Driving from the Mediterranean up toward the Dordogne River Valley, I pass through some arid terrain that — as evidenced by the imposing castles and fortified cities at every turn — has survived a hard-fought history. I’m following the cultural fault line between France and Spain, and while this area is now firmly part of France, for centuries that was far from a foregone conclusion.
This was the land of the Cathars, a medieval movement of Christians who pursued their own anti-materialistic understanding of spirituality that flagrantly ignored the Vatican. Condemned as “heretics,” these pre-Reformation reformers had to dig in and fight for their right to worship — until they were wiped out in the brutal Albigensian Crusades of the early 13th century.
An hour and a half north of Collioure, driving on a highway flanked by steep ranges of limestone mountains, I notice a bulbous little knob clinging to the crest of a stone curtain. I decide to pull over and explore Peyrepertuse and Quéribus — onetime strongholds of the Cathars. Today, tourists park at the base of a mountain, then huff their way up into the stratosphere to scamper over evocative ruins.
From afar, the most striking castle is Peyrepertuse. Aptly nicknamed “the Carcassonne of the Heavens,” its towers scrape the brilliant blue sky, disrupting the gently passing clouds.
Don’t hike up here expecting to explore an intact structure. Peyrepertuse is a ruined field of rubble. But the views are smashing.
For the best panoramas, hike up even farther to the topmost tower of St-Louis, where all of southern France spreads out at your feet.
From Peyrepertuse, you can peer several miles away — across the valley, to an adjacent line of peaks — to see Quéribus, an even higher vantage point.
Vertical and vertiginous, the rocky trail up to Quéribus rewards hardy hikers with a top-of-the-world feeling that rivals even Peyrepertuse.
Of course, the biggest, most intact, and most famous of these castles is Carcassonne. And that’s where I’ll be spending the next two nights. Stay tuned.