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Hiking in France | On the trail of heretics and saints

hiking in france

In France’s Cathar country, hikers track a lost medieval faith along castle ruins where the Inquisition’s fires once raged, author Glen Craney takes a hike in the beautiful Languedoc  Roussillon region of France and discovers picturesque villages, mysterious stories and the beauty of Occitania…

Solvitur ambulando, St. Augustine advised the perplexed. It is solved by walking.

Maybe so, but the saint’s confidence in the strolling cure surely would have been tested had he blistered his soles on the chalky causses and shrouded peaks of southwestern France. In the alluring region once known as Occitania, ramblers who love stepping back into time are finding a rewarding alternative to Spain’s popular Camino to Santiago de Compostela. Yet many return from their treks across this romantic land of troubadours and the Holy Grail still troubled by the question that drew them in the first place: Why, in the 13th century, did the Roman Catholic Church wage a war of extermination there against a sect of pacifist Christians?

hiking in france

Hoping to benefit from the modern revival of medieval pilgrimages, French tourism officials now encourage hikers to come quest for the answers to this question and the many others that swirl around a vanished group of ascetic vegetarians called Cathars, or the Pure Ones. Condemned as heretics, the Cathars rejected the authority of Rome and believed in reincarnation instead of Hell. They saw the world as a battleground between a benevolent God of Light and an evil Demiurge who conspired with the papacy to imprison souls in flesh.

When the Counts of Toulouse and other Occitan nobles tried to protect these religious dissidents from annihilation, the Church and the kings of France hammered them with a brutal war of terror and stole their domains during the infamous Albigensian Crusade. Today, the fiercely independent descendents of these Occitan martyrs remain proud of their rebellious heritage. Some even keep the memory of the persecution alive by reading on New Year’s Eve from the papal bull that condemned their forefathers to be hunted like wolves.

Backpackers who now hoof it up in increasing numbers to the vertiginous Cathar ruins should be grateful at least that they don’t have to skulk through dangerous forests at night as did starving fugitives eight hundred years ago. Instead, they can enjoy the well-marked Cathar Sentier (“Way”), a maintained artery of trails that stretches 150 miles from the Mediterranean coast to the castle-crowned city of Foix.

Legendary Camino guide Judy Colaneri invited me to help lead an incursion into the land of heresy for her hiking-tour company, Spanish Steps. I had last traveled to Occitania twelve years ago to research my historical novel, The Fire and the Light, about Esclarmonde de Foix, the Cathar Joan of Arc. I approached the homecoming with excitement and not a little trepidation, worrying needlessly, as it turned out, that I’d find the Pays Cathare (Cathar Country) changed for the worse by the passage of time and the increase in tourism.

Our twelve-day walking itinerary combined historical sites with the most scenic of the Sentier trails (marked on stones and trees by red and blue stripes) and the more ubiquitous GR (“grande randonnée”) trails. Many hikers avoid straying from the Sentier to take advantage of the gites and auberges that have sprung up along the way. Colaneri, however, lodges her clients for two or three nights at a time in stunning villages off the beaten path, then transports them by van to the start of the next day’s hike to avoid the constant hassle of repacking. And rather than be hamstrung by unyielding French restaurants hours, Colaneri, an accomplished chef in Aspen during the hiking off-season, serves up delicious picnic lunches on the trails with produce purchased fresh from local markets.

hiking in france

Our group of veteran hikers included three American couples, a lady from Toronto, and a Catholic priest stationed in Mexico. We met up near the Mediterranean coast in Béziers, a city that witnessed the start of the Cathar wars with one of Christianity’s darkest hours. In 1209, a papal army from the north demanded that the local Catholics surrender their heretic neighbors, but the tolerance-loving Biterrois refused. Enraged, the invaders stormed the walls in an orgy of slaughter that historian Stephen O’Shea called “the Guernica of the Middle Ages,” a comparison to the German Luftwaffe bombing of the Basque town in 1937. Ordered to burn the city’s cathedral with its thousands of refugees, even the bloodthirsty Crusaders hesitated, aware that more Catholic than heretic residents cowered inside. Unmoved, the papal legate reportedly insisted, “Kill them all. God will know His own.”

Today, a few stones from the original foundations that witnessed these horrors can be seen in the reconstructed cathedral of Sainte Nazaire. Modern Béziers remains a bit scruffy and singed on the edges, giving the impression of having never fully recovered from Rome’s treachery. So, anxious to get into the countryside, we strapped on our trekking poles and headed west, where the trail of the Crusaders became even more scorched.

Old Occitania is dotted with villages ravaged by Simon de Montfort, the Catholic knight most devoted to killing in God’s honor. Modern inhabitants of the Languedoc still curse the memory of this ruthless commander who gouged out the eyes of prisoners and threw women into wells. A fellow novelist told me she once made the mistake of remarking to a taxi driver in Carcassonne that her favorite historical character was the son of Montfort, Simon IV, who became a champion of England’s Parliament. The driver was so indignant that he braked to a stop and ordered the woman to get out.

On to Minerve
On to Foix Castle
On to Montsegur

Glen CraneyGlen Craney is the award winning author of several books including The Fire and the Light: A Novel of the Albigensian Crusade, available on Amazon

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