Cathartic journey through France

By Graeme Barrow

Graeme Barrow traces the Holy Grail through a spectacular corner of southern France and finds awe-inspiring castles perched atop forbidding cliffs.

Queribus Castle - one of the places the Cathars took refuge at during the 13th century - offers spectacular views. Photo / Supplied
Queribus Castle - one of the places the Cathars took refuge at during the 13th century - offers spectacular views. Photo / Supplied

Those who have read The Da Vinci Code will know of the legend of the Holy Grail, as will anyone who has studied European religious history, or even read about the Crusades. Whether myth or mystery, nations and religious movements have at times believed in its existence.

One of the more enduring legends of the Holy Grail, and certainly one more credible than author Dan Brown's blend of fact, fantasy and fiction, has its origins in that large corner of southeastern France known as the Country of the Cathars.

Whether this Grail legend has any basis, the history surrounding it is authentic and undisputed. And it is one of the bloodiest, most tragic and most shameful episodes in Christian history. Tens of thousands of peaceful, innocent and devout people were massacred because of their faith.

The Cathars were Christians, but they were also gnostics - they elevated the spiritual above the physical, believing that matter was evil and that emancipation came through specialised spiritual knowledge.

Their philosophies also included chastity, equality for women, and tolerance and personal liberty - rare in any age, and particularly in the first few centuries AD, when the movement had its genesis.

These beliefs were obviously attractive because the faith gradually spread across Italy, Bosnia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Germany and finally southern France, its most important home.

The Cathars also recognised the value of work, and the acceptance of the principle of interest on money lent. However, they believed that oaths were a sin - a stance that earned the ire of the ruling classes, who considered this dangerous in a society where illiteracy was widespread and almost all business transactions and pledges of allegiance were based on oaths.

In southern France much of the worship by the Cathars took place in the sacred caves of the Sabarthez, which surround the small resort town of Ussat-les-Bains.

It is believed initiation ceremonies were held in these caves. And legend goes that in the most important one, the Cave of Bethlehem was a square niche in the wall in which stood the Holy Grail.

What happened to it?

In March 1244, during the night before one of the more barbaric massacres of the Cathars, their treasures - including the Grail, so it is said - were smuggled out of the castle of Montsegur and hidden. Where? In one of the many limestone caves in the area? In an abandoned, waterlogged mineshaft? Time may one day give us an answer.

What happened was that the growing popularity of Catharism, especially in the villages, alarmed and angered the Roman Catholic hierarchy, which declared the Cathars heretics. Attacks on southern French towns and villages began, the most brutal led by the infamous Simon de Montfort.

By 1215 the Council of Lateran had established the Inquisition which set the tone for how the church dealt with different views. It is believed a million people were massacred during the following 50 years.

The Cathars' refuge at Montsegur held firm until a fateful day when - because of an act of treachery - its almost inaccessible walls were scaled. Singing - because they had no fear of death - 205 Cathars were marched down the mountain and into the large bonfires awaiting them.

By 1255 the two other main castles in which Cathars had taken refuge - Puilaurens and Queribus - had also surrendered. The resistance was effectively over, and by this stage the Inquisition had become a simple landgrab, with the north taking over the south.

These three great castles, and several others, are still in good repair. They are awe-inspiring, in the exact sense of the word.

That they were built at all, on the sites they occupy, is cause for wonder. For this is mountainous country. Forbidding cliffs and crags are everywhere. Great spines of solid rock, many kilometres long, split the valleys, in which are forests, vineyards, golden fields of sunflowers, and small canyons of raw earth the colour of half-ripe tomatoes.

On the crests of the highest mountains, perched on peaks that appear almost inaccessible, are the castles. The views from them are spectacular. From Queribus one can see the slim blue band which is the Mediterranean, 50km away, and the peaks of the Pyrenees. But the winds up here can be strong, disconcerting for those who know vertigo.

The walks/climbs to the top to reach these castles vary in degree of difficulty, although all are manageable and none is too long. There is a small fee for each person. Those keen on walking or hiking can extend the length of the climb by parking their cars further away than they need to.

Smaller castles, chateaux, abbeys and museums abound in Cathar country, for the area is saturated in history. To see it all would be a type of crusade in itself but it is possible to visit the more famous castles, and some of the area's other attractions, in a stay of a week or two.

A vehicle is essential. The most sensible plan is to fly or take the train to the closest point possible, and hire one from there. You can stay in hotels or motels in the larger centres, such as the famous walled city of Carcassonne, or hire a house or villa in one of the many villages or towns in the area, and use that as a base from which to visit new destinations each day.

Some of these villages are charming, some are in decay. But there is always a least one building - usually the local church, or a bridge - of genuine, aesthetic beauty.

And other attractions abound. The scenery is eye-catching, and there are some breathtaking drives through steep gorges. Several large limestone caves are open to visitors, and many have rock drawings thousands of years old.

If you want a break from driving on the right-hand side, a tourist train (inaugurated in 1904) takes day trips through the mountains, close by the castles, and across long bridges so beautiful they are worth seeing in themselves. A restaurant is on board, and drinks are served. A commentator points out the sights and relates the history.

And there is a Route de Vins to drive through and stop and taste the wines of the area. This is France, after all. The wider appellation area is Corbières, although the sub-region around the castles is Fitou.

Fitou wines, almost all red, have become popular. Carignan is the most widely planted variety, supplemented by grenache and syrah. They are reasonably priced, though quality is variable.

One needs to shop around and look around as there are some exciting discoveries to be made.

But that applies to everything in Cathars country. One visit only scratches the most visible of many surfaces.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: There are cheap flights from London, and from Paris, to Montpelier, Nimes, Carcassonne and Perpignan. Flights also go to Toulouse, Avignon and Marseilles, but these cities are a bit further away from the heart of Cathar country. The Eurostar/TGV travels from London and Paris to Avignon, and the TGV from Paris to Montpelier, to Toulouse and to Perpignan. Cars may be hired and/or collected at any of these destinations.

Walking holidays: For walking holidays in Cathar countr see hfholidays.co.uk or inntravel.co.uk.

Where to stay: There are any number of small hotels in the region, and a large number of houses and villas for rent. See pour-les-vacances.com, frenchcountry.co.uk, relaischateaux.com, holiday-cottage-carcassonne.com, ancientquest.com, or le-guide.com.

Further information: See cathares.org (website in French) or uk.franceguide.com.

For books about the Cathars, visit westminsterbookshop.co.uk.

- NZ Herald

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