Thousands of 13th century Christians fled in to a valley where they were slaughtered by the Church. Their legacy? A <i>menu gastronomique</i> in their name

A journey through Cathar Country is a sleepwalk over scorched earth. Here, you trample on burned flesh; there, tread vanished battlefields, all now decayed into a rich coal-mine of history, myth and tourism marketing.

A journey through Cathar Country is a sleepwalk over scorched earth. Here, you trample on burned flesh; there, tread vanished battlefields, all now decayed into a rich coal-mine of history, myth and tourism marketing.

This is brought home as I walk the narrow trail above the village of Lastours in the Montagne Noire, just north of Carcassonne, towards the jagged ruins of the four castles that loom over a narrow, desolate valley, like the rotten teeth in some ancient jaw. I am making the climb for the umpteenth time in a decade that has seen this wild site somewhat tidied, with steps and paved paths added here and there and the giddiest bits of the track roped off to justify an entrance charge.

Cypress trees thrust like dark knives out of the rocky hillside and someone has planted thousands of irises. But neither flowers nor tourists can dispel the atmosphere of emptiness that suffuses this and other such spectacular sites scattered across the Languedoc, from Béziers to the Spanish border.

Stephen O'Shea, author of a new and illuminating book on the Cathars, is leading the way to the remains of the fortress of Cabaret, the largest of the ruined castles at Lastours. He pauses for breath to explain that this was one of the few strongholds to hold out against Simon de Montfort, the brilliant and ruthless military leader of the murderous crusade that descended on the region at the beginning of the 13th century. His aim was to wipe out a heresy that was threatening the homogeneity of the Catholic Church.

Many citizens of Carcassonne - heretical and otherwise - fled here when they were expelled from the fallen city in 1209. Infuriated by Cabaret's resistance, de Montfort sent up a gruesome warning. A procession of 100 blinded and mutilated men, unsuccessful defenders of the small town of Bram, shuffled the 30 miles or so to Cabaret. Their leader had been left with one eye so that he could act as a guide. (Interesting to reflect that this de Montfort was the father of the Simon who helped establish parliamentary government in England.)

We straggle on, grateful for our two eyes, the Parisienne among us stubbing her mauve-painted toenails, others manfully heaving bags of food and drink, and trying not to look down.

At the top, the wind rattles through the main precinct of the castle as we hug the walls for shelter to eat our picnic. An elderly pilgrim scrabbles dangerously to the top of the battlements to look at the matchless view south-westwards towards the Pyrenees. "Good thing my wife can't see me," he says grinning. Stephen, looking suitably medieval with his white hair blowing free, continues his stories, pointing out the traces of the old Roman road that de Montfort would have used to approach the place, and the still-operational gold mine that gave the lords of Cabaret their wealth.

It is a treat to have O'Shea with us, because apart from the stones, there is little to see. This kind of tourism requires some foreknowledge and his book is an invaluable key to the "imaginary landscape" vacated by a "faith that has left no trace - no chapel, no monument, no art - of its existence".

Every year a growing number of visitors come to the region in search of the spiritual substratum, a geology of faith and persecution, topped by a residual architecture of doomed chivalry and religious repression. The Languedoc's fine cities and sunbaked villages, their towering cathedrals, abbeys and churches, the magnificent scenery dotted with crumbling castles, were the backdrop to a holocaust that caught lords and ladies, children, men, women, and clerics in its flames. "Kill them all! God will know his own," was the Catholic's theme for the extirpation of heresy.

In fact, the crusade against the Cathars was the only one of the medieval holy wars to be waged against Christians in Europe. It destroyed a loose, feudalist system and courtly civilisation, faint echoes of which chime with 21st century ideals - such as religious and racial tolerance, free love, equality between men and women - and whose indulgence in luxury, entertainment and fashion match our own. In parallel, the heresy that sparked the onslaught speaks of pacifism and individual spiritual redemption.

The arid, windy uplands of the Corbiÿres, the wide Narbonne plain, the rocky Minervois slopes and the sombre heights of the Montagne Noire have changed little in eight centuries. Modern life imposes, of course: there are roads lined by garish hoardings, huge electricity pylons march across the vineyards, and zones industrielles - vast hypermarkets selling everything from DIY gear to farm equipment - sprawl around the towns. But these installations seem makeshift alongside the stone houses, the church and castle towers of the ancient town centres. Most permanent is what is unseen but sensed: beneath the modern accretions, under the garrigue of the empty hillsides, lies a rubble of dispossession.

The hill behind my house in the Corbiÿres is crowned by a square, blind tower of great antiquity, an imposing landmark. Phoenicians, then Romans, used it as a lookout; later it was part of a medieval château-fortress. The stones and broken walls of the village that once surrounded it still protrude through a thick undergrowth, and all about, the pines keep up a ghostly whispering.

In the 11th century, a Jewish community thrived here; by the 13th century the new village of Escales had taken shape in the valley, around an enlarged Romanesque church dedicated to Saint Martin. The Jews? Who knows? They were tolerated and valued in the old Languedoc. In the Church's post-crusade crack-down, not only Cathars but all infidels and dissidents vanished. A French friend climbed to the tower with me recently: we looked out across the plain of vines and pines, and then south-west towards the sea. "It is a very beautiful landscape," she said gravely. "But it is also angoissé." Anguished.

