Carcassonne, Queribus, Peyrepertuse, Puilaurens, Puivert, Montségur, Foix … They well deserve their nickname of “vertiginous citadels”, these medieval strongholds hung on rocky peaks, in the middle of vineyards, in the garrigue, in the limestone hills Corbières in Aude or in the Ariège Pyrenees…
These stone sentries now candidates for inscription on the Unesco World Heritage List, recall that there was played out there, in the 12th and 13th centuries, in blood and tears, the fate of the lands of the Noon, rich and rather tolerant, where people spoke the langue d’oc. Indeed, around the year 1000, almost everywhere in Europe, in reaction to the temptations of power and money that worked the Catholic Church, many heresies found attentive ears and hearts ready to be s’ ignite. “We are good Christians,” said those whom their adversaries would later call Cathars, who claimed to return to “the Church of the Apostles” and to challenge the feudal system. Frightened by their success, the pope called for help from the King of France who, then in conflict with England, first turned a deaf ear.
The pope then tried to contain the heresy by sending missionaries – citizens and then Dominicans. It’s a fail. An assassination will set fire to the powder: in 1209, Pierre de Castelnau, legate of the pope, is assassinated by a squire of Raimond, Count of Toulouse. Pope Innocent III calls for a crusade against those who will henceforth be called the “Albigensians”. The lords of northern France take up the cross and descend to the south. It will be the Béziers sack and its massacre (20,000 dead). About him, a sentence – which we do not know if it is authentic, has remained in the southern memories: “Kill them all, God will recognize his!” ” In the aftermath, it will be the capture of Carcassonne, followed by many other violence and abuses.
Rightly or wrongly, many Occitan lords have been accused of being partisans or at least tolerant of heresy: Guilhem de Peyrepertuse, Raymond de Péreille, Chabert de Barbaira, Olivier de Termes, Pierre Catala, Pierre de Fenouillet, Bernard de Congost, Roger-Bernard de Foix, Raimond comte de Toulouse, Raymond-Roger de Foix or even Raimond Trencavel de Carcassonne. After playing complex and sometimes timed alliance games, they will often rebel against what looks more and more like an occupation. Some will have to flee, others will accept disadvantageous treaties and marriages. In the end, the “barons of the North”, in the forefront of which Simon de Montfort, chief of the crossed army, will lay hands on their fiefs. This is what happens in Carcassonne: it was the city of the counts of Trencavel, a dynasty among the most powerful in the South in the 12th century. His suzerain was until then the king of Aragon. And many small local lords – or members of their families – among his vassals had adhered to the Cathar faith. The city was besieged by the Crusader army and capitulated on August 15, 1209. Raimond Trencavel was imprisoned. He died in November 1209. He was barely 24 years old.
Even today, in the Aude, the impressive city of Carcassonne, with its double ramparts 3 kilometers long and its 52 towers, perched and tight on its rocky promontory above the vast plain, can be seen from afar, d ‘wherever you come from. To the east, Narbonne. To the West, 120 kms, Toulouse. To the north, the Black Mountain, in other words the foothills of the Massif Central. To the south, the limestone hills of Corbières, then the Pyrenees.
You enter through the gate called “Narbonaise”, which is surrounded by guard towers 30 meters high. Until the Revolution, it was closed every evening. This is where the carts and goods entered. “Because, says Katia Signoles, tour guide, it was the most accessible of the city’s two gates. The West Gate is more difficult to access because it is located at the top of the hill slope. ” “This door is one of the most modern parts of the city,” says Katia Signoles. It dates from 1280 ”. 1280, some 80 years after the capture of Carcassonne.
Indeed, the city of Carcassonne like the other strongholds that we will visit in the region, do not have much of … Cathar although they are all part of the great “Cathar sites” highlighted in the Aude. Not only, the fortifications of Carcassonne, first promised for demolition, were restored by Violet the Duke in the XIXth century, but insists Katia Signoles, “from the Trencavel period, there is only the keep – it dates from 1125 -, the main buildings and the Gallo-Roman towers. Indeed, the second row of ramparts was built and the castle enlarged, after that in 1226, Amaury de Montfort ceded to the king of France – at the time, Louis IX was still a child, so it was his mother , Blanche de castille, who assures the regency – the lands of the Trencavels which his father Simon had seized. Attached to the royal domain, the viscounty of Carcassonne then becomes seneschal, “insists Katia Signoles, guide-lecturer. At the time, she points out, there is a drawbridge to access the castle, not a sleeping bridge like today.
