On a hiking tour of Cathar country in France with Spanish Steps tours, Glen Craney reaches Foix Castle which sits on top of an impressive rock and dominates the entire town of Foix. In the past access to the high Ariège river valley was controlled from here and the chateau watched over the countryside, protected by unbreachable walls.
The placement of the castle was strategically well chosen because, like the hundred or so fortress châteaux in Ariège (most in ruins today), it dates from an era of great insecurity, banditry and territorial rivalries. In addition it had to be a commanding presence in the passage through the Pyreneen chain in order to counter invasions.
There must be something in the water of the many underground streams around Bugarach. Another local village, a mere eight-mile jaunt through grazing cattle and kissing gates, is not about to relinquish its title as conspiracy capital of the world. Rennes le Chateau became a tourist magnet with the exploding popularity of the Da Vinci Code. When a local 19th century parish priest began throwing large sums of money around, the Church attributed his sudden wealth to the unlawful sale of masses. But others suspect the priest found something of incalculable value—perhaps the Ark of the Covenant, a Cathar treasure, buried Visigoth gold, or even the remains of Mary Magdalene.
A wet June snow reminded us that we were gaining altitude as we trudged northwest toward Tarascon-sur-Ariege and the white peaks of the Pyrenees. Our next destination was Niaux cave of prehistoric fame, one of the many natural underground cathedrals in the Ariege that gave refuge to heretics. Local historians have claimed that ancient hermetic teachings, hinted at in the Holy Grail legends, were preserved by the Cathars in these haunting caverns.
“From the dawn of time, early humans were drawn to Occitania for its powerful natural energies,” explained local travel operator Anneke Koremans. “The entire region is sacred.”
With our journey nearing its end, we circled back down the Ariege valley toward the ruins of Montsegur castle, the ultimate goal for many pilgrims to Occitania. On this fortified peak that became the Cathar Masada, the heretics maintained a seminary and doled out blessings and what donations of food could be spared. Hundreds of believers came here to die, carried to the top by mules at the night to avoid capture. Only a few skeletons have been found on the mount, leading some to speculate that an undiscovered necropolis may lie deep within its bowels.
Glen Craney is an award winnning author of several books including The Fire and the Light: A Novel of the Albigensian Crusade, available from Amazon