Chateaux Lastours

This was our first big hike of the vacation. It occurred towards the end of the day, after a visit to our favourite vigneron (and accompanying wine tasting—by Mimi. Gaston abstained from more than a few slurps, as he was DD), lunch below the troglodyte village of Minerve (two stars on the Michelin road map), and a winding journey across the southern slopes of the Black Mountain.

It was one of the first days of 35° temperatures, and the climb almost did Gaston in.

chateau régine, at one of the four lastours castles

Chateau Aguilar

Aguilar chateau

One of the “National Monument” ruined Cathar castles in the Aude.

Aguilar chateau

Looking down on the vineyards below chateau Aguilar.

Chateau Roquefixade

Gaston and I caught the Friday market in Foix, took a heap of photos as the light was crystal clear—that would have been the first day of Autumn light—then departed to conquer Roquefixade.

We’d been intimidated by this chateau on previous visits. The approach appears vertiginous.

The pog of Chateau Roquefixade

Chateau Roquefixade: the wee red flag at the top of the peak marks the ruins of this Cathar stronghold.

First visit to the area, which encompassed only six days, we gazed at it from Montségur and noted the cathar-cross flag flying at the top of the peak. On visit #2, we explored the town at the base of the cliff, climbed to the rock face, then decided, “Another day.” I believe a mild case of food poisoning or airplane stomach-bug played a role in that choice.

Even this time ’round, as we drove towards it from the west and saw how steep the outcrop on which the ruins are perched, Gaston and I were each dreading the endeavour. But, of course, we didn’t say anything. Which I think is mighty big of Gaston, who has confessed to me that, actually, he really doesn’t care for hiking, and especially doesn’t care for hiking up steep inclines, especially when it is warm out.

Does this mean he was humouring me? Who cares!

It turns out the hike to the chateau is deceptive: it isn’t nearly as rigorous as it appears from up the valley or from the village.

Roquefixade village

At the base of the village, overlooking the valley to the southwest, was a small “villa” (modern house) with a million-dollar view and cracks so large in the walls, you can see into the interior. Said house is for sale “on condition of unbuilding.” The edge of the hill beneath the house is subsiding. What a heartbreak for the owner who invested.

Don’t believe me? The trail winds around the base of the rock to the back side of the pog, then ascends at fairly reasonable, albeit still steepish, incline to the back of the fortress.

And we saw our first Griffin vulture whilst lounging at the top: a freaking HUGE, black bird that was riding the thermals off the crest.


Chateau Peyrepertuse

Chateau Quéribus is one of the Cathar castles that fell to the King of France/Rome Pope during the early 13th Century Albigensian Crusade. After what is now south France was rolled up into French territories, Louis IX (the “saint”) ordered the fortress and many other former cathar castles manned to guard his new border against Spain. In those days, the French-Spanish border ran not far south of the Aude Valley.

Sixty-some cathars manned the fortress during its final days during the crusade. Louis reduced that number to about 20. By the 16th Century, seven lucky souls were exiled to wind, sun, and drought in order to guard the castle.

On clear days, you can see the Mediterranean from the castle walls.

Chateau Queribus from across the Aude Valley (Forca real)

Chateau Queribus, seen from across the Aude Valley, sits on the pimple-like promontory of the ridge.

Chateau Queribus from Cucugnan

Here's a view the chateau from the other side of the ridge.

Queribus looks down on mountaintops across the Aude Valley

Queribus looks down on mountaintops across the Aude Valley. Scott, who has late-onset vertiginophobia, hated the drive up from the town of Maury, seen at the valley bottom in this photo. We're not sure what the Michelin-map abbreviation Grau stands for, but guess something like "KEEP AWAY FROM THE OUTSIDE EDGE OF THE ROAD!"

Defenders of Cathar Queribus would have seen the enemy coming from miles away

montsegur pog, France, by SMair

Montségur fortress sits atop the mountain pog. It’s a steep climb up to see the remains.

When you greet people here in the deep south of France, they reply to your “Bonjour” with what sounds like “Bonjeu.” Good game. Not the Sorbonne-approved elocution Mme Abdel-Kadar required of me and my classmates those many years ago, but an appropriate greeting to a person on vacation.

We’ve been seeing a fair amount of bilingual signage lately: The regular French, and also the Occitan equivalent. For instance, in Belloc, a village near our country rental, the blue sign at the turn to the Mairie says rue de l’Occitane; the red sign right below says roux de l’Occitanie. The name Belloc is also Occitan; in French—and apparently 700 years ago after the French overran the region—it was Beaulieu. In fact, any village name you encounter in the south that ends in oc or ac or ec has Occitan origins. Including Lautrec or Salazac…

The word for peak—as in mountain peak—is the delightful sounding pog.

