Gilbert SummersComment

France's Cathar Country

Gilbert SummersComment
France's Cathar Country

The force of gravity had pressed me back so far that I felt I was at a 90 degree angle to the world. Heart pounding, I closed my eyes, clenched my teeth and gripped my car seat. Concen­trating on my breathing, I said a silent prayer.

For someone afraid of heights, I had picked a hell of a place to spend a vacation. How could I, normally such a meticulous planner, have overlooked that this land of abbeys was at the foothills of the Pyrenees? Had I been so starry-eyed about following in the footsteps of knights and troubadours that I overlooked that their castles were ensconced on cliff tops?

The Languedoc-Roussillon region of France is located in its southwest corner, bordered by Spain and Andorra to the south, the Mediterranean to the east, Bordeaux country to the west and the Black Mountains and country’s center to the north. My husband Tom and I were staying in the tiny village of Magrie located in the Aude department, as part of a home exchange with another couple.

Also known as "Cathar Country,” the area encompassed five pays, or counties, steeped in rich history. The landscape’s jagged ridges and deep gorges were blanketed in old growth forests, studded with ancient architecture and enveloped in eons of intrigue.

My body heaved forward as the car lurched onto level ground and, almost against my will, my eyes popped open.  In a heartbeat I went from abject fear to utter delight, and my cheeks stretched into a grin. The spectacle of Chateau de Puivert was worth the proverbial price of admission, the sight of it actually sweetened by the 30 seconds of adrenal surge I felt as we climbed the steep incline. Looming larger than life, its immense white stone façade straddled the 2,000-foot heights of the verdant hilltop.

Chateau de Puivert

Chateau de Puivert

Ours was the only car in the lot, and we had the run of the place. Crossing the chateau’s threshold through a set of massive archways, we found ourselves in a grassy, football field-sized expanse. To our left was a vista of the valley below, afforded by a huge gap in the fortress exterior where a section of wall had been taken down by the forces of time. I admired the patchwork of green, yellow and brown acres stretched out to the next mountain ridge, through the middle of which snaked a line of leafy emerald trees. A herd of cattle appeared as though miniature, and gave me perspective on the immense altitude of my vantage point. Two small bi-planes swooped into my line of vision. They danced gracefully with each other for several minutes, their shadows partners in the performance, and then glided off into the horizon.

On one of the remaining walls enclosing the chateau’s open-air interior, I saw a plaque that proclaimed a bit of the site’s history: In 1170, as she was traveling across the country, Alienor d’Aquitaine and all her court put up at the castle. Then there was one of the greatest gatherings of troubadours. In order to please her the most famous thirteen contested. Until 1199, Puivert was Spanish, it then became Occitan and belonged to the Congost family, which converted to the Cathar faith. Bernard de Congost, his wife, and their son died “consoled.” The daughters were burnt to death at Montsegur. In 1210, a column of 6,000 men led by Pons de Bruyere took the castle in three days and four nights. Puivert Castle is a landmark of the end of this first military conquest since it is situated at the meeting point of Spain, the Toulouse county, the Foix county, and the Carcassonne vicecounty, on the commercial route Perpignan-Bayonne.

This was a summary of what I had already learned about the Cathars, a name which came from the Greek for “purity.” The Cathars were Gnostics, and their beliefs are thought to have come originally from Eastern Europe and the Byzantine Empire by way of travelers as they journeyed along the trade routes. The movement had flourished in the Languedoc region in the 12th and 13th centuries. Occitan or langue d'oc is a Latin-based Romance language in the same way as Spanish, Italian or French; it is from this tongue that the region gets its name. Catalan is a language very similar to Occitan and there are quite strong historical and cultural links between Occitania and Catalonia.

The Cathar sect believed there existed within mankind a spark of divine light, which had fallen captive to the prison of the material world. The path to spiritual liberation meant breaking those enslaving bonds, a gradual process accomplished in a unique way by each individual.

"The region has always been a melting pot of influences—Christian, Arabic, French and Spanish,” said Christine Barrely, my home exchange partner and hostess in absentia. “As a result, most places were open to new ideas and doctrines. There were a lot of conflicts around here, between lords, cities, abbeys and so forth. Sometimes it was violent, but as a whole it allowed new cultures to establish themselves in a new and original blend. The Cathar movement is an example. Coming from the eastern countries, it found a home here."

