France: On the trail of the Cathars

Runner-up <i>The Independent/Princess Cruises</i> Call of the Wild travel-writing competition
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We could have died. Or, worse, become the shamed beneficiaries of a midnight mountain rescue... not in Nepal or the Andes, but in a pleasant rural nowhere, two hours inland from the Andalusian costas. It was sunny and clear; the sort of Spanish November day you get in an English June. I had been looking forward to it.

Good Friday in the département of Ariège in south-west France, with sleet hurled from the south where the peaks of the Col de Chioula and Pradel stood newly whitened by snow.

My face was burning, my breath locked in my throat as I reached a narrow stony track that should, according to my map, take me down between ancient terraced fields to the medieval village of Montaillou. I was neither sheep nor cow from some long-ago transhumance, but a total stranger to this part of France, drawn by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's haunting account of this last of the Cathar strongholds during the Albigensian Crusade.

As I slipped and struggled to stand, the icy needles recalled for me Tennyson's words on "the little lacerations of the spirit". Except that this was a sustainable laceration of the flesh that, to the indigenous Cathars, later interrogated by the zealous Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Pamiers, represents evil. At one with the material world resulting from The Fall.

I slithered to the end of the track and headed across the pitted road into the cemetery surrounding the Romanesque chapel of the Virgin Mary, believed to be linked to an ancient cult based on nearby rocks. Here, framed photographs showing bleached white faces, plastic flowers and other souvenirs of the disparus lay strewn by the gale and, if you believe as I that the departing soul leaves a palpable energy behind, then surely they are here to discourage the interloper.

Nor must you enter this place at night, for it is rumoured that if the dead who process to the water in the rock at Escalade see you, they will take you with them...

When finally the storm had eased and the sky over the Col des Sept-Frères had lightened, I followed the main street past newer dwellings and the featureless parish church, up towards the ruined castle. En route lay traces of the "ostal" where the 14th-century inhabitants lived over their animals, close to the castle's protection and each other, bartering and sharing in a united front against all comers.

However, treachery from within led to the gloomy towers of Carcassonne and Pamiers, the wearing of yellow stars, and, for some, the devouring fire, including Arnaud Gelis, mouthpiece for the dead who believed man possessed not only a soul but a spirit that leaves and returns to the body during dreaming. The soul, however, in metempsychosis, will inhabit other bodies, be they animal or human, and some will return full circle back to Heaven.

This unique yet unsettling place is not for the physically or spiritually faint-hearted, and I felt that many homeless souls like me abounded, still searching...

As darkness fell and the wind resumed its influence, it was with some relief that I left the village and made my way north towards Camurac for a meal and bed.

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