Sites of mass burnings of heretics, including Minerve, Lavaur and Montségur, now commemorate such horrors in colourful brochures and maps. Tales of blindings and mutilations and the exhumation and incineration of corpses (in case their heretical vibes contaminated the ground) are told.

Perhaps because the Cathar heresy was expunged so long ago, it offends no one to dance on these graves. Every few miles elegant brown-and-cream boards cheerfully remind travellers that they are "en Pays Cathare"; everywhere they are urged to follow the trail, buy the postcards, see the son et lumiÿre, get the plastic sword and the T-shirt.

There are Cathar bars and fast-food restaurants, even a Cathar car-hire company. In the magnificent Rotisserie Medieval in Villerouge-Termenes, the village where the last known Cathar was torched, you can eat roast pork in almond-milk sauce off authentic tableware. As Christopher Hope wrote in his recent book, Signs of the Heart - Love and Death in the Languedoc, "It's tough being a heretic: first the authorities burn you alive, then they name the menu gastronomique after you."

Wandering here, musing on who the Cathars were, trying to grasp what they actually believed, one becomes enmeshed in a tangle of negatives. Whatever you thought you knew is almost certain to be uncertain or exploded. Since all but a handful of Cathar documents were destroyed or lost, the assiduous records of the Inquisition are the main source of information about the heretics. "History," says Stephen O'Shea, "tends to be written by the winners."

Thanks to modern scholarship we know that the heretics did not call themselves Cathars, but simply Christians. Cathar priests were known to their followers as Good Men and Good Women, not as Parfaits, or Perfects, which is an Inquisition term meaning a fully-declared "finished" heretic. "Cathar" is not derived from the Greek word for "pure" but from a German term of abuse meaning "cat worshipper". However, the name has stuck and is now used without pejorative innuendo.

Cathars were not followers of Mani or Zoroaster. They saw themselves as the heirs of the Apostles, inheritors of early Christianity before the repressive, masculine and materialist Roman Empire hijacked it. The New Testament was their only holy text. Their famous dualism - the belief that the material world was essentially a creation of evil and that the spiritual world alone was God's - can be traced to Christ's statement: "My kingdom is not of this world", and to the abstractions of St John's Gospel.

They did not build castles: even celebrated châteaux named after them were mostly built later. Only Quéribus, the very last Cathar refuge to fall, and part of the ruins at Lastours are contemporary.

There are monuments to the Church's triumph, of course. O'Shea began his own journey - and his book - in Albi, face to face with the monolithic redbrick cathedral of Sainte Cécile, one of the most forbidding churches on earth. It was built after the crusade and O'Shea describes it as "a glowering anvil hurled from the heavens... a massive bully that dwarfs and dominates its neighbours." It is "a monument to power... the fortress church rose, brick by unforgiving brick, until its larger message became clear: submit or be crushed." The interior is no less fearsome, containing one of the most graphic frescoes of the Last Judgement ever painted.

There are gentler places of pilgrimage. Anne Brenon, one of the most distinguished French Cathar specialists (her work is, alas, not translated into English), directed me away from the châteaux and cathedrals to walk through the rolling countryside of the Lauragais, the rich triangle of farmland between Toulouse, Albi and Carcassonne, to look at the small towns, such as Bram and Fanjeaux, Lombers and Puylaurens, built in the circular, once fortified form of the castrum. These she calls the "real Cathar castles".

Another such is the hilltop village of Saint Felix-en-Lauragais, with its half-timbered houses round a market square. Cathar leaders were said to have met in Saint Felix in 1167 to establish the structure of an independent church, but doubt has been cast on whether such an event ever took place.

In these towns it is nevertheless possible to imagine the peaceable daily life of the heretics. In the days before persecution, one of these dwellings would have been a house run by the Good Women, where folk came for medical advice, as well as teaching. Good Men would have set out from here to walk the land, in black robes with the New Testament attached to their belts, plying trades such as weaving or carpentry, and teaching by example rather than by fear of damnation. In their message, salvation was possible for everyone. At the height of its success, Catharism is believed to have touched about a third of the region's population.

"The danger in Catharism was that it was wildly successful," says O'Shea. Back in Lastours he regales us with one of the happier, more romantic stories of the era, that links Catharism with the art of the troubadour. Etiennette de Pennautier, the most beautiful woman of Languedoc, known as Loba, or She-Wolf, was châtelaine of Cabaret and was wooed by almost every important lord. One of her poet-amours disguised himself as a wolf and ran about the hillside on all fours, hoping the dogs would savage him so that his lady would take pity on him and soothe his wounds.

The crusade brought true savagery down on this fancy, and Loba, like many noble ladies, had to bestow her pity on Cathar refugees rather than lovers. Today, as the wind howls wolfishly through the ruins, her image adds a flash of poignant glamour to the throng of ghosts that reach down to us from a tormented era.


Probably the easiest way to get to the Cathar castles from the UK is to take one of Ryanair's (0541 569569, www.ryanair. com) daily flights from London Stansted to Perpignan and hire a car. If you can travel before the end of the month, return flights are as low as £56.70

'The Perfect Heresy' is published by Profile books at £15