Cathars were perhaps ahead of their time—vegans, they didn’t eat anything that came to life as a result of sex. Referred to in some quarters as “Western Buddhists,” Cathars gave credence to the concept of reincarnation, believing that those who were unable to achieve liberation during their current mortal journey would return to continue the struggle for perfection. Anti-marriage, they believed women and men were equal. Cathars also condemned capital punishment, an abnormality in medieval times.

Many of their beliefs were diametrically opposed to those of the Catholic Church. In 1208, with politics and feudal land grabs fanning the flames, nobles from northern France instigated the Albigensian Crusade, accusing the Cathar population in the south of heresy. The ensuing war essentially exterminated the Cathars and their allies in the Languedoc region.

Walking on, I reached the crumbling remains of the castle’s far wall and surveyed the village of Puivert in the distance, its emerald lake swathed in fields of paler greens. Tom called out from the bottom of the castle’s well-preserved keep, impatient to make the climb to the “minstrel’s room.” The tower stood four stories tall, with an intimidating series of steep stone and rusted iron steps leading to the salle des musiciens at its top. I called back for him to go ahead, preferring to take my time in facing the music, literally and figuratively, and he nonchalantly jogged up the stairs.

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Pausing before beginning the ascent, I let a toddler pass me by. The young girl took brave baby steps as she attempted to catch up to her parents who were more than a flight ahead. I suppressed the urge to berate them for their carelessness, indignant on her behalf, while also secretly relieved to be able to justify making my own approach at a crawl. Then I realized the wee lass was softly singing to herself as she put one tiny foot in front of the other, and the light dawned—unlike me, she had no fear.

Sweat dripping from my forehead and legs shaking, I reached the minstrel’s room and felt relieved, another mountain scaled. Through three chapel-like windows, sunlight streamed into the cavernous chamber. Below the vaulted ceiling, primitive sculptures of medieval musicians sprouted from the walls, instruments in hand. Actual instruments of the era were on display in cases—bagpipes, flute, tambourine, fiddle, lute, guitar, portable organ, and the hurdy-gurdy, or “wheel fiddle.”

The castle had been listed since 1902 as a monument historique by the French Ministry of Culture. Today, it is privately owned by Arnaud Mignard.

“I don't live in the past! My love of the castle and of medieval history does not interfere with my everyday life,” asserted Arnaud. “The most important for me is to find the delicate balance between the visitors and my private family life. For me, it is all a challenge but for my wife and children, it means a life of sacrifices, no holidays, constant work and very little money.”

“My purpose is to restore the castle as well as possible, to find subsidies for the works, to secure the place for visitors,” he continued. “I am trying to complete the restoration so that my children inherit the castle but not the financial burden it is at the same time. In France, when a monument is classified ‘monument historique,’ it does not mean the state provides the means to keep it. This is why I have to open it to the public and constantly try to find new revenues.”

On our next foray, Tom and I headed south of Magrie again, but in the opposite direction—this time, we went east, to see the Cathar castle of Queribus in the Corbieres Hills. The term “hills” was a misleading understatement—the drive took us through tortuous turns and hidden valleys. It was a wonder my right foot didn’t slam through the floorboard as I applied my imaginary brakes with bone-crushing force, my jaw locked in a grimace.

Perhaps even more disconcerting was the frustration I felt with myself, fully aware that the enormity of my phobia could have overshadowed the scale of the mountain itself. I realized I was cheating myself out of enjoying both Mother Nature’s magnificent display and man’s ingenuity and I was determined to try to face my fear. While hardly capable of staring it down, I engaged in a bit of “peek-a-boo,” daring to look over the precipitous drop beyond the curve of the road. I resolutely tried to ignore the panicked voice in my head that shouted loudly about the lack of guardrails.

