The Cathars held beliefs that were at odds with those of the Catholic church. In a nutshell, they are condensed to these:
- They opposed gross materialism, especially as practiced by the church of the time.
- They doubted the divinity of Jesus.
- God ruled in heaven and the devil controlled the earth.
In the 12th century it was a crime to disagree with Catholic theology and a capital crime if the disagreement was repeated.
Cathars appeared throughout Europe, but it was in the Languedoc that they flourished, becoming the majority religion in many places. After a series of failed attempts to convert them by preaching and debating, Pope Innocent III called a full scale crusade against them. -- Cathar Castles
And the cathars took to hilltop castles and fortified towns. Alas, they and their protectors were defeated, the Cathars burned alive by the hundreds--and their castles fell to the victors.
Today they're still called the "Cathar Castles" in the Languedoc, and are a major tourist attraction.
Map of Recommended and Most accessible Cathar Castles
The Easiest Cathar Castles to get to
Chateau d'Arques--The parking lot is close to the Chateau, only a small elevation change gets you to the gate. This is one of the few structures to exist on flat land. A plane tree shaded drive takes you from the Chateau to the city of Arques, where you'll find a small museum which is free with your ticket to the chateau. You can buy local honey at the entrance.
Arques is first mentioned in a document written in 1011. Construction of the Castle's donjon (the main tower) was started in 1280. It has four floors, accessed through spiral staircases, with good views of the surrounding countryside.
Chateau de Puivert--This chateau is on a hill, but you can drive most of the way up. It has a tower with four stories you can visit. But the interesting part of Puivert is in the stone carvings in the chapel revealing peaple playing medieval musical instruments. These eight instruments have been replicated and at the Museum Quercorb-Puivert (French) you can see them and hear them being played through a multimedia display (there is a sample of the music on the page referenced above). In the village of Puivert there is also a shop on the river where you can buy hand-carved marrionettes.
The Most Evocative Cathar Castles
Chateau de Peyrepertuse a DuilhacIf you see only one remote Cathar castle, I'd make it Peyrpertuse. You can drive most of the way up to its limestone outcrop, but the trail to get to the castle from the parking area, on worn limestone footing, takes you around the back of the castle and undergoes several elevation changes. They won't let you use the path in a storm. It's treacherous when wet. Still, any picture you take of this castle or the surrounding countryside will be memorable.
You can see Peyrepertuse easily in one day along with nearby Chateau de Queribus in Cucugnan and Chateau de Puilaurens in Lapradelle. The drive between them is quite nice. A lunch stop in Cucugnan is recommended. We had a very nice lunch at Auberge de Vigneron (A highly rated Logis de France Hotel Restaurant). They have a terrace overlooking the Chateau de Queribus. You might consider the hotel a hub for your Cathar castle exploration.
Château Comtal de Carcassonne
Even though La Cite, the walled medieval castle of Carcassonne is jammed with tourists these days, especially in the summer, the Gallo-Roman architecture and medieval walled city is a compelling place to visit or to make into a hub for visiting the castles above--especially if you'd rather stay in a big city.
Although the outer curtain wall of the cité is French, and the whole site has been substantially restored, the Château Comptal has a strong claim to be called a "Cathar Castle". When the Catholic Crusader army arrived in 1209 they first attacked Raymond-Roger Trencaval's castrum at Bèziers and then moven on to his main stronghold at Carcassonne. -- Cathar Castles of the Languedoc
Even when viewed from as far as the neighboring autoroute, La Cite stands out like a fantastic mirage in the Aude countryside.
Carcassonne is easily reached by train, but you'll need a car to visit the smaller Cathar Country chateaux.
If you'd like to stay in the heart of La Cité, the Best Western Plus Le Donjon - Cœur de La Cité Médiévale could work quite well for you.
The Aude Outside the Cathar Castles
If you are interested in well-preserved medieval cities, Both Alet le Bains and the village of Mirepoix (just outside the Aude region) have fine medieval centers, most notably in their central piazzas. Mirepoix hosts a huge market on Monday morning.
Limoux is known for it's Blanquette de Limoux sparkling wine, and you can taste it at tasting rooms right in town. St. Hilaire and Lagrasse have fine abbeyes to visit, and you'll be traveling through the famous corbieres wine region. To get a good idea of how people lived in the time of the nearby domination of the Puivert castle, visit the Musee du Quercorb - Puivert in the village of Puivert . They have some interesting exhibits of the mode of living at the time. There is also an exhibit of the musical instruments that were built by master craftsmen from the sculptures found at Puivert castle. There is also a marionette shop in town by the river; you can buy hand crafted puppets there.
Castelnaudary, the capital of the regional classic bean dish called Cassoulet, sits beside the Canal du Midi, one of the major works of the 17th century. You can stroll by barge, on foot or by bike. There is also a Route du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary.
Have fun exploring Cathar Country. There are many more castles and ruins to discover in the Aude if you'd like to stay a while.