There was always something strange about being in a border region. The atmosphere seemed different, it actually made my skin crawl. The people that lived close to borders always seemed to have a suspicious look to them, and it felt as if they were more cautious when you approached them. You felt less welcomed, and threat lingered in the air.
Maybe this was because over centuries these lands had seen a lot of suffering. Opposing parties would have plundered and salvaged the area during countless wars and raids.
Outlaws would have used these remote places to hide from the law. Refugees would have travelled in the deep shadows of the night, stealing food from the farmers for survival. Smugglers would have passed through for their illegal activities, following unchartered paths that only the locals would know. No wonder if people whose families have been living here for centuries have cooled to unfamiliar faces over time.
Entering the rugged mountain terrain
From Carcassonne, the medieval pearl on the river Aude in the south of France, we travelled southward into the border region, towards Spain and the Pyrenees. A rugged terrain, sparsely populated, on a route not well travelled, even today.
We wanted to visit a castle that was perched high up on a mountain, Châteaux de Quéribus. A border castle on the frontier between France and Aragon, placed high in the clouds for some spectacular sweeping views of the mountains, all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. This was one of five border castles that were built in the Middle Ages to control the border between the two kingdoms. Today, Quéribus was a popular day trip destination for visitors from Carcassonne, Narbonne, Perpignan, and even Toulouse.
From the pictures we knew that Quéribus would be in a remote location, but it was still a surprise to us that we even lost mobile reception on the way. We travelled 90 minutes of narrow country roads with the haunted feeling that always crept up on us in a border region, cut off from all means of communication. Our fuel tank was running low, and there was no petrol station in sight – none of this helped us in overcoming our uneasiness.
As the mountains were coming closer, letting us climb on steep winding roads, and enclosing us more and more, we could no longer shake off the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped.
Quéribus, the Last Stronghold of the Albigensians
As we were travelling up the mountains and deeper into this forgotten border country, I couldn’t help but think of the more than 1.000 Albigensians who had seen their last refuge from religious prosecution and the long arm of the French crown in the remote stronghold of Quéribus. The Albigensians, or Cathars as they were also known, had dared to found a new church, thus removing themselves from the power of the Holy See.
As a response, the Catholic Church had been fighting a crusade against these people. The armies of the Pope and the French king had killed thousands of families for their faith, slaughtering men, women, and children who had been unlucky enough to live in the wrong city. It had been a brutal war where it didn’t even matter whether you had been a Cathar or not. Just being in the wrong place at the wrong time could have gotten you killed.
So it had been no surprise that these people sought out the last possible refuge they could find. Looking at the mountains around us I pictured them as they were fleeing the crusaders in panic and desperation, maybe even on foot, taking not much more with them than the clothes on their backs.
A Lofty Aerie in the Mountains
Their decision was wise, as their destination Châteaux de Quéribus was virtually impenetrable. It would be the last refuge for the Carthars in general, with Quéribus withholding any conquest attempts by the crusaders for another 11 years after the last stronghold had fallen.
You could make out Quéribus from quite a distance, and it was indeed a sight to behold. The castle rested on the mountaintop like on a throne, cascading down the mountainside, with the polygonal keep at the very top. It was so high up, so lofty, and so steep that it had been extremely easy to defend against whole armies.
From the carpark it was just a short walk up a broad path which was framed by shrubs, grasses and wildflowers. Wild blackberries grew here, and poisonous looking small berries. The path was peppered with goat droppings, bees were humming in the air. The mountain air was heavy with moisture but fresh and clean. With ever step you could feel the oppressive presence of the towering castle growing.
A Breath-Taking Mountain Panorama
As we arrived at the castle the path changed to steep stairs that made use of the rocky outcrop of the mountain. The steps were ancient and slippery, overgrown, uneven. Worried I might slip and twist an ankle, I held onto the rope for support, taking each step one at a time. No army in the world would have been able to approach Quéribus at a speed that would have given them the advantage of a powerful charge.
With each metre that I climbed further up, the views opened up more. A marvellous panorama of rugged mountains covered in dark green forest. A haze lingered over the peaks, giving me the impression that I was indeed close to touching the clouds.
Birds of prey circled around us. I could make out ancient paths criss-crossing the mountains, revealing passes and century old connections between villages.
Our car in the car park looked like toys, and behind it the quaint Medieval village of Cucugnan which was just an faint idea in the distance. The winds were howling around us, reminding us of our isolation high up in the clouds. An aerie, far removed from the lands surrounding it.
Haunted by the Ghosts From the Past
Many visitors would come here just for the views, and they were indeed stunning. But Quéribus had a lot more to offer. Even though the castle was ruined, there were still some well preserved parts you could explore such as the Gothic style pillar hall, the renaissance windows and the numerous arrow slits.
You could see how holes had been broken into the walls to make room for modern cannons. A wealth of defensive measures to protect the only access point at the gate were clearly visible. Quéribus was a military stronghold like no other, bold and fearless.
I found a name scratched into the wall which I could still trace with my fingertips. The ancient rooms were dark and damp, as if ghosts of the pasts were still lingering in the shadows.
And who knew, maybe they did.
Quéribus: The end of the last Albigensians
Quéribus must have seen a fair bit of tragedy. Knights and ordinary people, hiding out in this isolated location, desperately hoping for a change in the political climate that would allow them to return to their normal lives with their friends and families.
But it wasn’t to be. In the end even Quéribus had to fall, and the Albingensians were dispersed for good. The border region that they sought refuge in couldn’t help them turn their story around. It had to end here.
Quéribus: An atmospheric ruin, exposed to the elements, high in the sky and bare to the bones. An uncanny place, aptly placed in a region that makes no effort in welcoming you. Proud, unapproachable, untouchable.
If you would like to visit Quéribus for yourself, combine it with a trip to nearby Cucugnan which you will pass through on your way to the castle. More info here.
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