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Exerting my will power, I forced myself to take 10-second glimpses of the dizzying expanse ahead, then closed my eyes and caught my breath. Safely buckled in, we rode the geological tidal waves, cresting immense walls of rock and then plummeting down to vales of dense woodland. We soared up through verdant terraced vineyards to the height of the next peak, and then spiraled down to little nooks nestled below. In hindsight, there must have been some sort of soothing rhythm to the repetitive ups and downs. All I know is that I suddenly realized I was immersed in enjoying the view.

This so startled me, I gave an undignified half-laugh, half-snort. That instant of self-consciousness ruined the pleasure for me and I reverted to form, suddenly fearful again.

Tom asked point-blank, “What exactly is it you’re afraid of?”

The directness of his question rendered me speechless for a moment or two and then I stammered, “Well, what do you think I am afraid of? Obviously, I am afraid of going over the edge!”

The words hung in the air and we were both quiet. Somehow, saying out loud what scared me made the likelihood of it happening seem infinitesimal. I had a vision of Tom and me flying through the air in slow motion, like a married Thelma and Louise. This time, my half-laugh, half-snort was accompanied by a half-bark, half-hiccup and the floodgates were unleashed. I laughed and laughed, and the tension rolled away, like the tears that plummeted down my cheeks. Tom laughed too, although probably a little nervously; God love him, he’s never quite sure where my wayward emotions will end up.

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Full of hilarity and maybe just a touch of hysteria, we surmounted the horizon and, looking ahead, abruptly went silent together. Looming over the landscape like the knuckles of a pale clenched fist raised at the sky were the ruins of Queribus. Forged from the living rock of a pinnacle that speared the clouds, the castle evoked a profound sense of awe and, for me, another wave of vertigo.

We pulled off the road into a make-shift parking lot just big enough for two cars and got out. It was a rigorous hike up a gravelly path to the ruins, and Tom and I seemed to have an unspoken consensus that we were content with the view from where we were. Queribus was the last stronghold of Cathar resistance, holding out until 1255. We both studied the ancient edifice above, lost in our thoughts. Mine were of a world that pulsated with a fear so strong that people were pushed into the outer-most edges of existence, backed into the high corners, fighting to extinction for the right to believe in their God.

Turning to leave, I glimpsed a glint of orange in the harsh mid-day sun. It was the tiny village of Cucugnan, just visible through a tangle of goldenrod and tall pines, clinging to the next hillside. The ridge marked the French-Spanish border until the 17th century. I was happy to see civilization—the physical and emotional rollercoaster of the past couple of hours, with its ups and downs of terror, laughter, and reflection, had made me hungry.

The privilege of driving Cucugnan’s narrow streets was limited to residents, so we parked below the tiny enclave and walked up its maze-like lanes, lined with old stone and stucco buildings capped with carrot-colored tiles. The road ringed the steep hillside; an occasional set of stairs cut into rock offered a more direct but taxing route to the top. As we ascended, we climbed past the roofs of houses whose stoops we had rested on moments earlier.  The timeworn structures leaned in on one another, many just inches apart. Here and there, through two buildings huddled close, I spied the face of the opposing mountain from which we had come.

If the morning had been a metaphysical workout, my afternoon in Cucugnan was a swirl in whimsy. Most houses had tiny potted gardens, in which glittery pinwheels were planted, whirring in the breeze. A space where a building had been gutted was draped in white sheets, which were strewn with make-believe rose petals made of bits of pink paper. We peeked down hidden stairwells into sunny courtyards, and looked through street-level windows at cozy kitchens with gleaming tiled walls and big fireplaces.

Sitting down to an al fresco lunch in a cobblestone courtyard, we heard and then saw a trio of modern-day troubadours. Two women and a man paraded by, playing a jazzy marching tune on an accordion, saxophone and trombone. They disappeared around a corner, their music wafting away behind them. No sooner had they exited from view when a professorial-looking man with a broad panama hat set up his organ grinder next to our table and began to crank out “Mac the Knife,” a Cheshire cat expression on his face.  Lunch conversation was made unnecessary by the joyful organ-grinder whose bliss we dared not interrupt. We were free to eat hungrily, exchanging the occasional raised eyebrow as we put more fresh bread and cassoulet in our mouths.

