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History And Wine On The Cathar Trail

May 20, 2009 at 2:16 PM | by | Comments (0)

All this week Jaunted contributor Eric Rosen will be filling us in on his recent field trip, drinking his way through France. Any questions about what he saw, did and drank? Let us know.

In a little-visited corner of France, way down south near the Spanish border, and bounded by the Mediterranean Sea on one side and the Pyrenees on the other, lies Cathar country. The area was the domain of Romans and Visigoths, medieval troubadours and heretics, fiercely independent mountain men and cultured damsels.

Today, that checkered past makes for some fantastic travel options where you can go hiking to mountaintop Cathar castle ruins one day, and taste some of the region’s unique wines the next (or do both the same day, if you’re in a hurry).

How To Get There
Most of the Cathar fortresses lie southwest of Carcassonne, very close to the Spanish border. The closest major cities are Toulouse and Perpignan, and you can fly or take the TGV to either of them. For the castles we talk about below, Perpignan is the better option.

The Castles

Because there are 19 Cathar sites, you should choose carefully what you’d like to see. For a full listing of Cathar sites, take a look at the website of the Association du Pays Cathare, which has excellent information and maps.

· Queribus is the most dramatic of the Cathar castles, appearing to rise out of a sheer wall of rock. It was also the site of the Cathars’ last stand in 1255. (above)
· Peyreperteuse is the largest of the Cathar castles except for Carcassonne. It is actually two castles that have been connected, and it seems to top an entire mountain ridge.
· Puilaurens, (top photo) though another one of the five “sons” of Carcassonne, is often overlooked. The hike up to it is fairly easy with only a gentle rise, and the views of the surrounding hills are incomparable.

You Mentioned Wine?

Though Languedoc is the largest wine-producing region in France, its vintages are little known outside the country. For the Cathar castles we visited, the best wine-tasting was between Perpignan and the town of Maury, where the road up to Queribus begins. We’ll tell you about the Green Revolution being led by the region’s winemakers tomorrow, but for now, here are a couple of our favorites:

· Domaine Cazes: The largest producer in the region, with a great tasting room in Rivesaltes, and some fantastic biodynamic wines.
· Domaine Pouderoux: A small family-run, organic winery in the town of Maury on the road up to Queribus.

Where To Rest Up
Affordable lodging options abound in the area thanks to a preponderance of Logis de France. We decided to stay towards where we would end our hiking day at Puilaurens in the one-street town of Gincla, which straddles a rushing stream way up in the hills. The Hostellerie du Grand Duc is a family-run hotel with views out onto the town and the stream. The spartan rooms won’t win any awards, but the free WiFi access is great throughout the building, and the restaurant serves up excellent local foods with a gourmet flair that will be just what you want at the end of an active day of hiking. 2 route de Boucheville, 11140 Gincla, +33 4 68 20 55 02

Extra Credit: Who Were The Cathars?
The Cathars were a breakaway Catholic sect in the 11th-13th centuries that found a strong following in the south of France thanks to a combination of the commoners’ disillusionment with the corrupt Church, and local nobles’ rebellious ambitions. Unfortunately for them, once the Church had finished crusading in the Holy Land, it turned its attention to wiping out this band of heretics, and sanctioned what became called the Albigensian Crusade, which basically decimated the Cathars and destroyed the region’s culture and economy.

Languedoc was swallowed up by France, never to regain its independence. Today, Cathars are all but a memory. However, their dizzying redoubts still dot the hilltops of Languedoc and Roussillon, and make for excellent hiking along a designated Cathar Trail that runs between them.

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