We are delighted to have moved on, to a hired Renault chariot that carries Queen Bel, King Harry and Prince Mike to the decadent Château des Ducs de Joyeuse. Harry signs the arrival book, chatting nervously to the man at reception while scribbling on the dotted line granting a small fortune to be debited from his credit card. My son and I quietly roam the foyer. We are awestruck by the rich ambience of the Château and I have to restrain a sudden peasant-like urge to kick off my shoes and hop-scotch about on the 16th century cobbled stones of the enclosed courtyard.
The porter leaves his desk and politely leads us through the Château to the tower room. The sound of his jingling keys mingled with our footsteps scuffing the limestone stairs invoke such haunting echoes of the past that I grip the metal rail even tighter, wondering how one might have felt being led up here against one’s will. The spiral stairs leading to the tower require concentration as I feel each step with my cane but would rather be looking out through the narrow windows as we climb higher and higher.
On the top floor, the porter unlocks the tower room to reveal a spacious medieval suite. Classic furnishings in royal shades of what I perceive to be deep blues and golds, dark velvet curtains drape precisely by long windows, held in place by silky tassels. With inquisitive fingers, I trace over the Fleur-de-Lys tapestry hanging on the rendered stone wall above a tall wooden throne, the perfect size for our impressed young prince. Harry plonks his camera gear down on the writing desk and opens the balcony window to hear the Aude river playing over rocks just below our room. As Queen Bel, I feel my way around the furniture and bounce about on the four-poster bed. Reclining on the lush bedspread, taking up residence among divine soft cushions, I announce to my court, “I’m not leaving!”
With an unexpected air of calm, Harry leaves the pretty view of the river to hold my outstretched hand, places a gentle kiss on my forehead and says, “That’s nice, dear.”
Mystery enshrouds the village of Rennes-le-Château and Mike is lapping up the stories Harry knows about the Cathars and this intriguing southern region of France, where a priest in the early twentieth century sparked rumours about his lavish renovations to his church. Many stories exist to explain the origins of Father Bérenger Saunière’s funds – sparking rumours that he had discovered secret parchments that revealed the location of the Holy Grail. The area overflows with legends of subterranean passageways and hidden gold.
We make our way through Saunière’s vicarage, now a haunting museum, to the raised walkway and marvel at the deep blue haze outlining the foothills of the Pyrenees. With no other tourists about, Harry and I begin to waltz slowly around the Magdala tower, sharing the magic of the Pyrenees with Mike who naturally prefers to look at the spectacular mountain scenery and ignore the silly antics of his folk prancing about the battlements.
10 a.m. the following morning, we are piled back into our car. Harry and Mike discuss the route to Quillan ignoring the mutterings coming from the back seat as the dethroned Queen waves a forlorn farewell to the striking silhouette of the Duke’s castle.
The next two nights we are booked at a B&B in Quillan. Though not a palace, the warm greeting we receive from our hosts is as good as a royal welcome. Sylvie and Roy, a retired English couple, bring out all their fine French porcelain and invite us to a four course meal later that evening. Sylvie chats to us about the lovely town of Quillan as we unpack our belongings. She hovers and kindly prattles about all the sites along these winding roads between Carcassonne and Perpignan.
Quillan was noted for hat making due to the entrepreneurial efforts of Jean Bourrel: a businessman who developed a millinery factory. Our eager trio of adventurers has come to the southern Pyrenees to explore the haunting castle ruins once inhabited by the Cathars. We set off in the black Renault, and while Mike is impressed to be promoted to front navigator status, I feel like a child strapped in the back with very little to contribute to the ‘Top Gear’ team. Mike studies the French road map while Harry meets Sally – our new American GPS Navigator on his mobile phone, and I pull out the digital camera, ready with trigger-happy fingers.