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Before departing, we meandered to the top of the hill upon which the town was perched. A quaint windmill stood on a dusty and rocky plateau the size of a basketball court. I walked its perimeter and challenged myself to look down at the intersecting tiled rooftops just a few feet below. Emboldened, I looked across at the jade mountains and a distant Queribus, now a mere speck on the horizon. Verging on defiant, I dared to look down at the deep valley, a checkerboard of patches cross-hatched with green rows of late summer crops.

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One of the area’s main crops proved a source of unexpected pleasure throughout every day’s journey, always inspiring a smile. Sunflowers are a major agricultural staple in southern France and huge tracts of land are dedicated to these giant blooms which stand taller than the average man. Beholding the first field we encountered, I felt my heart brim with gratitude at the random grace that chanced to find us here when the flowers were at the height of their golden glory. The crop spilled down from a hillside, as though an army of optimism on the march, with a mission to brighten the days of passers-by.

I discovered an immense field of the flowers a short walk away from the home we were staying in and strolled that path every day, communing with these sentient beings who like me, instinctively respond to warmth and light. Occasionally I would notice a renegade bloom resolutely turned away from the sun, a lonely face twisted in the opposite direction of his comrades. Even that sight made me smile, having been that rebel myself from time to time, only depriving myself of the sunlight of the spirit. At the very end of our stay, we noticed that harvesting had begun, and vast acreages were being emptied of the cheery yellow congregations worshipping the sun.

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Our exploration of Cathar Country was not all an uphill climb. On another day’s jaunt, we spontaneously pulled off the road to look down upon one of the region’s most spectacular sights. From the gentle slope of a small hill, across a plain lush with vineyards, we took in the 2,000-year old city of Carcassonne, Europe’s largest and best-preserved walled city. The site was named a UNESCO World Heritage Centre in 1997. A fortress larger than the Massachusetts town I live in, the immensity of it made me feel like Tom and I were Dorothy and the Tin Man contemplating the enormous Oz beyond the fields of poppies.

Carcassonne’s silhouette conjures up bewitching images—its ramparts are punctuated with 56 watchtowers capped with pointed cones like those of sorcerers. This effect is actually an error on the part of architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, commissioned in 1849 to restore the citadel, which had fallen into disrepair. Overall, le-Duc’s work is considered genius, though not of strictest authenticity. The original rooflines had low slopes, because snow is uncommon in the area.

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A wonderful and irresistible bit of lore exists on how Carcassonne came to get its name—though admittedly it is of questionable veracity. According to the story, in the 8th century, Emperor Charlemagne laid siege to the medieval town, which was then ruled by Dame Carcas, the widow of a Saracen lord. After enduring five long years of being besieged, the last of its defenders were close to starving. All that remained in the town to eat was a little pig and a sack of wheat. Dame Carcas stuffed the pig with all the wheat and then threw it from the ramparts. When the pig hit the ground, its belly burst open and all the wheat flooded out. Charlemagne called off the siege in despair: there was clearly so much wheat in Carcassonne they were feeding it to pigs. As the enemy forces packed up to leave, Dame Carcas rang the town bells to announce the good news to the surrounding area, prompting the refrain “Carcas sonne!” or “Carcas is ringing.”

“The Carcassonne region has always occupied a special place in history,” our hostess Christine told me. “Long before France came to be, it was the natural passage from East to West for invaders. The first to have a deep influence were the Romans, on their way from the Mediterranean to the rest of the Gallic territory. Then it was the turn of what we call the Barbarians, the Vandals and the Visigoths, followed by the Arabs from North Africa. Over the centuries, many civilizations came our way, imprinting their culture and their traditions. Later on, it was the last frontier of the French kingdom, on the border with expanding Catalonia.”

Carcassonne's design revolved around defense, a reflection of the barbaric times in which it was built and expanded. Virtually an impregnable fortress, the intent of earlier architects was to allow inhabitants to survive long sieges, while also deceiving any enemy who found his way past its outer fortifications. One of its tower’s first floor rooms could store 1,000 salted pigs and 100 cattle. On its second floor, fake stairs were set up that would plunge strangers straight down into a deep well. Devices such as false doors and barricades were built to isolate and confuse the enemy.

