On a Road to Ruins
In southern France, the Cathar Trail leads to castles above the cloud line.
Published in Washington Post Magazine (2001)
They must be feeling the heat, too, I muttered to myself, as a lithe French couple effortlessly passed me on their way up a stony slope. The path seemed to be leading directly into the sun, the big glaring bully of the Mediterranean. Although the sea lay a mere 20 miles to the east, the rugged highland here was so waterless that it could just as well have been central Asia. I paused to examine a boulder, feigning a sudden expertise in geology when, in fact, I was simply finding an excuse to catch my breath. Yet no one was around to witness my out-of-shape pantomime – the fleet-footed hikers had already flitted over a rise.
Whatever shadows were present earlier in the morning had shrunk into insignificance. I mopped my brow and set off again up the mountain. The scrubby chaos around me, the random ankle-twisting rockiness, invited thoughts of entropy. If the first major sight on my hike, the ruined castle of Quéribus, hadn’t melted by the time I reached it, it could turn out to be an uninteresting pile of rubble just the same. An ill-advised shortcut through some brambles brought me, panting and scratched, to the summit ridge. Quéribus stood less than half a mile away, its brooding castle keep perched on an improbable finger of rock sticking up from the brink of a cliff. I picked my way gingerly through the outer fortifications and, in an instant, saw why the fortress had been built.
From the terrace of the castle, the perpsective is Nietzschean. The land falls off into a thousand-foot void, and the viewer commands sea, earth and sky: to the east, the aquamarine of the Mediterranean; below, the rumpled green plain and wooded hillsides of Roussillon, the sliver of Catalonia in southwestern France; at eye level, the snow-tipped Pyrenees. Inside the castle keep a magnificent Gothic room, accessible only by a stone corkscrew staircase, is dominated by a tree-like pillar whose branches delicately hold up the groin vaulting of the ceiling. Outside, the medieval fort-builder’s art is on display. Great blocks of stone, hewn and hauled by meticulous laborers in the 12th century, have been fitted atop one another by the nameless feudal steeplejacks who erected this structure in the sky.
I rested my back on the warm stone of the keep and extracted from my knapsack a pâté-and-pickle sandwich, content that Quéribus had not let me down. On the contrary, I felt exhilarated, even awestruck, like a college boy who returns home to find that his kid sister’s best friend now looks like Miss Venezuela. The castle, a survivor in this harsh land, had utterly surprised me.
I had been eyeing the castle for a long time. And it, I imagined, had been eyeing me. From where I worked my vegetable patch beside an old stone farmhouse near Perpignan, the line of the Corbières Mountains could be seen a dozen miles to the north, forming the rugged frontier between tiny Roussillon and the vast province of olive trees and vineyards beyond, known as Languedoc. On most days the weathered limestone curtain of the Corbières wavered in a heat haze, but when the dry wind called the tramontane started howling, the range became a blank screen across which the shadows of clouds raced to the Mediterranean.
Quéribus, one of the clifftop ruins to crown the Corbières, was a constant presence in my life. The tan-colored fortress spied on me as I tended ineffectually to my tomatoes, cucumbers and surreptitiously imported American corn. Quéribus had been staring down on the likes of me for more than 800 years. Travel writer Isabel Savary, who braved this once-remote region right after the First World War, remarked: “You cannot get rid of Quéribus. From almost any point in the Roussillon it crops up against the sky-line; watching, the eye of the Roussillon.”
Like a crime suspect turning and talking to the detective tailing him, I decided to go up and see the summits of the Corbières for myself. On hearing my plans for a walk in the wilds, Henri, my peach-farming neighbor, glanced at my distinctly unathletic frame and snorted theatrically. Why, he asked, would anyone want to go to gavatx country? Gavatx (pronounced ga-batch) was the local Catalan term of derision for the Frenchies of Languedoc. Never mind that Henri spoke French, and that Roussillon had been swallowed by France in 1659 – Quéribus and the Corbières marked a boundary that would not be forgotten.
