Field Report: Ariege Tour

Crossing the border of Andorra into France on a rather glorious summer’s day, the first stop on the itinerary was the village perche of Lordat, complete with the well preserved (but sadly inaccessible) ruins of its Cathar castle. The Chateau de Lordat is first mentioned in 970 AD in local registers and seems to have followed the rather typical existence of a castle belonging to the Count de Foix, controlling a small Occitan territory. However, it found itself at the forefront of the Albigensian crusade when in 1244 it was occupied by Cathars; sadly, little is known of their fate. The castle was abandoned later in the 14th century, and stands now as an elegant ruin, like so many of its kin, overlooking the valley below. From this vantage point, one can also see the Pic du St Barthelemy, beyond which lies the mysterious ruin of Montsegur, and it is possible to walk from ruin to another over this mountain (possibly a future venture!). Up here one is surrounded by the sounds of insects and birdsong, and the locale of the castle is unsurprising when one considers the enormous views that stretch almost 360 degrees around its towers.

 

(Lordat castle and the view down into the main valley. Photos taken by author.)

 

Onwards then to Tarascon-sur-Ariege for a mid-morning coffee break before plunging into the prehistory of the infamous cave at Mas d’Azil. Tarascon-sur-Ariege is often overlooked by tourists more intent on reaching Foix, but it is a charming little town, typical of the Ariege. It is situated at the confluence of the Ariege and Vicdessos rivers, surrounded by chalk cliffs and was once a thriving centre of commerce during the Middle Ages; so much so that the remains of the town’s fortifications from this period are still visible. Stretching across the river is a 12th century bridge, whose western side is dominated by the 14th century church of Sainte-Quitterie. The late-18th century Castella tower looms over this small town, home to the last blast furnace in the Pyrenees, and is situated on the site of a former feudal castle. One name from the list of notable Tarasconnais which may be familiar to readers here is that of the Cathar researcher Antonin Gadal, who dedicated his life to unpicking the mysteries of this faith and was instrumental in the nurturing of Otto Rahn’s research, a figure who reoccurs in this travelogue.

 

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(View from the 12th century bridge at Tarascon-sur-Ariege at the confluence of the Ariege and Vicdessos rivers. Photo taken by author.)

 

After a coffee in the morning sun, it was a short drive to Mas d’Azil, whose cave is a world renowned typesite for the Azilian culture (c.12,000 years ago, and named after the cave itself), and also shows extensive evidence of occupation during the preceding Magdalenian culture (c. 17,000 – 12,000 years ago), which existed towards the end of the last Ice Age and is associated with the domestication of the dog. The main road runs right through this enormous cave, but thankfully there are other, more introspective ways to explore its secrets. Within its winding passages can be found a multitude of engravings, ranging from bison, horses, birds, reindeer, and fish, to painted human masks, genitals and a series of intercutting lines, dots and un-interpreted signs. Some of the paintings show evidence of what may be halter-like constructions on the heads of the horses and reindeer, which the original 19th century excavator (Eduoard Piette) believed was evidence of a very early form of domestication – potentially following the prior efforts with dogs. One of the most spectacular finds from this cave is the spear-thrower (Magdalenian) carved from antler in the form of a fawn or deer looking back on itself. Other examples of similar spear-throwers have been found the breadth of the Pyrenees, but this is undoubtedly the finest or best preserved.

 

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(Mas d’Azil Cave, photo from: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/71/Mas-d%27Azil-grotte_02.JPG)

 

What is truly special about this cave is its continuity of use for shelter, from these prehistoric occupants through to the more turbulent times of the Middle Ages, and there is even evidence of Huguenots finding refuge there. Given this pattern of occupation, it is not wildly illogical to suspect that during the Albigensian crusade, some Cathars fleeing the destruction of their homes and communities may have evaded their attackers in these passages, and if so who can wonder at what they must have thought when seeing these archaic paintings, flickering in the light of their torches. Indeed, if there were any rogue Cathars hiding in this extensive cave, would they have felt any connection with the past inhabitants through the use of art on the walls, a practise which Otto Rahn (and Antonin Gadal) suggested was implemented by Cathars in caves throughout the Sabbarthes area?