It was easy to see how intruders could lose their way, even without blind alleys. Tom and I wound our way through Carcassonne’s labyrinth of twisting and turning roads, having difficulty keeping our bearings. Unlike other area attractions that we often had to ourselves, Carcassonne was mobbed with visitors. Yet being jostled by throngs of hoi polloi in the high summer season enhanced the effect of what life must have been like in the days when this was a bustling safe haven for the high-born and peasants alike.

With the promise of too much enchantment to savor in one visit, we returned to Carcassonne later in our trip. We arrived in early afternoon, with a stroll along the ramparts at night being the marquee event. As the sun began to go down, the sky took on a rosy glow, becoming infused with lavender. In the deepening twilight, the stone walls exuded a warm, pinkish hue and against this backdrop I spied what I thought must be an apparition.

Drawing in my breath, I elbowed Tom and we both stood transfixed and open-mouthed for an instant, looking at a mystical figure standing alone against the fortresses’ inner wall. His long beard, balloon-shaped pants and skull cap all added to his other-worldly aura. Hands folded behind his back, the man had a regal bearing—it seemed as though he were surveying his kingdom. Then, the citadel’s floodlights were switched on, washing the area in bright light, and the spell was broken. Our apparition was a modern-day Rasta. We chuckled at our willingness to believe in fairy tales and walked on.

In 1067 Carcassonne became the property of the Trencavel dynasty, and in the following centuries the family allied in succession with the counts of Barcelona and of Toulouse. During this period, the citadel was a stronghold of Occitan Cathars and played an important role in the Albigensian Crusades. The northern French called the Cathars 'Albigensians' because there was a heavy concentration of the sect in the town of Albi.

In the Catholic crusades, Simon de Montfort starred in the role of evil usurper, imprisoning and then slaying the hero Raymond-Roger de Trencavel. Under Montfort’s subsequent rule of the territory, the Cathar movement was largely extinguished—literally. The defining event occurred on 16 March 1244, when more than 200 Cathars were massacred, burnt in an enormous fire at the fortress of Montségur.

Within the Cathar movement were those known as the perfecti, a group who were deeply devoted and led extremely ascetic lives. The perfecti offered a rite called the consolamentum, considered very important to those who chose to take it. It’s said that this secret rite awakened the Spirit within and, once it was given, the receiver was forever changed. Just as members of the Congost family of Puivert were “consoled” before their deaths, the perfecti gave the consolamentum to the 200 Cathars facing the pyre at Montsegur.


The element of water, not fire, was the guiding force on our next excursion.  The namesake of the region, the Aude River, courses 140 miles from its source in the Pyrenees Mountains, flows north to Carcassonne, then eventually turns east and ultimately empties into the Mediterranean Sea near Narbonne. The road we travelled south followed its contours, cutting through the rocky and wild landscape of the mountainous Corbieres area, forested with beech groves and fir trees.  As we rounded another bend, we saw several cars parked on the side of the road, snug against the cliff face.

“Let’s see what’s going on!” I exclaimed, ever reluctant to miss out on anything. Used to my impulsive exhortations to pull over so I could take pictures, Tom stopped on a dime. I grabbed my camera bag and crossed the street. Looking down at the rapids churning below, I was excited to see a helmeted soul braver than I soar over the horizon on an electric blue raft.

Fumbling for my camera, I shot image after image of a procession of thrill-seekers careening through the cascades at the bottom of the steep cliffs, sailing right under my nose, and coming to a stop in a nearby pool. As they awkwardly emerged from the rafts, they joyously embraced each other; I felt as exhilarated as if I had been one of them, just witnessing the tail end of their wild ride.

Tom had been watching me as I had been engaged in photographing the rafters.

“I think your fear of heights has flown the coop,” he wryly observed.

Stunned, I realized that quite possibly he was right—after all, I had just been leaning over an unobstructed precipice looking down on the whirlpools of a raging river.  I gave a victorious hoot, and Tom laughed and shook his head.