If the King of France has so much strengthened the defenses of Carcassonne, which has since assumed the appearance of a fortress that we know, it is because at that time, the city guarded the border between France and Aragon . After the signature of the Treaty of the Pyrenees which, in 1659, will definitively fix the border between France and Spain, this royal citadel, become almost useless like the others built in the region after the crusade against the Albigensians, will sink a little into forgetfulness.
Before arriving there, Carcassonne will experience other difficult moments. The inquisition, created in 1233, will make it one of the high places of the religious tribunal. A prison for heretics will also be built at the foot of the city, at least, emphasizes Katia Signoles, “for those who renounce their faith. Because those who persisted were burned because condemned to the “penalty of fire”. Before reaching these extremes, there were penalties for wearing a yellow cross, pilgrimages and crusades for the nobles, as well as fines. ”
Now, this city has no more than … 50 inhabitants and is invaded by clothing stores, souvenirs and restaurants intended especially for tourists who flock elsewhere. In the 19th century, there were still 1,200 to 1,300. Figures to compare with the 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants who lived there in the 16th century. There were even some who, at that time, had built their houses between the two rows of ramparts. Figures also compare to the 5000 inhabitants of the Trencavel period. At the time it is true, there were suburbs which disappeared around 1240….
In the end, when you visit this city, you can easily visualize the different eras of its construction. We will obviously also be impressed by the power of the ramparts. The western ramparts are the most beautiful: they constitute a very fine example of defense architecture of the 13th century. They are also a beautiful proclamation of royal power! They also offer a beautiful view of the Pyrenees on a clear day and on the black mountain. But beware, the stairs are steep. The watchtower and the palace, altered in the 13th century, are built against the Gallo-Roman wall of the 4th century. The castle walls flanked by towers pierced with arches, testify to the technical progress of royal architects since Philippe Auguste. Above the dungeon window, we can see the heightening of the tower, while vestiges on the ground and walls indicate further Gothic arrangements. In the courtyard, marks on the ground, however, indicate the location of the chapel of the Trencavel period.
In the dungeon, a museum has been set up, made of odds and ends. Pity. In the vaulted room was installed anachronistically a 14th century ordeal which comes from the Black Mountain. Unfortunately, it cuts the perspective of the dungeon. This room was a ceremonial room where all the important acts were done. It is especially the paintings on its walls that deserve attention. They date from the end of the 12th or the beginning of the 13th and, in a delicate shades of yellow and blue, represent a fight between Christian knights and Saracens. “It’s Roland at Roncevaux,” suggests Katia Signoles, who however denounces the poverty of the explanatory panels. She specifies: “It is a comic strip to legitimize the power of the Trencavels who took part in crusades and fights against the Moors. It was a question of legitimizing their “descendants” starting from Charlemagne, time at which those which fought with the king will be distributed titles and grounds “.
“Here, continues Katia Signoles, the story was very complex. The city belonged for a moment to the counts of Barcelona. Then, it will be the turn of the Aton family who will participate in crusades. In the 12th century will come the Trencavels who are descendants of the Aton and who will be the vassals of the King of Aragon “, insists the tour guide.
Since then, the wind of history has carried its breath far from Carcassonne, making today this city of Aude, as impressive as it is, a simple “tourist spot”. It is well worth the visit, not only for the beauty of its stones, but also for soaking up the fascinating and painful history of which it has witnessed.
Good to know :
* Aude tourism development agency: www.audetourisme.com
* Carcassonne Tourist Office: www.tourisme-carcassonne.fr
* Accommodation: Hotel des 3 couronnes. 2, rue des 3 Couronnes / Tel: (04) 68 25 36 10. Site: www.hotel-destroiscouronnes.com
* Eat: Comte Roger restaurant. 14, rue Saint Louis. The City of Carcassonne. Tel: 04 68 11 93 40. Site: www.comteroger.com. An excellent table.
And also, the Atelier de la truffe-Philippe Barrière. 51, rue Trivalle. Tel: 04 68 25 92 65. Site: www.barriere-truffes.com. Truffle lovers will love it, the others will easily be seduced. From starter to dessert, truffles are used in all dishes, all accompanied by good regional wines (we preferred whites). Delicate and delicious.
(To be continued: In Cathar country (2/5) On the heights of Quéribus)