Dramatic castles perched high on craggy mountain ridges are one of the best-known architectural features of southern France’s Aude department.
Often mistakenly called Cathar Castles, they actually date from later after the Cathar religious group had been wiped out and their castles destroyed. A more accurate label would be castles of the Cathar country.
They were built after 1271 when Languedoc became part of the kingdom of France and the king began rebuilding the castles as a first line of defence against the kingdom of Aragon to the south.
Anaïs Monrozier, of the Aude tourism body, said: “The new castles were built in the modern military architectural style, called ‘Philippienne’, which had its origins in the reign of King Philip II (1165-1223), and which in the Aude were adapted for mountainous positions.
“These were nothing like the castles which preceded them.
“Instead of being designed for passive defence with impenetrable structures, they were designed for active attack.
“The new style included slit windows and crenellations where soldiers could attack from with arrows. Round towers began to replace square ones [because they had no ‘dead’ shooting angle or blindspot].”
Nothing can detract from the impressiveness of these buildings and the sheer incredulity that anyone would wish to construct such an edifice in such inaccessible situations.
“Even now”, says Mrs Monrozier, “the tourist has to work quite hard to reach the castles often with a walk up a steep path before getting there.
“It is extraordinary to think that they were built without modern cranes and modes of transport.”
There are 10 chateaux to visit, plus Carcassonne, which has its own chateau and city walls. Seven of the sites, and an eighth in neighbouring Ariège, want to join Carcassonne on the Unesco World Heritage Site’s list. They are Aguilar, Carcassonne, Lastours, Peyrepertuse, Puilaurens, Quéribus, and Termes, in Aude, and Montségur in Ariège.
Aguilar, Puilaurens, Peyrepertuse, Quéribus and Termes are also known as the Five Sons of Carcassonne because they made up the front line of defence against Aragon.
Peyrepertuse is a huge fortress made up of three parts and equals Carcassonne in size. The extent of its remains and the quality of its construction makes it the most outstanding example of medieval architecture in Languedoc.
Standing at the top of a promontory on the southern Corbières massif, its position is truly breathtaking.
The stone for the castle was quarried out of the mountain it stands on, but even so it is astonishing to imagine the labour required to build what has been called locally, the la petite Carcassonne céleste.
Quéribus is not far from Peyrepertuse and is also built on an impressive rock. Its tower, 728 metres up, gives wonderful views.
Beautiful stonework is a key feature of Quéribus castle
It became a royal fortress in 1258 when it was the object of great works, which reinforced its defences. Its walls are up to four or even five metres thick.
It is famous for its polygonal tower and the Pillar Chamber which rests on a single pillar and which opens out into eight main ribs and four small ribs.
No-one yet dated its construction, but it is proof of the effort that was made not only to create a defensive position, but also a structure of beauty.
The castles fell into disrepair after the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, when the border was moved further south and their importance began to decline.
Each of castles has its own tale to tell, with its own architectural features, and all are worth a visit. You can find out more at payscathare.org
Who were the Cathars in France?
The Cathars were a Christian group in southern France who believed in what they called a more pure religion. Seen as heretics, they were persecuted by the Catholic Church and Pope Innocent III called the Albigensian crusade against them in 1209. French king Louis VIII continued this and the last ‘heretics’ were burnt at the stake in 1321 at Villerouge-Termenès.
Previously, in the 12th century, Carcassonne and the land to the south was not part of France and was ruled by Seigneurs, many of whom were sympathetic to the Cathars. They sheltered them in their feudal castles but, one by one, these fell to the crusaders, and, more often than not, were razed. What survives today are not Cathar castles, but are built on the same sites.
Even the term Cathar was not introduced until the 19th century, although its origins are unknown. The people who were persecuted, instead called themselves simply Les Bons Hommes et Les Bonnes Femmes, because they believed they were doing what was good.