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Cathar Country, the Aude and the Ariège, Occitane

I first visited the Aude department in 2006 and found a rural area rich in history with great food, fabulous markets and a friendly, welcoming atmosphere. My hosts brought me to the river at Rennes Les Bains where hot water from deep under the ground pours out through a pipe in the wall.  In the days of their empire, the Romans built baths here; the water is said to be good for your bones. A couple of winters later, I lay in the warm pool under the outlet and watched the snow fall on the trees around me.

How a village in the Aude inspired Stephen Spielberg

Nearby is the hilltop village of Rennes Le Chateau made famous by the novel, ‘The Da Vinci Code’. The elaborate and detailed decorations in the small church, built in the late 19th century, are said to contain coded information about what the priest, Bérenger Saunière, knew about Mary Magdalene and the true nature of her relationship with Jesus. From Rennes, there is a terrific view of the sacred Bugarach and the vast Buddha visible in the shadow of the stones to the south side of the mountain. Stephen Spielberg was reputedly inspired by Bugarach to write ‘Close encounters of a third kind’ while staying nearby!

A few kilometres away there is the colourful Sunday market in Esperaza. It is here that I have picked up many stories about the mysteries of the region, about the hidden swimming holes or caves, about food in season and good restaurants, and about festivals in small towns. Those who study the geometry of the landscape say that Esperaza is in the centre of a hexagram, which is why it has such a special atmosphere.

Cathar castles inspire a move to France

All around are the Cathar castles, Queribus, Puilaurens, the chateau of music at Puivert, Foix and a place that’s close to my heart, Montségur. On my first visit there, I was captivated by the notion that 221 people would choose to die on a pyre rather than submit to the Roman church. I read Stephen O’Shea’s history ‘The Perfect Heresy’ and any other books I could find on the subject in English. Over following visits, I met people on the mountain, in the markets, in cafés and once on a plane who told me stories about Montségur and the Cathars, about who they were, what they believed and how they were connected to the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. As I tried to get my head around notions that turned much of what I had been taught about Christianity upside down, I realised I had to move to France and immerse myself. I sold up in my native Dublin and bought a ruin near Puivert that has since been transformed into a wonderful house with excellent insulation – a real necessity for the cold winters and hot summers. I’ve been here for seven years now, and love it.

The many attractions of Aude

Immersion has taken me right into the landscape.  My visitors join me on point-to-point sections of The Cathar Way, the series of way-marked walks that starts at the Mediterranean, goes through Quillan, Montségur and ends in Foix. We have been to the caves at Niaux, Lombrive, the underground river at Labouiche and the unmarked caves near Ornolac Ussat les Bains. We’ve absorbed the tranquillity of the labyrinth at Nebias and the bamboo park near Pamiers, and been swimming in waterholes near Rennes Les Bains, including the Fountain des Amours with its heart shaped pool. Immersion has also taken me into a lovely way of life here where a photocopied notice stuck to a lamppost announces a fete in a village with live music, food and chat. And the summer night markets in many towns around here bring locals and visitors together to eat at trestle tables down the middle of the street, in a field, by a lake or in the town square. After travelling around the world, this region has the best of everything, and there are still many wonders for me to explore.

by author Catherine de Courcy whose book Montségur is a vivid tale of life in the times of the Cathar, a blend of fact and fiction that takes the reader to the start of 1236… find out more at www.catherinedecourcy.com and read our review of Montségur here.

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