Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Cathar castles southern France, close to Catalonia

Southern France with Montefusco Cycling
Chateau de Queribus (Picture by Sergi Ros de Mora)
The northern part of the Pyrénées-orientales is little known at cyclist level. From time to time I go there to discover new routes and roads. Never disappoints me. Always find lonely roads, good asphalt, sunny weather, sometimes a little air, vineyards and castles. France is a paradise for cycling, and especially this area which borders Catalonia, a great unknown for many of us.

And yet it has much to offer. This article simply aims to provide some hints, some tips, at the cyclist and cultural level.
Southern France with Montefusco Cycling
Chateau de Peyrepertouse (Picture by Sergi Ros de Mora)
I have always been curious about the Cathar castles. Starting with the farthest Montségur Castle, which stands on top of a rock called Pog, 1207 metres above sea level. Montségur is the most important of the Cathar castles and the mythical place where the year 1244 died 255 Cathars who took refuge there and who preferred to die burned rather than recant their beliefs. The ascent to Montségur can be done for the East side (by Fougax-et-Barrineuf) or on the Northwest slope (Montferrier), both very interesting, with the imposing presence of the Pog rock that seems inaccessible.

Watching the Cathar castles (and not Cathars) on top of impossible cliffs is a constant in the area of Maury. One next to another, it is very easy to design a cycling stage in which you climb them all. Peyrepertouse, Puilaurens and Quéribus, all very close together, are spectacular castles even more impressive when you climb the very hard roads leading to them. Peyrepertouse, 800 meters above sea level, is the most spectacular castle with two fortifications, joined by a few remains of stones, extends more than 300 meters in length. The cliffs that protect the Castle are impressive. Nearby is the castle of Quéribus, again . Its origins go back to the XI S. Quéribus was border between the kingdoms of France and Aragon, and strategic point of control of the area. The castle is very visible, far from the highway D-117 and is perfectly blended with the environment and in the top of a rock, 730 metres above sea level. Puilaurens Castle lies 697 meters above sea level at the top of the Monte Ardu. The ascent to the Castle are 3.5 km at an average of 5%, but in two very different phases. The first very soft, skirting the mountain, and the second part really steep rising towards the parking area, from where you can climb to the castle in about half an hour walk.
Two more Cathars castles, a little farther away, complete the six most famous Cathars castles. This is the castle of Puivert, beside the road and not a great challenge to reach. The second castle is Lastours, which in fact is a medieval ensemble with four castles. Lastours, however, is a little more distant, north of Carcassone (you can see the map enclosed where the most important castles Cathars are).
Southern France with Montefusco Cycling
Citadelles Cathares
 As can be seen in the attached map, there are many more castles, citadels and fortifications that are part of the history of the Cathars (the "Good Men"). In my penultimate visit to the area I visited the interesting and hitherto unknown to me Chateaux D'Aguilar, very close to Tuchan, and step up one of the monsters of the area. One of those typical roads we like so much, with harsh ramps and leading to an antenna. There's not much else. This is the Mont Tauch. Tremendous climb up to 900 meters after 8 kilometres to 9% average gradient, with maximum ramps reaching 20%. Tremendous, for lovers of strong emotions. And with a pretty deteriorated asphalt that we especially noticed on the way back to Tuchan.

Obviously, the visit to Carcassone (capital of the Aude department) is a must if we are moving around the area. The medieval citadel of Carcassone and its alleys are a true gift for those who enjoy medieval history or simply for those who appreciate ancient beauty. With its 26 towers and two walls for more than 3 kilometres in length, the medieval city of Carcassone was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in the year 1997. It is listed as Grand site National, and its castle and ramparts as a historical monument by the French state, being one of the most visited tourist centers of France.

 There is another town that is really curious to visit, very close to Quillan. It is Rennes le Chateaux. This small town has received a lot of tourism, almost always associated with the paranormal and the esoteric, due to a modern legend about the former pastor Berenger Saunière. Thanks to the success of Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code, that interest has only increased since the argument of this novel has many connections with the legend of the parish priest of Rennes. Legend states that the Parson Berenger Saunière (1852-1917) would have found a secret treasure in one of the pillars of the altar of the church while carrying out a reform of it. At the same time that the priest discovered the secret hidden in the church, his standard of living soared, and financed a series of peculiar constructions in the village, such as the Torre Magda-dedicated to Mary Magdalene-as well as the reconstruction of the parish church.

You see that the tourist possibilities are multiple, but also the cycling. Approaching Carcassone offers the opportunity to try the hard climb to the Pic de Nore (1200 meters high, and included in the BIG Challenge). Hard climb with a TV antenna on top, visible from many miles around. South side is 25.5 kilometers long. It is certainly worth it, and also its north face that begins in Mazamet, home town of Jalabert. In the southern approximation of the Pic de Nore is the cave of Cabrespine, another place that is worth stopping.

Another very interesting climb in the area is Mont Sant Louis, characteristic for its tie knot (a curve of 270 degrees with a small tunnel). Include Mont Sant Louis on the route we make in the area of L'Aude guarantees us magnificent views over the Rocky Mountain called Pech de Bugarach. Spectacular.

Southern France with Montefusco Cycling
Gorges de Galamus (Picture by Sergi Ros de Mora)
But if I have to choose only one place in this area I choose the Gorges of Galamus. This is the road that goes from Sain Paul de Fenouillet to Cubieres sur Cinoble. An impressive gorge, fruit of the erosive work of the Agly River. A piece of road just two kilometres away dug in the mountain, with the river next to it, down there. I will not extend myself to explain the feeling when one travels through the gorges of Galamus. Just look at the photos of Sergi and enjoy. Or even better, get to know them by yourself.