I had other reasons to lace up my hiking boots. I had immersed myself in the lore of the Cathars, a heretical group of pacifist Christians who had come to grief in gavatx country. Theirs was a hair-raising, if instructive, story of medieval Languedoc, in which they flourished as rivals to priest and bishop by preaching tolerance, sexual equality, reincarnation and the absolute illegitimacy of the Roman Catholic Church and its sacraments. Their success in Languedoc was their undoing – in the first decades of the 13th century they were slaughtered in a crusade launched against them by a wrathful Pope Innocent III. The survivors of that crusade then faced imprisonment, torture and death at the stake from the Inquisition, an institution founded expressly to exterminate the Cathar faith. Retracing the heretics’ century-long calvary took me often from my quiet farmhouse to the busy cities and towns of Languedoc – Toulouse, Carcassonne, Albi, Béziers, Narbonne – but I had yet to explore the landscape of their final days, when a few hunted holy men and women, fearful for their lives, darted from cave to castle to village, just like the shadows of clouds. That fatal landscape was the Corbières and their ruined fortresses.
When I was deposited in the dusty Corbières village of Padern, the summer morning was already warm, but not uncomfortably so. Padern, a jumble of terra-cotta roofs, is one of the first stops on what the local tourist board has helpfully dubbed le sentier cathare (the Cathar Trail), a sinuous hiking and riding path leading 120 miles from the vineyards of Fitou on the Mediterranean coast to the inland town of Foix. According to my guidebook, the trail can be easily completed in 12 days of vigorous scrambling. Mindful of Henri’s snort and my failings as a mountain goat, I planned just one marathon day along one segment, following the trail’s red-and-yellow signposting through the section of the Corbières that had bounded my horizon for so long. I would visit Quéribus at midday, then hike on to another ruin in the clouds, Peyrepertuse.
Beyond Padern, to the west, was a sea of vines. I was in unfamiliar territory, a vale on the reverse slop of the bald limestone screen I had seen from home. As I climbed the gentle gradient in the gathering heat, it occurred to me that the grape, the camel of agriculture, might be the sole cultivation possible here – only hardy syrahs and grenaches could sink roots deep enough to find a drop of moisture in this pebbly soil. An hour or so into my ascent I guessed at another reason for all these vines: medieval monks. In the Middle Ages, wherever there were monks, there was drink. On cue, the trail led past the ruined 11th-century priory of Molhet, standing alone on an isolated hillock. A curving 15-foot-tall wall marked where the barrel chancel of an abbey church had once echoes with hymns. I took a swig from my bottle of mineral water and pressed on.
The vines vanished. Outcroppings of wind-pitted rock punctuated the view on either side of the trail, now nothing more than a goat track in an austere scrubland. The path led southward and upward, in ever tightening switchbacks, climbing a slope that was more remarkable to the nose than the eye. Amid the spiky brambles and dull green box bushes, wild rosemary was growing, as were clumps of thymes and sprigs of lavender. The hardscrabble slope was a natural potpourri, untouched by any fussy landscaper. When the hand of man reappeared, as it always does in France, it took the form of a rough service road used by the public electrical utility and adopted for a mile or so by the Cathar Trail. That too petered out, leaving me on the ridge below Quéribus, to be passed by those loose-limbed hikers.
In any event, I had ghosts for company, real ghosts. After finishing off my lunch at Quéribus I clambered around its crumbling outbuildings. The spirit of the Cathars inhabited the place. The castle, in 1255, saw the final siege of the wars against the heretics. When the fortress surrendered to the king of France and archbishop of Narbonne, the surviving Cathars scattered, no doubt some of them over the barren land I had just covered in the morning. They, and their dwindling number of acolytes in successive generations, then eked out a furtive existence preaching in the sheepfolds and sheds of the mountain peasantry, until the last of them was caught by the Inquisition and burned in 1321.
I emerged from the cool shade of the fortress into the leaden weight of the afternoon. I could see my route to the northwest, through the brush and vines of a hidden vally, to the sky castle of Peyrepertuse, seven miles distant. A hot breeze had sculpted the few clouds overhead into discus shapes that failed miserably to block the sun. Apprehensive, I set off down a steep slop toward the valley, making out through the kinks in the rising air a trio of horsemen far below picking their way along an equestrian stretch of the Cathar Trail. I was put in mind of 19th-century travelers who had strayed from their Grand Tour to discover, and condemn, the Corbières. A Briton, Angus B. Reach, in 1852: “On the slopes and in the plains, endless rows of scrubby, ugly trees, powdered with the universal dust, and looking exactly like mop-sticks.” An American, George Barrell, Jr., in 1853: “Earth parched, grass yellow, roads dusty, flies by the millions, no beautiful scenery, hot as a furnace, ugly vineyards and olive orchards.” And Lady Chatterton, an Englishwoman, in 1843: “A high scorching sirocco is blowing in our faces. This parching, glaring weather is only bearable in a dark room.”
