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On Ancient Borders

Perched high on rock outcroppings—seemingly defying the laws of nature—are the famous Cathar castles situated on the border of the Pyrenees-Orientales and Audes departments of the Languedoc-Roussillon region. Catalan counts began constructing such fortresses in the 11th century to protect their northern boundary. Quéribus is one of the oldest of these border-claiming castles. It sits 730 meters up seemingly growing right out of the rock itself. Besides representing the changing edges between Spanish kingdoms and France, Quéribus is perhaps most famous as the last Cathar castle to fall.

The story of the Cathars is a tragic one, forever clouded in mystery. No written documentation of these medieval heretics remains save testimonies recorded by their persecutors. What’s known for sure is that in fleeing persecution the Cathars sought refuge in these inaccessible frontier fortresses built to withstand the siege of nations. For this reason Quéribus and Peyrepetuse  are important historic landmarks in what is now known as Le Pays Cathare.

So who exactly were the Cathars? From the 11th to 13th centuries an elusive religion took shape and grew to a nice sized following in the Languedoc region of France where it was peaceably tolerated. Rooted in Christianity, the Cathars followed the teachings and mysticism of St. John. Cathar spiritual leaders emulated Christ and his Disciples taking strict oaths of asceticism. They were opposed to all forms of killing, were vegetarians, believed in reincarnation and universal redemption. Some historians make claim that the religion has far Eastern influences while others argue it was a pure form of the earliest Christian faith before power and corruption came into play.

Regardless of its origins, to the Roman Catholic church Catharism was heretical. Together with a French king intent on gaining a firm grip on southern France and a pope enforcing its rule as the only acceptable form of Christianity, a genocidal war was waged on Cathar believers. Known as the Albigensian Crusades (for the town of Albi where Cathar leaders organized), the years 1209 to the 1240′s saw masses of believers tortured and burned at the stake until the Cathars were virtually wiped from history. The last Cathar was burned in 1321.

Look for a bike tour of the Fenouilledes and Cathar Country in 2015 with Real Travel France–we’re currently researching routes, logistics and accommodation.

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