Hiking in France affords plenty of opportunities to get up and close and person with picturesque villages, stunning landscapes and fabulous buildings. Author Glen Craney went walking in Occitania on an escorted “Cathars, Castles and Cassoulet” hiking tour with small groups.on the trail of heretics and saints through the most amazing countryside of Cathar history…
Arriving in Montsegur
A heavy rain on the evening we arrived had turned the switchback path up the mount into a treacherous stream of mud. My fellow hikers decided to postpone their climb until the next morning, but I slogged on up the western face alone. A half-hour later, I stood three thousand feet above the valley and leaned against Montsegur’s ancient wall to catch my breath. The sun broke through dark clouds to welcome me with a hug of warmth. Maybe, I thought, the legends about mystical occurrences here were not so far-fetched.
Thousands come to Montsegur each year to remember the 220 Cathars—including a grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter—who were burned here in 1244 after a brutal nine-month siege. Terraces excavated on its slope reveal where the malnourished refugees huddled in huts while praying for a good death. Surrendering Occitan soldiers were allowed to avoid execution by offering their allegiance to Rome, but several chose to die in the fires with those whose courage they had come to admire. Legend has it that on the night before the burnings, four defenders escaped down the mount with a mysterious treasure.
On our last morning in Occitania, we walked into the reconstructed medieval city of Carcassonne, once heralded as the Paris of the South. I meandered through the old basilica of Sainte-Nazaireand was greeted by a sign announcing that the church had been home to the “Roman Catholic Cult” since 1096. Was this a clumsy English translation, I wondered, or had some unbowed Occitan docent insisted on having the last word?
On a wall of the nave, I found the famous slab that had once been part of Simon de Montfort’s tomb there, before his remains were removed north to more hospitable surroundings. No epitaph marks the spot, so I whispered one of my own, a line from Shakespeare in The Winter’s Tale that best summed up my feelings about this magical land seared by tragedy: “It is a heretic that makes the fire, not she which burns in it.”
Glen Craney is an award winning author of several books including The Fire and the Light: A Novel of the Albigensian Crusade, available from Amazon