Hiking the route of the Cathars in southwest France with Spanish Steps walking holidays, author Glen Craney discovers the beauty of Minerve. Minerve is one of the “Plus Beaux Villages de France” surrounded by deep gorges, this stony village in the heart of the Languedoc was an old Cathar bastion that was destroyed by Simon de Montfort in 1210 and the village has a column in memory of a stake at which 140 Cathars were burnt at that time. Minerve is also famous for its wine that has been produced here by local winegrowers for centuries.
Tiny Minerve in the Hérault region suffered Montfort’s wrath with particular severity. Its population now dwindled to just over a hundred, this sleepy cluster of sun-baked houses is now recognized by Les Plus Beaux Villages de France as one of the country’s most beautiful locales. Hikers can approach it from a surrounding gorge and stare up at what remains of the tower that held out against the Crusaders for six weeks. A modern monument carved with a dove, a Cathar symbol, overlooks the spot where 140 heretics were burned.
Sobered by Minerve’s fate, we headed south to the Cistercian Abbey of Fontfroide, which served as headquarters for the monastic campaign against the heretics. Both St. Bernard of ClairvauxSt.>Dominic preached in the vineyard-laced plains that surround this 12th century enclave of ochre sandstone. Now privately owned and installed with a winery, Fontfroide held a surprise for us that afternoon: a French television company was filming a documentary about the Inquisition, and the cloisters were filled with tonsured monks and menacing soldiers in bowl-shaped helmets. During shooting breaks, the actors lit cigarettes and mingled with ogling tourists. One of my most jarring memories is of a beady-eyed Inquisitor strolling past me while puffing rings of smoke from his death stick.
The next morning, we ventured out past a looming turret that overlooks the spot where the last known Cathar holy man was sent to the stake. Eight miles later, at the castle of Termes, we emerged from a mud-slicked forest into a sunny pasture guarded by sheep dogs more vicious than Crusader mastiffs. Each segment of the Sentier has its own quirks and character; depending on the weather and the condition of one’s feet, a day’s worth of ground covered can cast one into a state of bliss, or bring understanding why the Cathars deemed the world to be a vale of suffering.
Farther west up the trail, a cylinder of stone called Queribus reaches for the heavens like a space capsule about to be launched. Across the valley stands its sister castle, Peyrepetruse, which tests the visitor with an ascent of slippery footstones diabolically slanted to cast intruders into the abyss. Those tired of craning their necks skyward can find relief a few miles south in the Galamus Gorge a plummeting gash once inhabited by Christian hermits. A single car lane through the rocks with its hairpin turns instructs even the most ardent of atheist car drivers on the purpose of prayer.
As the days of walking hurried by too quickly, each with its own fascinating tale of medieval woe and mystery, we veered northeast to spend two nights shadowed by the tallest peak in the area. Bugarach has long been associated with UFO sightings and underground colonies; the science-fiction writer Jules Verne was said to have based Journey to the Center of the Earth on his experiences here.
Glen Craney is a an award winning author of several books including The Fire and the Light, the story of the Albisengian Crusades, available on Amazon