le Clos du Serpolet, 11190 Place de Village, tel./fax 4-6869-8969, is cozier. Rate: $43. (Reopens in May.)
L'Abbaye de Capservy, a 15-minute drive outside Carcassonne, tel. 4-6826-6140. The eight-room main house is more comfortable than the newer outlying buildings. Rate: $37. Numerous other chambres d'h0tes dot the countryside around Carcassonne. Chambres d'h0tes can be found at http://www.gites-de-france.fr.
* Where to eat: In the village of St. Denis, Le Vieux Panier, 11310 St. Denis, tel. 4-6826-4166, draws clients 20 miles away from Carcassonne. We had duck salad, hare in rich red wine, a platter of local cheeses and creme a la framboise; $36 with wine for two. Food for picnics at the castles can be bought at nearby towns.
For more information: French Government Tourist Office, 9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 715, Beverly Hills, Calif., 90212; tel. (310) 271-6665 or (410) 286-8310 (France-on-Call hotline), fax (310) 276-2835, http://www.francetourism.com.
Toulouse tourism office, tel. 5-6111-0222. Carcassonne tourism office, tel. 4-6810-2430, fax 4-6810-2438.