Steeped in history, romance, toil and strife, the mediaeval bastions scattered around our local area have become known as the Cathar Castles, although many were actually built before the Cathar era.
Pope Innocent III condemned the Cathars as heretics in 1208 and persuaded the French king to mount the first of many “Albigensian” crusades, named after Albi, a Cathar stronghold. Predatory northern nobles, led for a decade by the notoriously cruel Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, descended on the area, pillaging towns, massacring Cathar and Catholic civilians alike, and seizing the lands of local counts. The effect of this brutality was to further unite the Cathars and their Catholic neighbours in southern solidarity against the barbarous north. Though military defeat became inevitable with the capitulation of Toulouse in 1229 and the fall of Montségur in 1244, it took the informers and torturers of the Holy Inquisition (formed especially for the purpose) another 180 years to snuff out the flame of Catharism completely.
Explore the Cathar Castles: Our Local Recommendations
The Cathar Castles are spread across the Languedoc, and most of them are within an hour or two’s drive of us. Here’s some of our recommendations if you are keen to get stuck in. We recommend a good pair of shoes and plenty of energy to explore these fully!
Chateaux de Lastours (pronounced lass-tour) is the closest fortress to Domaine de Palatz, and a perfect place to start your exploration, seeing as it is actually four cathar castles in one. Situated just above the village of Lastours (20 mins away by car) the three oldest fortifications of Cabaret, Quertinheux and Surdespine belonged to the Lords of Cabaret, who held it in fief from the Trencavels. Chateaux de Lastours received a number of troubadours, and during the Cathar Crusade was one of the most ardent centres of resistance to the French, successfully resisting siege many times. More information.
A few kilometres west of Lastours and still within easy drive of Domaine de Palatz is another vestige of Cathar history in the heart of the Montagne Noire. The terraced levels of Saissac castle look out over an exceptional view that reach across the plains to the far Pyrenees. Two rooms have been restored here to house Saissac’s treasure hoard of coins dating back to the 13th century. More information.
The westernmost of the Cathar Castles, Puilaurens perches atop a 700m hill, its fine crenelated walls sprouting organically from the rock outcrops. It sheltered many Cathars up to 1256, when Chabert de Barbera, the region’s de facto ruler, was captured and forced to hand over this citadel and Quéribus further east to secure his release. The castle remained strategically important – being close to the Spanish border – until 1659, when France annexed Roussillon and the frontier was pushed south. Highlights of a visit are the west donjon and southeast postern gate, with great views from the curtain wall, and the Tour de la Dame Blanche, with its rib-vaulted ceiling. More information.
The history of Quéribus is similar to that of Puilaurens, and was the last of the Cathar Castles to fall into the hands of the crusaders. Succesfully resisting siege, its role as a Cathar sanctuary ended with the capture of the luckless Chabert, though the garrison escaped to Spain. Spectacularly situated above the Grau de Maury pass, the castle balances on a storm-battered rock pinnacle above sheer cliffs. Because of the cramped topography, the space within the walls is stepped in terraces, linked by a stairway and dominated by the polygonal keep. The high point, without a doubt, is the “Salle du Pilier”, whose vaulted ceiling is supported by a graceful pillar sprouting a canopy of intersecting ribs. A spiral staircase leads to the roof terrace and fantastic views in every direction. More information.
The Château de Peyrepertuse is further to travel from Domaine de Palatz but a must-see for all castle enthusiasts – not only for the unbeatable site and stunning views, but also because it is particularly well preserved. The castle was acquired by treaty with the Kingdom of Aragón in 1258, and most of the existing fortifications were built afterwards, staying in use until 1789. The 3.5-km access road starts in Duilhac village or from Rouffiac des Corbières village to the north, and is a lengthy climb to the top. Either way, the effort is amply rewarded, for Peyrepertuse is among the most awe-inspiring castles anywhere, draped the length of a jagged rock-spine with sheer drops at most points. Access is banned during fierce summer thunderstorms, when (as at Quéribus) the ridge makes an ideal lightning target. More information.
Chateau de Termes (pronounced a couple of different ways) was a powerful castle, built on a promontory and defended on three sides by deep ravines. It was also the site of the longest castle siege over eight hundred years ago. Termes was held by Ramon (Raymond) de Termes, and finally fell to Simon de Montfort after being invested from August to November 1210, the hardest siege of the first period of the Albigensian Crusade. The ruins of the castle cover an area of 16 000m², and there is a good deal of information on the siege which is relayed to visitors via an introductory film and exhibition on-site. More information.