Waters believed to have restorative powers spurred the settlement of the town we were headed to, considered the gateway to the Aude’s Haute Valle, or upper valley. Alet-les-Bains sprang up alongside the Aude before recorded history; the bath-loving Romans are credited with discovering its thermal waters. Europe’s founding father Charlemagne is said to have sought relief from his digestive problems in its healing waters, which people continue to enjoy today, more than a millennium later.

We crossed an ancient stone bridge spanning the Aude and pulled into a parking lot on the river’s banks along the outskirts of the tiny village, home to 500 residents. We paused in front of the Boulodrome, where we watched a game in play. Also known as pétanque, the sport is similar to Italian bocce, played with metallic balls on a dirt surface. The object of the game is to throw the balls, usually with somewhat of an arched back-spin, so that they land closer to the smaller object ball than those of your opponent, or strategically drive the object ball toward your balls and away from your opponent's.

Throughout our stay in the region, we enjoyed watching the camaraderie of the local men playing the game. Only once did we observe a woman participating, but otherwise it was a mix of ages, shapes, sizes—as well as techniques and temperaments. We became fans of the crouches, curls and pirouettes, and saw styles that ranged from graceful to grotesque, with attitudes both humble and grandiose. Almost always, the men seemed to get a kick out of me photographing them, vamping and striking poses. While I couldn’t understand their French, they appeared friendly and, yes, even flirtatious.

Entering the village proper, we ambled down an alleyway, and entered a by-gone era. Seemingly preserved in medieval times, the town’s square was encircled in traditional half-timber houses. The gray exteriors of the sagging structures were festooned with hanging baskets over-flowing with cheerful flower arrangements. One building featured a Star of David; next-door, a hand-painted sign proclaimed the quarters to have been those of Nostradamus. As we reverentially photographed the historic dwelling, a young woman sashayed by us and casually waltzed in its front door.

We circled back to the main street and the ruins of the 8th century Benedictine Abbey de Notre Dame and adjacent 14th century cathedral. Entering the tourist office, the heavy, mustachioed man gave us our billets, and, unexpectedly, handed Tom a small key and a sheet of paper with a diagram. Without the ability to speak each others’ language, we managed to understand we were to go out the door, down the street and around the corner to access the ruins of the abbey. I was agog that we actually had the keys to the place and, once again, was impressed with the European nonchalance about antiquities.

We roamed around the ruins alone, admiring what was left of the vaulted ceiling, the crumbling columns decorated with geometric patterns and plant shapes, and the remains of two towers. I felt a little like a naughty kid poking around where I shouldn’t be and we double-checked the padlock after closing the gate.

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Returning to the office, the attendant pointed us toward a door. Walking through it, we stumbled upon four men in their under-shirts playing cards—they didn’t blink an eye at the interruption and continued their heated debate. A little disoriented, we realized we were to go through yet another door.

We then found ourselves in a huge open-air courtyard, surrounded by the shell of what had been a soaring building of Carolingian, Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The dilapidated façade of once mighty walls was poignant and powerful. Tom stepped under a monumental arch and up onto an area that had been the apse, sending scores of pigeons flapping, the sound of their wings a poetic touch in the golden light of late afternoon.

For our final destination of the trip, we had saved the mother lode of mythical lore, the fountain head of legends, of which the Cathar connection was just a drop in the bucket. With great curiosity, Tom and I drove dead south alongside the tumbling waters of the River Aude. Past Alet-les-Bain, we reached the town of Couiza, the launching pad to Rennes-le-Château. Snaking along a series of hairpin turns, we pulled into a large parking lot, with signs indicating visitors needed to walk the rest of the way to the commune. We took a short-cut on a well-trod path through the woods and emerged just below the cluster of the couple of dozen buildings that crown the mountaintop and constitute the village.

As we trudged around a curve in the dusty road, a banner proclaimed “Remember, happiness doesn’t depend on who you are or what you have. It depends solely on what you think—Buddha.”  It proved to be the first of several pieces of Buddhist art we saw, with statues of the fat-bellied Eastern teacher visible in gardens, windows and shelves of the local bookstore.