A few days ago, Gaston and I slogged up the pog at Montségur (translation: Mount Secure) to look at what’s left of the fortress. Not much: the lower bit of the original keep, some walls where the medieval village had clung to the slope, and the curtain walls (called pregnant walls in French: murs enceinte—which rerouted my translating neurons to “retaining walls” for a number of days, for the obvious symptom connection. Pregnant pause… okay, never mind.). Hard to believe 600 people lived there—even if there had been multiple floors on which to stack them all.

view from Montsegur, France

The Cathars would have seen French troops approach from miles away.

And a long way to go for fresh water.

But the view is spectacular: they would have seen those Catholic hordes coming from miles up the valleys around.

On the way down (“Bonjour,” “Bonjour;” “Bonjeu;” “Bonjeu”), we passed the tortured faces going uphill of all those French people who supposedly never formally exercise, doing their patrimoinic duty.

The site is close to the pilgrim way through the south to Santiago di Compostela, and is something of a pilgrim site in its own right. The last Cathar fortress to stand against the Catholic and French hordes, it withstood a months-long siege by some 10,000 troops. In March 1244, the Cathars surrendered. Approximately 220 were burned en masse in a bonfire at the foot of the peak when they refused to renounce their faith.

Approaching the fortress of Montsegur, France

The forbidding final approach to the fortress.

St-Dominique sign Fanjeaux

Saint Dominque habita ici de 1206 a 1215

Carved into the wall beside the front door of Fanjeaux’s abbey is the announcement: St-Dominique habita ici de 1206 à 1215. Dominic (or Domenge, if you prefer the Occitan language) came to tour the region at the behest of the pope, bringing his warm and personal touch to interrogating and torturing Cathar heretics as part of the Inquisition—initiated when the military end of the Albigensian Crusade seemed to French king and RC pope to be taking too long. With the good saint’s assistance, the process quickened significantly, and the Cathars disappeared: through a combination of being forcefully converted to Rome-approved doctrine, slaughtered, burned alive at the stake, or made to take part in other block-party events arranged specially for them.

Ah, yes, the good ol’ days, when personal belief and expression were mandated by politics. (Oh, wait, that’s today, too!)

Walking up the rue du Chateau, in Foix, France

Walking up the rue du Château, Foix, France

Historically significant persons are frequently commemorated this way in France. Small signs may appear on the corners of buildings in Paris, alerting those who stop and read that such-and-such a member of the Resistance was shot by German authorities in the vicinity, or that some painterly bon vivant or other starved in the garrett there, or that a particular literary sage wrote his first poems/essays/novel at the corner table in that cafe.

Contrast those announcements with the plaque on a house on Foix’s rue du Château: Ici, Gaston Fébus n’habitait pas. Gaston Fébus did not live here.

Instead, Gaston Phoebus—or more to the point—Gaston the FABULOUS!, comte of Foix and Béarn, lived for a short time up the hill in the chateau—a curious, imposing, three-towered pile of stone looming over the town.

Foix chateau looms

It would have been difficult to escape the feeling of being watched in the town of Foix when the chateau was occupied.

The old boy had quite an opinion of himself, fancied himself a poet and musician, as well as God’s gift in the physical looks department. Think Hank VIII with fewer wives. In keeping with the commemoration theme, one would think good ol’ Gasser would have personally placed a commemorative plaque on the exterior wall of his own chateau, at the very least. But, as with so many people who have to resort to PR personnel and marketing specialists to convince the world of their superior personal qualities (something St-Dominic didn’t bother with, but then he had all of Rome, a couple of armies and – oh, yes – a few burning stakes behind him to convince the populace of his charms), Mr. FABULOUS! was a tad insecure. He may not have had Hank VIII’s marital problems, but he did have his own share of family issues. These, he resolved as Henry would do 150 years later—simply by doing away with them: brothers, sons, etc. (Alas, my love, you do me wrong…)

Mr FABULOUS! and his surviving relatives decamped from Foix, part of the kingdom of France since the Albigensian crusade, to Béarn, then still an independent state, to pretend they too were still independent of the various French kings Louis. His fancy castle on the hill became a prison at about the time of the French Revolution. This is why the buildings and towers survived, with new wall decorations in the form of graffiti, and stylish grillwork over the windows to keep the burglars out—or in, as the case may be.

Antique window grills to keep prisoners in, Foix chateau, France

The castle became a prison after the French Revolution. Security was a problem even then.