We wind our way through the old stone streets that are almost too narrow for the modern day car and I am thrilled to see the outlines of cottages leaning on one another as we hum past. I am so used to the vast open roads back home in Australia, where everything in the landscape is so far from my view, that catching glimpses of the southern Pyrenees villages thrills me. Every now and then, Harry pulls the car to one side so I can take a closer look at spring flowers growing wild by the roadside or at the base of crumbling stone walls. I squeal with delight and Mike rolls his eyes and says, “There she goes again.”
“Fieldes have eyes and woods have eares”
It is summertime in France yet the temperature today as we approach the Chateau of Montségur is a damp and chilly nine degrees C. Heavy mist enshrouds the mountain where we begin our climb, Harry taking my hand, pulling me slightly behind him, as I tap my way through the thick forest of trees. Our trio is pensive, humbled by the thought that we are tracing the path of the Cathars. Although the ground is muddy, we pick our way steadily up the narrow mountain track as it winds with uneven stone steps through a darkening wood. In silence we climb. My cane feels for tree roots as Harry negotiates the way around large stones protruding from the ground. We pause every few steps to discuss whether we want to continue this increasingly difficult climb. The men-folk express their keenness to see the ruins at the top.
I don’t want to disappoint my mountaineers but wonder if I will see anything at all once we get there. Two determined Taureans and a persistent Leo burn with curiosity and continue the climb.Zigzagging onwards and upwards, we are astounded to find a woman sheltering in a shabby hut waiting to take entrance fees to the ruined castle. She sits warming her hands by a tiny heater under a small table and tells us the ‘good’ news – we have climbed one third the way to the ruins. The terrain will not get any easier, she warns.
Mike is very keen to continue as the climb so far has not been that difficult for his nimble feet. Harry would like to film the view from the top – it is just practical blind me that considers staying behind with the sensible woman in her warm hut. As we begin to argue about our options, a group of American students come tramping down from the top of the mountain. We stand in the path interrogating the group as if they alone can shed light on our dilemma. Is it worth the climb? Some tell us not to bother and others say ‘Don’t listen to them, it’s worth it.’ We stare at each other blankly and the woman in the hut is amused by the unusual activity outside her open window. Then one girl produces her mobile phone to show Harry a few photos of the crumbled pile of ancient stones, which does not sound too appealing to me. To my dismay Harry and Mike are enthusiastic, “We have started the climb, we might as well go on.” The lady in the hut smiles and oddly refuses our entry fees: she either thinks we are mad or knows we won’t get very far.
A thick glaze of grey spreads across the sky so heavily, it seems almost like nightfall at three in the afternoon. We stubbornly tread and slide over rocks, unable to imagine how on earth the soldier monks fought off their attackers on these treacherous slopes. We continue to kid ourselves with every muddy step upwards that we are almost there…until we lift our eyes to the scene in front of us and see the killer path ahead. The spitting rain forms slippery ruts, disguising the way, not a hint of a castle anywhere. We had begun our climb to Montségur with such hope but our trio decides unanimously, we have to give up the quest. In defeated silence, Mike leads the way back down the slippery slope, Harry gingerly guiding my every step in search of solid ground.
We pause at the bottom of the hill, in a meadow lush with wildflowers to chat with the American students. They are shocked to hear the field in front of them was once the site of a horrid day of burning. After the siege of Montségur, hundreds of Cathars went to their death here, rather than denounce their faith.
As we drive away, a sudden burst of afternoon sunlight parts the dense clouds to reveal the misty summit and we are moved to collect sprigs of elderflower and offer a salute to the spirit of the Cathars.
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Highly recommended further reading
a fabulous account by travel writer and photographer, Meg Pier, who has written about her own journey through Cathar Country. Meg invites you through numerous posts to join her on the journey of self-discovery, sharing the transformative power of the world’s cultural traditions, spiritual practices and powerful landscapes.
Next post: Singing among the stones of the Chateau de Queribus, in the Pyrénées-Orientales
© Maribel Steel 2012