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In the early days of Christianity, there were several other Christian religions outside of the dominant Catholic Church. Languedoc had the Cathares (from the Greek word catharos, meaning "pure"), who preached a fundamental distinction between the principles of Good and Evil. While the Cathares accounted for no more than ten percent of the population, they were seen as a serious threat by the politically powerful Catholic Church. After attempts to reconcile the two religions failed for the last time in 1165 AD, Pope Innocent III initiated the Albigensian Crusades against the Cathares. Under the notoriously cruel Simon de Montfort, the Crusaders battled, sieged, starved, and burned the Cathares out of their castles and fortresses with the motto of "Kill them all... God will recognize his own." Cities like Carcassonne were deprived of water and their people overcome with dysentery. The Cathares were completely wiped out, and Languedoc ultimately became part of France in 1271 AD.
While the walled city of Carcassonne has been completely restored today, there are numerous other castles throughout the Pyrenees foothills that are now only skeletons of their past glory. On January 29th, after stopping to pick up a map of the area (and some begged-for plastic swords for the boys), we drove two hours south of Carcassonne to explore some of the ruins.
Our first destination was Quéribus, a lone sentinel of a castle perched unbelievably high atop a stone needle at 729 metres above the town of Cucugnan. First built in the 11th and 12th centuries, it was the last Cathare castle to fall during the Albigensian Crusades. Afterwards, it was transformed into a Royal fortress to protect the border between France and Aragon. When the border was moved further south into the High Pyrenees, Quéribus lost its strategic importance.
After a long drive up a windy mountainous road and yet another lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we walked up the steep hiking path and stone steps to explore Quéribus (while the ticket office was closed for the off-season, fortunately the castle itself was still open). With steep and vertiginous edges all around, Gail made it up the stone steps to the castle but was unable to proceed much farther into the castle. The men went on ahead, where they saw incredible panoramas of the entire Roussillon Valley in every direction.
Cameron climbing the ruins of Quéribus
A further half-hour drive brought us to the even more magnificent Peyrepertuse Castle, situated at 700 metres above the village of Duilhac. (Quéribus and Peyrepertuse can just barely be seen from each other.) While Quéribus had sat like a bump precariously balanced atop a finger of rock, Peyrepertuse seems to be growing out of the entire length of the mountain ridge. It actually consists of two castles: the lower Feudal castle built in the 11th century, and the upper Royal castle built in the 13th century.
Again, the ticket office was closed but the castle itself was open. We enjoyed a much more graceful hike to the entrance, along a path that meandered through lush green forests. Once inside, Gail was again only able to make it into the lower castle, as the edges here were even more sheer than those at Quéribus. Indeed, while climbing around near the steep and unrailed drop-offs of the upper castle, Russell had to keep the boys in check constantly. Cameron and Joss, on the other hand, hopped about from perch to perch while sword fighting with each other the entire time. The views were absolutely incredible.
Joss defending the gardens of Peyrepertuse
(As we wandered about, we found ourselves speculating about the whims of historical events. What if the Catholic Church had not destroyed the Cathares? Perhaps Christian alternatives to Catholicism would have survived through the Dark Ages. Martin Luther may never have nailed his thesis to the Church door and founded Protestantism. Millions of Europeans would not have emigrated across the Atlantic to escape religious persecution, and the United States would still be ruled by Amerinds. There would have been no American Revolution, and thus no French Revolution. We would be visiting France today under the rule of King Louis the Fortieth. It is fascinating to speculate.)
We spent several hours at each castle, and with daylight running short we headed back to Carcassonne, driving through the stunning Gorges de Galamus along the way (yet more vertigo for Gail, who preferred to drive rather than have no control as a passenger). As we returned to Carcassonne by the light of the full moon, we asked the boys which they preferred: the ruins of Quéribus and Peyrepertuse, or the restoration of Carcassonne? Cameron answered easily: he very much preferred "real history." Carcassonne, he said, was "too much like Disneyland."
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