The Pathways to Stillness Retreats in the Razès are based in the heart of the what is locally termed Cathar country. Every year, the Cathar heritage attracts hundreds and thousands of visitors who want to come see and experience the châteaux that served as the last dizzying strongholds of the Cathars before they eventually succumbed to the papal crusade against them.
Many individuals feel a curious sense of inner quiet and reverence when visiting some of the famous castles such as Montségur, Carcassonne, Lastours, Quéribus and Peyreperteuse. Half-day and full-day guided tours are available to those who choose to tune into the Cathar experience.
A Bit of History about the Cathars
The people who lived in Languedoc prior to the 13th century considered themselves to be separate from the rest of France through their allegiance to their local lord and through their own customs and culture (many still feel the same today!).
A large part of that culture included the growth and adoption of Cathar beliefs rejecting the moral, spiritual and political corruption of the orthodox Catholic church. The Cathars had one sacrament only - the Consolamentum - a brief ritual to remove all sin from the believer. The Consolamentum could only be taken once and was usually administered close to death in the belief that the sacrament spiritually moved the Cathar on to a higher level.
Considered by some to be closer to the earliest forms of what eventually evolved into Roman Christanity, in the 13th century Catharism was heretical to the pope who, with a little encouragement from the French king (Louis IX) who had his eyes set on the rich, fertile lands of the Languedoc, launched a crusade to convert the Cathars to Catholicism or burn them at the stake.
There are many documented atrocities perpetrated on the Cathars and, early on in the crusade campaign, there was one one such recorded assault at Béziers. Seeing the army approach, the inhabitants bolted all gates to the town, closing in both Catholics and Cathars who had peacefully co-existed together for years. Gaining entrance to the town more by chance than by military tactics, the crusade swiftly decided to take the sword to the population. One of the crusaders asked how they would be able to distinguish a Cathar from a Catholic. A leading abbot is claimed too have replied, "Kill them all, God will know his own." 11,000 men, women and children were slaughtered.
Montségur proved to be the final stronghold of the Cathars but that finally fell in 1244 with over 200 Cathars preferring death by burning to the hypocrisy of conversion. Montségur remains a place of mystery atracting thousands of pilgrim visitors each year.
Another infamous episode of this time was the inauguration of the mis-named 'Spanish inquisition'. It was in fact first deployed against the Cathars of Languedoc and continued on a wider scale for a further 600 years or more.
Catharism went underground after Montségur but it didn't die out. There are still places in the Languedoc practising Cathar initiation ceremonies today.
Our favourite Cathar Castles
Today much of the Languedoc is still called Cathar country. Many of the hilltop Cathar castles remain, some withstanding the elements for over 800 years amazingly well, while others are closer to ruin.
The last fortified stronghold of the Cathars, 200 of whom willingly flung themselves on the funeral pyres rather than undergo an enforced conversion to Catholic orthodoxy. Some say the Holy Grail is still hidden in the mountain of Montségur; others say that the Grail was carried off to escape capture by the crusaders.
The dizzying heights inspire awe and wonder to all because of its precipitous location at the southern end of the Corbières mountain range overlooking the valleys leading off to the Mediterranean sea. Its neighbour and sister château Quéribus formed part of the escape route for the fleeing Cathars heading into the Pyrenees and onto Spain.
The largest fortified castle in Europe, it dominates the Jurassic era valley at the foothills of the Montagne Noire. A 3 km walk around the ramparts, Carcassonne was besieged by Charlemagne giving rise to the legend of Dame Carcas for whom the bells rang out when Charlemagne's army left Carcassonne undefeated. Also besieged by the crusaders in 1209, the Liege Lord of the defenders, Raimond Roger Trencavel, was initially given safe conduct by the crusaders but was then captured. He died soon after imprisonment in his own city walls.