Hours of tramping in the sunshine filed by, my mood slightly more generous than that of my predecessors toward the stark and arid surroundings. I had made peace with sweat, but not with the unrelenting light. Happily, a dark barroom, unsuitable for Lady Chatterton, appeared in Cucugnan, a pretty hillside village that had earned its living from nearby mines since at least the year 951. I drank a beer while three young men shaped like fire hydrants shared a paper and commented on the local rugby scores. Cucugnan also houses a rare 12th-century statue of a pregnant Virgin Mary in its Romanesque church, but this afternoon she was in confinement, behind locked doors.
Peyrepertuse inched closer across the sky as the day progressed. The trail left the flat of the valley floor and headed up a sudden slope, outstripping the vines in less than half an hour. Peyrepertuse, from below, looked like the hull of an ocean liner beached on some massive pedestal. Indeed, the huge outcropping at the summit was quarried in the 11th and 12th centuries to build the castle, so that pale edifice seems to emerge right out of the limestone rock. The rock was pierced, or in the old local dialect, the peira was pertusa, hence “Peyrepertuse.” The castle fell to the forces of orthodoxy in 1240, its seigneur a devout Cathar.
Impossibly, Peyrepertuse was more spectacular than Quéribus – an admirer once called it “a citadel of vertigo.” The phrase seemed particularly appropriate when, legs trembling, I crept up a crumbling staircase joining two sections of the aerial ruin, with nothing to my left except a hot wind and an inviting abyss. At the top, almost half a mile above the valley floor, I looked out at the Mediterranean, Quéribus, the Pyrenees, and further into the Corbières. In the west, channeling the wind around its hulking mass, was the great square monolith of Mount Bugarach, the holy mountain of the gavatx. A Cathar leader, according to a member of his flock who squealed to the Inquisition, was in the habit of mocking the doctrine of transubstantiation by saying, “Even if the body of Christ were as big as the Bugarach, the greedy priests would have eaten it all by now.” I smiled, then began picking my way down the slope from Peyrepertuse in the muted light of early evening, already rehearsing the boastful speech I would give to Henri about my exploits.
There is a certain dignity to being deserted, but not all the sacred heights of the Corbières share that distinction. Shortly after the blisters on my feet had healed, my wife and two daughters and I drove past Quéribus, Peyrepertuse and Bugarach to the westermnost extreme of the Corbières and the hilltop town of Rennes-le-Chateau. The place draws crowds of spiritual dissidents who claim a tenuous connection to the Cathars. I know of Rennes through reading a few occult books on the Cathars, but had no idea how luxuriant a growth of weirdness one fanciful story had fertilized. As both gardener and writer, I was impressed.
The story, peddled by such works as Holy Blood, Holy Grail, has the village’s parish priest of a century ago, Father Bérenger Saunière, one day stumbling across the “treasure of the Cathars,” a valuable cache smuggled out during the siege of nearby Montsegur in 1244. Aside from heapings of Visigothic gold, it is said, the treasure contained decisive proofs debunking the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. The Cathars tried to pass on this explosive information – and were destroyed by the pope and his allies.
However, the secret lives on in the fevered imagination of the people attracted to Rennes every summer. Babas-cool (French for back-to-the-earth, hippie types), conspiracy theorists, bookish sociopaths, Languedoc nationalists and any number of European equivalents of Deadheads congregate there to unearth further treasure and visit the strange and costly additions that Father Sauniere made to his church and residence – all paid for, it is not so subtly suggested, with money extorted from the Vatican for holding his tongue about the nature of his discovery. My wife and I dutifully examined his devilish statues, mysterious pentagrams and costly silverware, all the while considering tie-dyeing the baby’s diaper, if only to seem like a family hip to the alternative vibe. In the village’s main street, a frighteningly well-stocked bookstore carried everything you might want to know about the interconnections among Cathars, Templars, Freemasons and UFOs.
We climbed to Rennes’s highest point so that our girls could see a vista of the Pyrenees and the Corbières similar to the one I had vaunted in my post-hike euphoria. Sidestepping a french-fry stand decorated with a poster of the Hindu god Ganesh, we wandered onto a terrace looking out over a seemingly limitless panorama. The baby gurgled; her 4-year-old sister gazed into the glare. “What do you see?” I asked her. She looked up at me, eager to please, then ventured, “The Cathars?”
From that day on, I’m convinced, Quéribus, the eye of the Roussillon, has looked down on me more approvingly.