France: High on the hill is a lonely castle

By Reidun Eggen

Reidun Eggen pedals a quiet path through a beautiful, historic corner of Languedoc.

The hilltop fortress of Carcassonne. Photo / Thinkstock
The hilltop fortress of Carcassonne. Photo / Thinkstock

Cathar castles and Corbières wine draw discerning travellers to the Languedoc region of southern France. Once there, what better way to discover the area's history and rugged beauty than by bicycle? Along the way you will find the famous Canal du Midi, walled medieval villages - including the impressive fortress of Carcassonne - and the remains of once-powerful Benedictine abbeys. There are sleepy little towns, 9th-century country churches and, of course, the remote, mountain-top Cathar castles for which the area is best known.

If you are interested in cycling but not in travelling with a group, Randonnee Tours offers a self-guided tour through the Corbières region and the valley of the Aude River with their local partner Tim Brosnahan, of Domaine de Garric.

We are big fans of self-guided cycling and found the tour a good introduction to this part of the Languedoc. Randonnee provides a good itinerary and map and, best of all, someone else to move the luggage to the next hotel.

Part of the route is a little hilly, so you should be in moderate shape. Most of it is along quiet country roads with little traffic.

This corner of the Languedoc is off the beaten track and is still relatively undiscovered by the tourist hordes - come here to escape the crowds and traffic of Provence. But it hasn't always been a quiet backwater.

An ancient region with traces of habitation dating back about 400,000 years, it has been hotly contested over the centuries - as the numerous mountaintop fortresses and walled towns will attest.

The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths and Moors were here before the Franks took control in the 8th century. Recent evidence suggests the outcrop of Peyrepertuse has been occupied since Roman times and the original Roman spa at Alets-les-Bains is still in operation. You will cycle along what were the main medieval highways to Spain.

From 1084 to 1209, Languedoc (then called Occitania) prospered from the booming cloth industry. The Occitan language (now referred to as Provencal) was the cultural voice of southern France. Lyric poetry originated with its troubadours, whose songs greatly influenced the chivalry of the knights of the Crusades.

Unlike most of medieval Europe, the Occitan tolerated different religions and the region became a haven for the Cathars, a sect deemed heretical by the Roman church.

In Italy and northern France, the Cathars were massacred and burned. They opposed the ostentation and oppressive taxation of the church and sought a return to a simpler and more virtuous faith.

In 1209, the Pope joined forces with the King of France and declared a Crusade against the Cathars. Simon de Montfort was its able and ruthless leader.

De Montfort realised the significance of the great medieval fortress of Carcassonne and made it one of his first stops. It and other Cathar strongholds fell. Cathars who survived the mass exterminations were ruthlessly hunted down by the new Inquisition.

Many Cathars fled to take refuge in the inaccessible fortresses along the border with Aragon (now Spain). The Chateau de Queribus was the last Cathar stronghold to fall, in 1255, and the annexation of the Languedoc to France was complete.

Returning to the present and our bikes, our first stop is a two-night stay at a hotel just outside the main Narbonne gate of the romantically restored fortress of Carcassonne, the largest in Europe.

Situated where the Aude River turns toward the Mediterranean, Carcassonne has been a significant crossroads of France since prehistoric times.

We cross the drawbridge and suddenly we are in the Middle Ages as we wander the narrow cobbled streets and turreted castle walls of the "Cite," to differentiate it from the new, Lower Town.

We have a choice of day trips into the countryside and along the famous Canal du Midi, but we decide to spend time exploring the Cite, with its Chateau de Comtal and the Basilique St-Nazaire. The cathedral's stained glass windows are considered the most impressive in southern France.

In the evening, we walk out the Porte d'Aude down to the Vieux Pont on the Aude River for a wonderful view of the Cite's illuminated walls and many turrets.

At dinner we have to try the local specialty, cassoulet, in one of Carcassonne's many restaurants. This thick, sumptuous stew of beans, sausage, pork, mutton and preserved goose originated in Roman times.

The next day, we start out with a flat, pleasant ride along the towpath of the Canal du Midi, watching the parade of passing pleasure boats. Then we turn south, away from the canal, to Lagrasse, the sleepy little medieval town where we spend the next two days.

We arrive in time to wander over the 12th-century arched bridge to the Benedictine abbey of Sainte-Marie l'Orbieu, founded in 799. One of the many powerful abbeys of this region in the Middle Ages, the onset of the Black Plague and damage sustained during the Wars of Religion led to its demise.

With a day to explore, it is a tough decision between a shorter trip out into the vineyards, including Château Pech Latt, one of the best in the Corbières, or a longer route to the Cathar castle of Termes.

Our choice of Termes leads us on a wonderfully scenic route beside the Orbieu River, past many vineyards and through a few sleepy little villages into one of the most remote corners of the Corbières.

The tiny 10th-century church of St Martin des Puits still sits peacefully beside a shady bend in the road (ask for the key at the mayor's house). The remains of Chateau Dufort jut into the sky near a remote farm, then the final steep ascent rewards us with the mountain village of Termes, with its castle ruins, on a crag high above the town.

Care is needed when exploring the remains of all the Cathar castles. Wear good, sturdy hiking shoes and take care especially in the high winds that are often found on these exposed mountain top sites.

Still the most inaccessible and impressive, Peyrepertuse is at one point only a few metres across. The French do not seem to be overly concerned with things such as safety rails and fences.

The next day we head to the village of Cucugnan, which is between two of the most famous Cathar castles, Queribus and Peyrepertuse. The old walled town of Villerouge-Termenes is a must. Owned by the bishops of Narbonne, the castle escaped serious damage in the Wars of Religion. Much of it has been restored and it has some good historical audiovisual exhibitions.

We jump at the opportunity to try a traditional medieval meal at the restaurant in the courtyard. It is a fun and delicious experience, but the different types of wine and several courses do not leave us in very good condition for cycling; a nap and a rest by the riverside are appreciated before we attempt to peddle on to Cucugnan.

This quaint hilltop village is our base for the next couple of days while we explore the spectacular Gorge de Galamus and the remains of the fortresses of Queribus and Peyrepertuse.

Then, with the ruins of Peyrepertuse watching over us, we cycle through the valley that takes us out of the Corbières into the much greener region of the Aude River. We cycle up and over hills and valleys, past more vineyards and villages to Alets-les-Bains.

As one of the nicest medieval towns in the Languedoc, it is a good place to spend our last night. The walled town has many interesting narrow streets and old houses. Still a thriving spa which has been in operation since Roman times, it was once prominent as a bishop's seat.

Our hotel on the banks of the River Aude next to the ruins of the abbey was once the Bishop's palace and is set in a large garden with huge, century-old cypress and linden trees.

The Languedoc region, especially the poorer southern part, had a reputation as a gastronomic desert, but that is certainly changing as tourism increases. We ate exceptionally well.

Likewise, Corbières vintners are becoming increasingly well known for their wines and the many opportunities for wine-tasting along the route offer a pleasant surprise in quality and prices.

How often you are able to stop and taste will probably depend on your fortitude and how ambitious you have been in selecting your routes.

- NZ Herald

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