Meddling with Medieval
Hiking Through History
In Southern France
Story & photographs by Fyllis Hockman
limbing up the wide circular stone staircase to our hotel room in the
Chateau des Ducs de Joyeuse on the first night, I knew this would be
a very different trip. I could just as easily be accessing a medieval
castle as a lodging facility and then I found out I was. Although
I suspect our room was a lot less drafty than those of the lords and
ladies who preceded us.
Which certainly set the tone for our Walking Through
History Tour of Southern France conducted, ironically, by a company
called New England Hiking. As we hiked through, around, up and over
one medieval village after another, traversing castles and countryside
and learning about the Middle Ages of the 11th-14th centuries, we were
immersed in their history.
According to our guide, Richard Posner, every mountain,
every hill, has great historic and cultural significance and his running
commentary throughout the trip bore him out. Visigoth chateaux, Knights
Templar towers, Cathar castles admittedly I knew little about
these guys but by the time we were done visiting their many abodes,
I felt we were all old friends.
The walks ranged from easy to moderately challenging
and the talks from fascinating to eyes glazed over, usually in direct
proportion to the difficulty of the hikes when I might have preferred
to be back at the castle courtyard relaxing with a vin de pays but
I was willing to wait. As one of our compatriots enthused about Richard:
"He opens his mouth and facts fall out." The fact that he
could make these facts endlessly interesting was the real accomplishment.
Cresting a hill, I would often turn and look back down
upon an expanse of beautiful countryside that was, of course, there
the whole time, but I was too focused on putting one foot in front of
the other to notice. As we walked, and everyone is encouraged to go
at his/her own pace, we would come to a crossroads where multi-hued
wildflowers whose fragrances accentuated the already-challenged senses,
distant mountains, castle ruins, and crops of beans, vineyards and barley
were all vying valiantly for attention demanding notice in so
many directions at once as to warrant whiplash.
Our first visit was to the tiny medieval town of Cassaignes
that does not see a lot of drive-by traffic. Consisting of a few houses
and churches dating back 900 years, the sense of history was somewhat
moderated by the large red tractor by the side of one house that appeared
anachronistic by several centuries. Still, it was a start.
As we traveled from one medieval village to another,
we heard stories of church intrigue and love stories, military battles
and religious controversies, mysterious anecdotes of priests and royals
and other local residents over the centuries that brought the towns
to life in a very tangible way. For one, in the 1890's a priest named
Berenger Sauniere sold secret medieval documents he found in the hollows
of the church at Rennes Les Chateaux for great sums of money. Those
documents? Well, does Holy Grail mean anything to you?
And every morning, Richard's wife, Marion, scoured the
market in preparation for our picnic lunch, composed of different breads,
cheeses, fresh fruit, French sweets and some local village delicacy
which we feasted upon overlooking a lake, a garden, a vineyard or some
random medieval ruin. Every day, the same response it just doesn't
get any better than this!
Accompanying us on much of our journey were the Cathars,
Roman Catholic heretics who were prominent from the 10th-12th centuries,
but were ultimately destroyed during the Crusades, and the Knights Templar,
a well-financed military religious order of the 12th-14th centuries,
and later rumored to be a secret society that exists to this day.
The impregnable Queribus Tower, the last of the Cathar
castles to fall, was an old Roman structure, initially built in the
4th century. It was later refurbished by the Cathars to resist attack
during the Crusades. The most recent restorations? They took place in
the 13th century. This sort of time warp is ever present in southern
France. The present and past long-ago past coexist harmoniously
as one can travel back and forth through multiple centuries within a
couple of hours of doing day-to-day errands.
As we climbed the almost half-mile straight up, I couldn't
help but think "Why would anyone want to attack this place?"
Obviously, I wouldn't have made a good candidate for medieval knighthood.
Views from one tower to the next compete with each other for their own
personal sense of wonder and enormity of vision. But then again, how
often are you looking over a vast countryside from a 360 degree angle
from multiple towers in a single day?
One morning early, Richard pointed knowingly to a small
abbey halfway up a mountain. Our collective response was, "You're
kidding, of course?" He wasn't. Not only did we make it to the
abbey, we reached the top of the mountain. Admittedly, the ascent itself
was much less challenging than it appeared, but we still all felt unduly
Near Rennes les Bains, we stopped at Mount Cardou, where
one of the most controversial of the Knights Templar theories is in
evidence that within the mountainside is a cave containing the
buried remains of the body of Christ. Whether true or not, just standing
there felt like a spiritual experience. The Knights were ostensibly
eliminated as a religious order by the 14th century although
that may be a surprise to Dan Brown whose DaVince Code perpetuated
many of these theories.
But nothing we had seen up to then could prepare us
for Carcassone, one of Europe's largest and best preserved fortified
cities, an entire medieval town protected by almost two miles of double
walls and 52 watchtowers.
Hard to imagine yourself walking among the knights,
priests and ladies of the time with the proliferation of cafes and souvenir
shops keeping you grounded in the modern world. Still, how often do
you ask for directions to a bathroom and are told to take a right turn
over the drawbridge? I managed to avoid the moat enroute
Late in the evening or early in the morning when most
of the tourists are gone, it's much easier to imagine yourself a Cathar
merchant meandering the cobblestone streets, through the maze of bridges,
towers, concentric walls, castles, archways, tunnels and streets so
narrow you can reach out your arms and touch both sides simultaneously.
And then once they let the crowds back in, it's possible to imagine
another similarity to medieval times only now the throngs, equally
motivated, are coming to shop rather than siege.
As we left Carcassone, our exposure to medieval architecture
and lifestyle wasn't over, but our connection with the Cathars and the
Knights Templar was, so it seemed an appropriate time to say au revoir.
For more information about the Walking Through History
Tour of Southern France, visit nehikingholidays.com
or call 800-869-0949.
Medieval Towns of Bruges, Leiden and Dijon; Libourne,
Southwestern France; Les
Hommes Français; Destination
Southwestern France: Montagne; Montpellier,
Southwestern France; Rouen,
the Port of Paris