On the Cathar trail in France
- Recommended for:
- Activity, Cultural, Budget, Expensive, Mid-range
Retrace the footsteps of the ancient Cathars as you follow the spectacular Chemin des Bonshommes walking route in the heart of southwestern France
Author Kate Mosse must be kicking herself for not having negotiated a deal with the Languedoc tourist board, after her popular novels, Labyrinth and Sepulchre, spawned a surge of British visitors to the region. Mosse’s vivid descriptions of the beautiful Languedoc landscape and retelling of the tragic fate of the Cathars during the Albigensian Crusades have encouraged hordes of Brits to head for southwestern France, and to make a pilgrimage to the former Cathar stronghold of Carcassonne in particular.
Modern-day Carcassonne is separated into the fortified Cité de Carcassonne, which was fully restored in 1853, and a newer, bustling city below it, the ville basse. Unfortunately, the rebuilt Cité has become something of a tourist trap, with the genuine Middle Ages flavour of the place diluted by an excess of naff souvenir shops and overpriced, themed restaurants complete with faux suits of armour.
However, if you can avoid visiting during peak holiday periods and take the time to walk around the citadel’s ramparts (3km), you can still relive a little medieval magic. The top spot to stay in the Cité is the upmarket Hotel de la Cité, nestled between the Château Comtal and Gothic Basilica of Saint-Nazaire, with delightful private gardens – bag a room with a terrace to soak up the fantastic views.
The rife consumerism within the Cité de Carcassonne is ironic when you consider the basic tenets of the dualist religion of Catharism: believing the world to have been created by a deity identified with Satan and associated with material things, Cathars lived ascetic lives, eschewing meat, alcohol and material possessions in an attempt to rid themselves of corruption, enabling them to join the "good" God in heaven.
Catharism flourished in Europe, and southern France in particular, during the 12th century. Its popularity, combined with the fact that Cathar nobles in Languedoc owned vast tracts of highly valuable land, incurred the wrath of the Catholic church, and Pope Innocent III called the Albigensian Crusades against the Cathars in 1208. The ruthless 20-year-long campaign was punctuated with lengthy sieges, which frequently ended in the mass burning at the stake of the defeated yet unrelenting Cathars.
Fleeing persecution, the inner circle of Cathar leaders (referred to as ‘Bonshommes’, literally ‘good men’) embarked on a 220km-long trek from the town of Foix across the Pyrenees to the relative safety of Berga in Spain. Today, the route, which is still known as the Chemin des Bonshommes (path of the good men), continues to link the two medieval towns, dotted with the ruins of castles in which the Cathars took shelter during their flight.
For a genuine insight into Cathar history, you could do no better than to enlist the help of a local guide (I recommend the excellent team at La Rebénne) to follow all or part of the ancient Cathar path. When not hounded by bloodthirsty Crusaders, it’s a relatively unchallenging yet incredibly scenic route that cuts across arid Mediterranean lowlands, high above regimented rows of vines, through tranquil Alpine meadows, dense forests and dramatic gorges and over mountain passes. Completing the entire route with the help of La Rebénne takes 12 days but the company also offers six-day guided walks along sections of the route.
The itineraries involve four to five hours of walking each day (about 16km). While you make your own way to the start of the walks by public transport or taxi, your guide will deliver you back to the cities of Foix, Perpignan or Berga at the end of the trip, where you can return home or continue your travels. My preferred programme, the ‘Sentier Cathar’, starts near Foix in the charming village of Roquefixade, dwarfed by the ruins of a beautiful castle perched on rocks high above it.
Get your Cathar adventure off to a good start, by spending your first night in the simple but comfortable Gîte d’étape de Roquefixade, run by Paul and Brigitte Périlhou. The Périlhous will set you up for your first day of hiking with a warm welcome and delicious food (Madame Périlhou’s homemade apple tart is a triumph).
Once united with your guide in the morning, you strike out for Montségur, one of the most infamous Cathar strongholds. The dramatic fortress was the scene of a gritty 10-month siege after which 200 defeated Bonshommes descended from the lofty castle to be burned alive. The medieval town of Montségur snakes along the contours of the hill below the castle and boasts a small but intriguing museum as well as an excellent restaurant in the family-owned Hotel Costes, which serves exclusively seasonal, locally-sourced, organic products.
From Montségur, the walk continues through forests and across the spectacular Gorges de la Frau to Comus and on from there to the château de Puivert, a popular refuge for poets and troubadours of the Middle Ages. Highlights of the last few days of the walk include tours of the ruins of Peyrepertuse and Queribus, two of Languedoc’s most spectacular castles.
The passion and encyclopaedic local knowledge of La Rebénne’s mountain guides will leave you with a thorough understanding of the people who have lived in and travelled through this stunning countryside. However, your New Best French Friend will ensure that your experience of the Chemin des Bonshommes bears little likeness to the arduous journey of the ‘good men’ themselves: accommodation is organised for you; your luggage is conveyed to the next village each day by vehicle, leaving you to walk unencumbered by heavy bags; your guide prepares (and carries) tasty packed lunches for you; and you never have to worry about losing the way.
Where to stay
Hotel de la Cité in Carcassonne is located in the heart of the old citadel.
Paul and Brigitte Périlhou offer dinner, bed and breakfast at the Gîte d’étape de Roquefixade.
Hotel Costes in Montségur has 10 rooms and an excellent restaurant.
Adventure travel agency La Rébenne organises six-day walks along the Chemin des Bonshommes with or without a guide. English-speaking guides are available. Prices start from c€590 per person including breakfasts, picnic lunches, dinners, accommodation, transport of your baggage and transfers.
More information on On the Cathar trail in France:
- Gabriella LeBreton
- Traveller type:
- Travel Professional
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- First uploaded:
- 8 May 2009
- Last updated:
- 5 years 33 weeks 15 hours 38 min 51 sec ago
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- Trip types:
- Activity, Cultural
- Budget level:
- Budget, Mid-range, Expensive
- Free tags / Keywords:
- walking, history, Cathars