It was only late morning, but our stomachs were growling, and we were happy to see the wrought-iron gates of a garden restaurant open. We sat in the sun and shared a big plate of cheeses and pate. The courtyard was rimmed with leafy trees and strewn with small tables, all of which were dressed in bright yellow table clothes imprinted with a paisley design. Hanging on the wall was a red banner sporting the outline of the Cross of Toulouse in gold.

The image was ubiquitous throughout the Languedoc-Roussillon region, found on flags, in stone, as jewelry, within stained glass, even spray-painted on walls as graffiti. While technically a feature of the coat-of-arms of the Counts of Toulouse during the Middle Ages, the distinctive shape had come to symbolize the Cathar resistance during the Albigensian Crusades.

The restaurant occupied one quadrant of the mountain top, with the Church of St. Magdalen and its property encompassing the other three-fourths of the plateau. From the threshold of the La Table de L’Abbe, we looked across a small lane at the sprawling stone buildings in warm peach hues, offset by the deep greens of pine and shrubbery. Religious statuary bejeweled the building’s walls.

Above the front door of the church was an inscription: Terribilis est locus iste or, “this is a place of awe.” Entering, Tom and I both had a visceral reaction to the figure greeting us in the dimly-lit chapel—a sculpture of a truly evil-looking devil served as the stand for the holy water stoup. Above him, a flock of angels in pastel robes had puzzled expressions on their faces, and one held her hand to her head in a posture that spoke of being overwhelmed. In the opposing corner, across a black and white checkerboard floor, was a statue of Jesus, in the same pose and with similar garb as the horned monster. I later read an interpretation of this decorative scheme as representing the Cathar dualism, with the opposing forces of good and evil engaged in a spiritual game of chess.

True to its introduction, the chapel did indeed fill me with awe—but it was not a place where I would have sought comfort. I was glad to move on to the adjacent Villa Bethania and more earthly affairs. The Renaissance-style villa was the home of two characters whose activities have inspired conspiracy theories said to threaten the very foundations of Catholicism. The Abbe Berenger Sauniere and his housekeeper Marie Denaraud, both born in the mid-19th century, went to their graves with the secret of the fabulous wealth that afforded them a lifestyle at odds with their rural, mountain village existence—not to mention any holy vows taken. The pair built and lavishly entertained in their less-than-humble abode, complete with two adjacent Neo-gothic towers and a park with fountains.

Out of the mystery of the source of Sauniere’s riches, others have woven a web of intrigue, stringing together the descendents of Jesus and Mary Magdelan, the Priory of Scion, the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant, among other enigmas. Rennes-le-Chateau figures centrally in the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and references to the village are woven throughout Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.

Tom and I agreed to wander at our own pace, a common pact we made given my penchant for following where my photographer’s eye took me. My mind swirling with the myriad mysteries that seem to intersect in Rennes-le-Chateau, I saw a sign for an artist’s exhibit outside an old building, and decided to take a look. The works of two painters were on display, striking renditions of the dramatic countryside, in very different styles.

Climbing a narrow staircase, I met Jill Ghis, one of the painters. She told me that she had left western France and moved here two years ago, quitting a teaching career to paint full-time. I asked what had attracted her to the area.

“Rennes-le-Château is for me a place where the energy of Mary Magdalen is very strong and present,” Jill said. “There’s the story of l'abbé Saunière and his hidden treasure, which is still a mystery…is it a metaphor, is it the Cathar treasure? We still don't know.”

“The landscape is so beautiful and inspiring,” she added. “All the people I have met here are spiritual and we share a connection, which is so important as we make our way together.”

Leaving the gallery, I met up with Tom. We ambled up the winding road for one last look at the view. In a cul-de-sac encircled with a stone wall, beyond which a row of lavender blooms waved in the breeze, we looked out over the vista. Contemplating the lush valley below and the undulating lines of the mountain range on the horizon, I had a keen sense of being one in a long line who had stood here and done the same, part of a continuum of curious travelers. Counts and Cathars, troubadours and treasure-hunting priests, our journeys had taken us through many peaks and valleys, bringing us to behold this spectacular view.

From the mountain top, I saw that facing fears and following dreams often involve circuitous routes. I felt gratitude for the awareness that glimpses of insight snatched along the way can bring not only consolation, but life-altering discoveries that open up whole new worlds.