Tired of the angry criticism and growing influence of the Cathars, who rejected the physical world of power and matter and aspired to the purely spiritual, in 1208, the Catholic Church declared their beliefs heretical; so began a bloody crusade that would end over a century later with the execution of Guillaume Belibaste. The persecution ended the golden age of the Languedoc region, and brought the southern principalities under the control of the King of France, but the glory of the inaccessible castles where the martyrs sought refuge remains.
There are few walled towns as picturesque as the medieval town of Carcassonne, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Totally restored in the nineteenth century – complete with charming, though not locally authentic, conic slate roofs – it transports us back to a time when war was the norm. The old town of Carcassonne is protected by a double wall, the area between which would once have been used to hold tournaments and contests, and today is an ideal setting for a quiet stroll. Entering the town through the Narbonne Gate, flanked by twin towers with portcullis and drawbridge, you step into a labyrinth of medieval streets and alleys dotted with cafes, restaurants and shops selling crafts and souvenirs. Essential sights include Comtal castle, which dates from the twelfth century, and the Basilica of St-Nazaire, an architectural gem with glorious stained-glass windows, which houses the Siege Stone illustrating the siege of Carcassonne in 1209.
From Carcassonne a steep road leads to Termes, where Durfort Castle offers another clear example of how Cathar castles dominate the landscape from the most impregnable sites here in the foothills of the Pyrenees. A little farther on lies Villerouge-Termenes, where Belibaste, the last known Cathar parfit, was burnt alive in 1321. The breathtaking road leads along gorges and between rocky outcrops to Peyrepertuse whose castle boasts a superb keep. Within walking distance, is Queribus Castle, one of the last bastions of Cathar resistance, which enjoys a splendid view of both the Pyrenees and the Corbieres. More accessible is the fortress at Puylaurens, where battlements and arrow-proof slit windows are still clearly in evidence.
Continuing westbound takes us to the Puivert stronghold and finally on to Montsegur, one of the most iconic and mysterious Cathar sites. Set high on a hilltop, this is the place where the Cathars were defeated in 1244 and ends the trail of the “Good Christians” as the Cathars called themselves.