This is great little trip for a day out to discover some beautiful little villages steeped in history from the flat plain of Castelnaudary to the dominating heights of Le Piège to the wooded slopes of la Montagne Noire.

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I was particularly interested in pursuing the trail of the Medieval Cathare history and the ensuing crusade against the Albigeois in the Lauragais before venturing to some of the more spectacular châteaux perched, almost impossibly, on craggy mountain tops in the Pyrénées.

We start in the small village of Le Mas Stes Puelles that rises from the Castelnaudary plain to the heights called le Piège.

In the village are the ruins of a large church and an Augustine convent dating from 1285.

The origins of the village name comes from “Mansum Sanctum Puelarum” named after the daughter of The King Huesca who was martyred in the 3rd century and whose remains were brought to Le Mas and became the object of pilgrimage.

It was a fortified town of a considerable size and was destroyed in the 13th century during the crusades by none other than Simon de Montfort, being rebuilt in 1356 along with its fortifications, only to be later burnt to the ground in 1355 during the 100 years war by the prince of Wales.

It was a particularly important site due to the influential family of Cathares including the knights, Bernard, Gaillard, Jourdain and Aribert, whose mother Garsende was burnt alive during the crusades by de Montfort.

The village taken and retaken between 1573 and 1586 before being razed to the ground in 1622. The village was painstakingly rebuilt by its inhabitants and became prosperous during the boom years of the Pastel (Wode) industry.

Take a look around the village, especially at the remains of the old fortifications, note the names of the small winding streets, which reflect the tormented past of this beautiful, sleepy village.

Be sure to go up to the heights of Le Piège which offers super views over the Lauragais plain.

From Le mas Stes Puelles go a few kilometers down the road to the picturesque little village of Villeneuve la Comptal, which given its name, would suggest a fortified village or bastide of the Counts of Toulouse, although no evidence supports this.

There is an imposing fortified church dedicated to St Pierre & St Paul and a ruined château which is closed to the public, but which apparently contains a ruined Pastel workshop which led to the village becoming very rich during the 16th century. The first mention of a village being on the spot goes back to 1162, there are references of the atrocities carried out against the Cathare heretics and the Wars of religion as in virtually every village in the Lauragais.

On the hill above the village are windmills with one exceptionally renovated by apprentices from the technical college in Castelnaudary.

Leave Villeneuve La Comtal, turn right out of the village and head towards the medieval fortified village Mireval, which has hardly changed since medieval time, with its narrow streets and houses clustered around the Church of St Jean which dates from the 13th century, along with the two medieval, 14th century, gateways into the village.

the view from the village across the plain to the Montagne Noire is truly breathtaking – don’t miss the exceptional, restored windmill just behind the village dating from 1823.

From Mireval take the road in the direction of Laurac le Grand or Laurabuc (you will pass Laurabuc on the way but I don’t intend going there at this point).

If you have ever wondered where the name “Lauragais” stems from, look no further – the village of Laurac gave its name to the whole region, and remained capital of the Lauragais right up to the 19th century, which may seem pretty amazing, given the size of the village.

Dating from the 8th century as a stronghold, Laurac was a bastion of the Cathare faith, which normally means that we will be talking about the exploits of Simon de Montfort et al.

You may think that you are somewhere else other than the Lauragais – it definately is reminiscent of Tuscany with the highpoint of the village, the honey-coloured stonework and the red-tiled houses huddled around the church, interspersed with tall green cypress trees.

Explore the village with its ruined windmills, ancient ramparts and its rich and violent past, including the 11th century hanging gibets at Malmorte and the site of the remembrance of the massacre de la St Barthélemey. the present church stands on the foundations of the old medieval château, of which there is no trace today.

There is the Wall of Blanche de Laurac (Le mur de Blanche), a noblewoman of the powerful Cathare family that lived at Laurac in the 13th century, along with Guiraude de Laurac who was tortured during the si̬ge of Lavaur by the troops of Simon de Montfort before being thrown alive into a well which was subsequently filled with stones Рthis being only the start of the terror which terminated in the biggest burning of Cathares in 1210, where 400 people were burnt alive.

Laurac suffered greatly during the crusades against the Cathares between 1209 to 1229, which is almost inconceivable given the peaceful, sleepy village that we see today.

Enjoy the tour of Laurac before taking the road to St Martin Lalande.

I was excited to discover one of only two Cathare cemeteries in the region, but was unduly surprised to see that there was absolutely no trace of the site, which, in retrospect I should have known.

The reason for this is that the Cathare religion believed firmly in reincarnation and that the human body and valuables were to be shunned, so there are no traces of any graves or cemeteries. Some believe that the steles that dot the countryside are in fact Cathare gravestones, whereas they predate the Cathares and heve never been proven to mark the burials of Cathares or Parfaits.

This said, the original Cathare cemetery is now a Catholic burial site, but there are no traces, nor signs of its former function.

Do have a look around the village of St Martin Lalande, before going to the Canal du Midi for a drink or a picnic under the trees on the towpath.

Carry on along the road to our next destination, Labècéde Lauragais, which on my map was marked as one of the places where a collective burning of Cathares was carried out.

The village is in a sea of green at the foot of the Montagne Noire between Castelnaudary and Revel.

In the 10th century it was a fortified village within the diocese of Toulouse surrounded by deep ditches, the entry being by two fortified gateways, one still exists to this day, topped by a watchtower.

In 1142, Labécède was the subject of a quarrel between the Count of Toulouse and the Viscount of Carcassonne.

In 1227 the troops of the King of France, commanded by Humbert de Beaujeu, aided by the Archbishop of Narbonne, The Bishop of Toulouse waged a siege against Labécède, where Pons de Villeneuve and Olivier de Termes commanded the garrison for the Count of Toulouse.

Several of the defenders of Labécède were able to escape and the Bishop saved as many women and children as possible but no mercy was given to Gérard de la Mote, the Cathare Diacre and his flock of heretics, who were all captured and burnt alive.

In 1229, Raymond, Count of Toulouse promised the king that he would dismantle the fortifications of Labécède. The village was taken in 1584 during the wars of religion, although they abandoned the village a short while afterwards.

The 15th century Château has been restored and transformed into a residential property.

There is no trace whatsoever, of the violence that the village has undergone through the ages, it is just a very picturesque and quiet village today.

If you wish, you can end your tour here, but it would be so much nicer to have a drink on the terrace of a café in front of the beautiful Lake at St Férreol.

From Labécède, head up into the Montagne Noire and turn towards Revel at Les Cammazes.

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