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Cathar Châteaux, sites & ruins in the Aude, Languedoc-Roussillon

Azille, a Cathar passage
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By: Natalie Trent

 

The abundance of Cathar history in the Aude region is amazing, with many castles, sites and ruins strategically placed on mountain tops, cliff sides and in hidden valleys. As we are on the ‘road to penitence’, as they say, it just seems all the more appropriate that you visit at least a few while in the south of France.

 

Let’s start with the ever-popular Carcassonne. This medieval Cité was restored in1853 after having been destroyed several times during history; the 1209 siege being the war against the Cathars, which swept it clean. Being a World Heritage Site you will be astounded by the many towers, turrets, walls within walls, ramparts and the drawbridge of this fairy-tale city, which occupies a hill adjacent to the modern city of Carcassonne.

 

You will find within the narrow maze of twisting cobble-stone streets the Château Comtal, which lays claim to the Cathar heritage siting within the city’s still intact walls. It is truly a place of amazing charm, even though it is clearly a tourists’ stop. Entry is free to visit the interior of the ancient city & the Comtal castle within the walls, and is easily accessible from several large openings & gates with abundant parking at the main entrance.


Châteaux de Lastours, another Cathar site, is a cluster of 4 ruined fortresses upon a hillside in the Black Mountains protected by two deep valleys. In an unusual arrangement of three castle towers, this fortification belonged to the Lords of Cabaret, giving the name to the northernmost tower. One additional smaller tower, Le Regine, was built much later upon the same rocky outcrop nearest Cabaret, sometime after 1260. The southernmost tower, Quertinheux, is slightly isolated and seems to be an advanced lookout of sorts. Surdespine, or Thornflower, is on the highest ground of the four, however the least preserved. All four of the towers can be visited by hiking up from the village of Lastours below, following the footpath from one ruin to the next. Getting there is an easy road from several villages at the base of the Black Mountains like Caunes-Minervois and Carcassonne.


Minerve, a once fortified village perched on two cliffs with one road in, is a curvy 15 minutes into the Black Mountains from several charming villages below like Azille, Homps or Olonzac. This village is a dramatic sight to see with only one ruined finger of masonry left from its original state that sits on a plateau in the limestone gorge. It was the site of a 10-week siege, by Simon de Montfort, who subsequently massacred its 180 Cathar inhabitants in the 13th century. The village was protected by a double curtain wall and overhanging natural ledges above the River Cesse in a naturally strong defensive position.

 

Near the village the river even disappears underground in a large, natural tunnel below, a nice hike to finish the day’s visit. Access to the village is from a walking path down from the modern parking lot, or by walking across a high bridge that spans from the village to one side of the gorge. Arriving at Minerve is most impressive from the south end, near the village of La Caunette.

 

Chateau d’Agel, a restored medieval castle, now privately owned, is in the heart of the Languedoc region with a history going back to before the Cathar period. The castle is nestled at the foot of the Black Mountains and the oldest part dates from the 12th century. The château is one of several fortified castles built by vassals of the Count of Toulouse and was used to resist the Cathar crusaders a century later. The château consists of a main building, four towers and a dovecote. It has extensive terraced gardens covering 2 hectares with views over the Cesse valley and the Pech mountain. The restored castle is available to hire for private events and has even been used as a film location. It is in the very small village of Agel and can be reached by several nearby towns like Narbonne, Argeliers or Bize-Minervois.