It was a very warm day as we headed off south via Limoux on our way to Ceret – cherry capital of France in the foothills of the Eastern Pyrenees – and having become quite addicted to them we were just in the right mood for more.
We’d charted out a few points of interest on the way, the first was Alet-les-Bains. Its water was first bottled over 120 years ago, and it remains one of the largest sources of bottled water in France. It is also in the spa region, so has a spa and apparently a casino, though it was very sleepy when we visited. We had to wait for the tourist office to open to get the keys to the Abbey ruins.
When the Abbaye Sainte-Marie d’Alet first ‘began’ seems to be unknown, though there was definitely a priory there in the 8th century. By the 12th century it received lots of pilgrims and had quite a wide influence, becoming a bishopric in 1318 in order to continue the fight against the Cathars. Later, in the 16th century, warring about religion still continued (at least ostensibly it was about religion.) So the Huguenots thought it important enough to burn and destroy the abbey. However, the area still remained a bishopric until the French revolution, when church and state separated, and the property was handed over to the people who lived in the region. The day we called in, it was great to see workmen busy restoring and shoring up areas of what would have been truly beautiful buildings in their day. They were making the buildings and area safer for staging concerts and other cultural activities, and for people to visit safely.
Having been somewhat immersed in the sad history of the Cathars when we were in Carcassonne we decided to travel via a few of the castle ruins: Puilaurens (where we had a decent picnic for once), Queribus and Peyrepertuse. This inevitably took us in our usual loop-the-loop-style of pathfinding. These castles and their communities were among the many strongholds systematically destroyed by the Crusaders in their anti-Cathar rampages.
Talk about ‘perched’ though. 11/10 for Peyrepertuse particularly. How anyone could get up into, or should we say up to and onto these without being invited, is beyond us. Mind you, the marauders used the ‘siege and starve them’ method a lot. They hadn’t been given a ‘date for completion’ so had plenty of time on their hands and could afford to wait it out until the poor Cathars starved, or had their wells poisoned, or got siege sickness (too many people and not enough hygiene in such a small place) and became just too weak to fight, or were betrayed by a rat amongst the ranks. Heather really wanted to see Montsegur, the very last Cathar fortress to be destroyed, but we had to wait for another time for that.
This journey took us on a very narrow and windy (yes again) road through yet another gorgeous gorge: Gorges de Galamus. This one, while a bit smaller than L’Ardeche, Tarn and Verdon, was by no means less spectacular. Clinging rather than perched, on the lower side at one point was a hermitage. With many, many steps down to it, it looked like it was painted onto the cliff face – the drop was so sheer. And the drop continued beneath the hermitage down to the bottom of the gorge where they used to get their water!
We meandered on through more spectacular scenery, past lakes, up hill and down dale before finally arriving in the cherry capital, Ceret. It is a small but picturesque town with massive plane trees growing down both sides of the main streets. And as we were surprised to find the next day, a modern art museum full of great works including a whole collection Picasso paintings and ceramics around bull-fighting.
Tina and Heather
PS Montsegur was the last Cathar castle to fall, and because of my reading, I really wanted to see it, but it was too far and we just couldn’t make it. However, later, as we were on our way to Pierrefitte-Nestalas in the Haute Pyrenees we kept seeing signs to Montsegur, but again looking at the map and how far we needed to go, we couldn’t fit it in. We stopped at a supermarket for fuel and food on the edge of a little town called Lavelanet. (We knew everything would be shut when we got there.) As I walked into the supermarket I noticed Montsegur on the top of the mountain up behind the supermarket! Then there were 2 huge posters of the castle in the foyer! …So I took photos of all three and have included them here. I figured seeing I wasn’t able to go to Montsegur it had come to me! Another magic moment! H