Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Les Châteaux de Lastours: A Cathar Hike

The Cathars and their annihilation haunted me as we hiked up the steep, rocky spur above the village of Lastours. The bloodthirsty religious fervor of the Crusaders that drove these believers in a Christianity that differed from that of Rome is unthinkable. But of course, such fanaticism still exists in many corners of today’s world. How uncomplicated it must be to live your life with a set-in-stone, black and white worldview. It’s always seemed to me that those who live in a moral world of blacks and whites, with no grey areas or ambiguities in between, must find it easy to go through life, not questioning what is right and what is wrong – they simply follow an established dogma. But was it really what the Cathars believed that incited Rome to launch a crusade? More likely it was the loss of power and revenue and the valuable land owned by the Cathars that prompted Rome to destroy them. Black and white terrifies me. I much prefer gray.

The Châteaux de Lastours are actually four castles perched high in the foothills of the Montagne Noire, isolated by the deep surrounding valleys. Cabaret, Surdespine and la Tour Régine stand in line on a crest, while Quertinheux is on a slightly lower pinnacle nearby. The castles and the surrounding villages in the valley welcomed Cathars during the Albigensian crusade and thus were a target of the brutal Crusader leader, Simon de Montfort. I find it hard to say or even think his name without adding the epithet, “that sadistic bastard.”

It took us about a half hour to hike up the switchbacks and through an eerie cave to the chateaux. We spent a good hour scrambling from one rampart to the next and exploring the crumbling windows and towers of each castle. It was windy with just a bit of drizzle and the gloomy weather helped us imagine what life was like there long ago: difficult, cold, and under constant threat. The precipitous hike down may have been more difficult than the ascent and we were happy to have taken our walking sticks with us. Back in the car, we drove up to a promontory opposite the chateaux to a view point panoramique where we could take in the castles from across the valley. Just as with Carcassonne and impressionist paintings, the view from afar is the best and brings it all into focus. 

We had bread, cheese and a bottle of Sancerre in our room that night; it was good not to eat some form of duck for once. It really has amazed us just how much duck dominates the menu in southwest France: duck breast, duck rillettes, duck confit, duck gizzards, foie gras in all its many forms, stuffed duck’s neck, duck cassoulet and we even saw duck heart on one menu. Reading what a restaurant has to offer in this region is a bit like listening to Forrest Gump’s friend Bubba recite what you can do with shrimp. About a week after arriving in the Dordogne, I recalled what a nice guy from Toronto we met at the Paris flea market told us when we shared that we were headed this way. He and his fiancée had just left the southwest and he predicted, “I see duck in your future...I definitely see duck in your future.”

Pictures of our adventures:

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