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Montségur: Walking with the Cathars

I close my eyes and imagine it is March 1244 in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. The great castle of Montségur has fallen and some 200 people are making their way towards a burning pyre. Their crime: refusing to renounce their faith.

Montségur: Walking with the Cathars
Château de Montségur. Image: Tim Williams

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Now, eyes open, fast-forward 750 years to a warm autumnal day, and it is hard to believe that this was the setting for a massacre. The breeze is a ghostly whisper that caresses the lush meadow before continuing through the riot of woodland around the foot of the hill.

The steep tombstone-shaped pog is in shadow, lending majesty to the man-made extension on top – the remaining grey stonewalls of the castle. The mood is cheerful yet sombre, with chattering visitors falling quiet as they read the stone memorial at the foot of the 30-minute climb to the remains of the barbican:

‘The Cathars, martyrs of pure Christian love. March 16th, 1244.’

My route here took me along part of the 12-stage Sentier Cathare hike. It follows in the footsteps of the Cathar heretics, who practised self-denial as the path to salvation. In the 13th century, they fled from stronghold to stronghold as the Catholic Inquisition persecuted them.

“The Cathar faith gained popularity as a reaction to the excesses of the Catholic Church,” explains local historian Olivier de Robert. “It’s difficult to know exactly why they finally took refuge at Montségur, though its formidable situation would have played a role. But I can’t escape the mystical idea that they sheltered here in order to be closer to heaven and God.”

Not long into my climb from Prat dels Cremats (Field of the Burned), views open up of the green Pays de Sault area and the St-Barthélemy mountains. The golden rooftops of Montségur village nestle comfortably what seems like miles below. It is no coincidence that ‘mont ségur’ means ‘safe hill’ in Occitan.

Breathless, I cross the wooden bridge that leads into the keep at 1,216 metres altitude. Sturdy walls block out the view save for a small opening. Beyond it, tumbling down the cliff, are the remains of houses that would have been several stories high and which housed as many as 500 people at a time. The weathered remnants of staircases between the levels are still visible.

Just a whistle of that ghostly voice on the breeze, and I can picture it: the band of Cathar warriors setting out from the castle to kill a party of Inquisitors in nearby Avignonet in 1242. The great siege that began, only to end in the castle’s surrender and the 500 Cathars inside facing the choice of renouncing their faith or being burned alive.

De Robert told me of the whispers and the overwhelming sense of spirits who have walked here. And I think he’s right: the breeze speaks of their fate as if they are all still around.

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