This is a small circuit-tour in the Haut CabardÃ¨s area of South West France bordering on The Montagne Noire and The Minervois, near Carcassone.
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We started from St FÃ©lix Lauragais, but we wont go into that, as we always start from here – well up to the moment when we are able to do an extended tour, at least.
Turning from the road between Castelnaudary and Carcassonne, you will see a large magnificent large house with ancient trees in its park – this is called Petit Versailles, built by a nobleman of the family Ducup de Labastide as a hommage to the Queen, Marie-Antoinette.
For some unknown reason Ducup didn’t lose his head in the revolution and was even among those who voted for the beheading of the King, Louis XVI.
On the eve of The French Revolution in 1789, Marie Antoinette sent documents, land titles and valuables to the owner of Le Petit Versailles for safekeeping including a clock that was given as a present from an Eastern Prince and which was later sold back to Versailles for 40,000 Frances by J.F. Merlet.
Our first stop is in the Picturesque village of Montolieu, at the foot of the Montagne Noire in the CabardÃ¨s, known locally as the village of books (Le village du livre) as every other shop appears to be a book shop – a bit like Hay-on-Wye with sunshine and Pastis.
The village is between three rivers – L’Alzeau, Le Dure and La Rougeanne and was the site of two important villas in Roman times; Villa Sicari and Villa Alcaril which were later succeeded by A benedictine monastery in 815 AD, called St Jean Baptiste de Mallast.
The village was called “Inter Abas Aquas” in Latin – between two rivers (Tras las aigas in Occitane) – the siting of the villas between the two rivers making it easier to defend.
The quarter, Valsiguier was the site of an archaelogical dig which unearthed many fragments of pottery and items dating from the last quarter of the 13th century, which are the remains of the destruction of the village in 1243 as a punishment met out to the villagers for their part in the rebellion of 1240 – 1242 when the inhabitants supported the son of Roger Trencaval after the crusade against the Cathares.
The church of St AndrÃ©, although looking a bit tired and worn-down, is undergoing restoration works – the size and the works within bear witness to the importance that it had in the past.
Today, the population of the village is around 780 today and there are more than 20 bookshops and an activity centre, L’atÃ©lier du livre, where kids and adults alike can participate in several activities centred around books:
Traditional paper-making, traditional printing, book illustrating, making marbled paper, bookbinding – both of my children have participated in this through their school, resulting in them producing a class book made from their own paper – they loved it!
There is a cafÃ© with a terrace shaded by an immense chestnut tree opposite the church to have a coffee or a cold drink while you plan your next move and there are restaurants in the village too.
Now we’re off to a place called RoquefÃ¨re, a small village near le Mas cabardÃ¨s in a deep valley surrounded by high mountains.
In fact at this point we are going directtly to the top of the mountain, following the sign for CubserviÃ¨s.
The road winds up the mountain, through the forest to reveal two superb sites, the road follows an old mule path that was used by the weavers of the village in the past, it is pretty narrow and quite steep – you could park in the village and walk it – it is a shady path which affords a nice shady walk on even the hottest of summer days.
Walking is actually better for the views across the 4 chÃ¢teaux of Lastours, Carcassonne, The CorbiÃ¨res and The PyrÃ©nÃ©es – it is about a 12km round trip and well worth it – as the average height of the plateau is 800 meters, so great views all round!
There is a great view of the chÃ¢teau at RoquefÃ¨re, which is not open for visits, but the church is just next dorr for those that would like to have a look in.
About half-way up the road, more or less 2 kilometers up, you are rewarded by the site of “La dame Blanche” or The lady in White, which is a waterfall that tumbled from the rocky precipice high up above down to the valley below.
There is a way down to the bottom, which is a bit scary but well worth it – the falls are also equipped for anyone interested in, and equipped for, canyoning.
It is one of the highest waterfalls, and maybe one of the lesser known in the whole of Europe – the water tumbling 90 metres into the void – the best view can be had in the hamlet of CubserviÃ¨s, which can also be explored, with it’s church, Notre Dame de La Roche and it’s old cross – there are also springs of fresh mountain water to refresh the thirsty walker on the way up.
Continue up the road and you will reach a rocky outcrop with a view down the valley to the Pyrenees and the houses on your right perched on a rocky cliff as if more by chance than design. but do keep going…
At the top of the road, there is a fully restored Church dating from 1131 on its own in the forest and although it dates from the 12th century, it also contains elements from the pre-Roman period.
There is a procession that goes from Mazamet in The Tarn to St Sernin, every last Sunday in July carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary – a distance of 12km across the mountains – religious or not, it is a sight to see.
Have a last look at the view before going back down to the valley – turn right at the bottom and take the road towards Carcassonne and turn at the signpost marked, Lastours.
As you go through the village of Lastours you will see a glimpse of the ChÃ¢teaux on your right – it is open daily for visits at 5â‚¬ per person, do visit, but, the best views can be had from The Belvedere, opposite the chÃ¢teaux, which is well signposted.
You may have noticed that we are talking about Chateaux, in the plural and not chÃ¢teau – as there are 4 chÃ¢teaux on the site.
The visit of the Belvedere is achieved through the centre right next to the campsite, curiously named, Camping du BelvedÃ¨re, and it seems a bit odd having to pay to look at the chÃ¢teaux – but this is pretty much par for the course in France – I hesitated before going as I thought it a bit unfair to ask for money for a view.
However, when you see the view you quickly forget the admission price, which is only 2â‚¬, as there are benches laid out to give a superb view of all 4 chÃ¢teaux – it’s just as well that you can sit as the view before your eyes is pretty mind-blowing.
The first question that comes to mind is, How on earth were they able to build the chÃ¢teaux on this high “Pog”?, or hill, hidden behind two higher mountains on either side, which make the chÃ¢teaux impossible to see from a distance.
Probably the second question is, how on earth were these chÃ¢teaux ever defeated?
The site has been inhabited since at least 1,500BC, a Bronze Age sepulchre of a young girl, dubbed, “The Princess of Lastours” was unearthed in 1961, along with ten Visigoth tombs.
Settlements in the area extracted iron ore from the rich deposits in the rock to produce weapons, tools and for trade.
The 3 chÃ¢teaux; Cabaret, Surdespine and Quertinheux were built in the 11th century and was the seat of the Cathare Bishop of the Carcassonne region.
The chÃ¢teaux were attacked by Simon de Montfort during The Albigeois crusade against the Cathares, although they withstood the attacks, only surrendering in exchange for a crusader prisoner in 1209.
The chÃ¢teaux and the village were destroyed at the end of the crusade by Royalist troops, being rebuilt later with the addition of “La Tour RÃ©gine” – The Queen’s Tower by the King.
During the Religious wars, in the 16th century, the chÃ¢teaux were occupied by Protestant troops before being winkled-out by The MarÃ©chal de Joyeuse in 1591.
Just over the hill towards Salsigne is a ruined church within the cemetery, dating from before the 13th century, situated next to the ancient Roman road.
There is also a huge new solar power plat being built, at the time of writing, which looks a bit incongruent against the backdrop of the surrounding country.
Within walking distance there are two working goldmines at the entrance to the village.
Now it’s time to go and visit Carcassonne – coming up in a post very soon…
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