 

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(The antler carved spear-thrower from Mas d’Azil. Photo from: http://donsmaps.com/images17/masdazilIMG_0852sm.jpg)

 

The final stop of the day was at the walled town of Foix, with its castle perched on an imposing rock, the capital of the County of Foix, primary seat of its Count, and a community well known for its Cathar sympathies in ages past. The town allegedly owes its origins to an oratory founded by none other than Charlemagne himself (which then became the Abbey of Saint Volusianus in 849), around which grew a township, however it was after the construction of the castle in the early 10th century that Foix truly began to flourish under the various Counts of Foix. The castle held such an excellent defensive position that it repelled repeated attacks by Simon de Montfort IV between 1211 and 1217 (the Albigensian Crusade), and it was only when in the late 13th century the Count of Foix refused to acknowledge the sovereignty of Phillip III (‘the Bold’), King of France, that the subsequent expedition launched against it overcame the castle and town.

 

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(Foix and its castle. Photo from: http://www.francethisway.com/images/places/foix.jpg)

 

Sadly, the weather by now was closing in, and so after a wet dash through the town to reach the castle and tour it, the most prudent course of action was to retire to a small brasserie, which thankfully had plentiful supplies of Leffe on tap, and soak up (no pun intended) the atmosphere of this mysterious Occitan town. Adjacent was an excellent second-hand and antiquarian bookshop, where two books on Otto Rahn were purchased and added to the Perennial Pyrenees research library (‘Le Mystere Otto Rahn du Catharisme au Nazisme’ by Christian Bernadac, Editions France-Empire 1978, and ‘Hitler et la Tradition Cathare’ by Jean-Michel Angebert, Editions Robert Laffont 1971). The purchase of these books raised a discreet eyebrow from the seller, but they were simply too informative to pass up!

 

(The books themselves, a glorious haul!)

 

One figure from Foix who is of particular note is Esclarmonde de Foix, a 13th century Cathar, daughter of Roger Bernard I, Count of Foix and sister to the troubadour Raymond-Roger de Foix. Known as being a great beauty, her name translates roughly to ‘Light of the World’, and she had a reputation for skill and knowledge of art, philosophy, religion and politics. After being widowed she turned to Catharism, so much so in fact that she took the consolamentum from Cathar bishop Guilhabert de Castres in 1204 and became a Cathar ‘Parfaite’ (priest), all with the blessings of her father and brother. It was she who ordered the rebuilding of Montsegur, the reconstructions of which were vital in enabling it to hold out so long against the besiegers. Her work included commissioning schools and hospitals throughout the region, helping countless Cathars and Parfaites to escape the oncoming crusaders and evading the bounty hunters and papal legates who wanted her eliminated, especially due to the fact that during the Albigensian Crusade she became a symbol of the local and Cathar resistance. During this period she lived as a fugitive, sleeping in caves and never knowing rest, and she is rumoured to have died in one of the caves in the Ariege or Aude. Esclarmonde is still spoken of fondly in the region, and has come to almost represent Catharism, especially during those dark days, where her actions lived up to her name.

 

The following day brought similarly wet beginnings, but thankfully as soon as we left Foix the clouds cleared and glorious sunshine accompanied the drive to Mirepoix. En route an unexpected delight was spied, and demanded closer investigation. Looming out of the rock in Vals was the villages troglodyte church, the ‘Eglise Rupestre de Vals’. Surrounded by fields, houses pieced together from warm yellow stone and silence, this church rises out of a natural hillock, a small citadel among the rural pastures. The door leads one directly into the rock, with steps carved up and into the main body of the church. What lies within is truly surprising, and we were lucky to be the sole visitors within the site. This church has origins in the 10th century, and possesses some very fine Romanesque roof frescoes depicting the saints and Christ, all of whom stare down strikingly from the vault. In the upper floor of the church one finds the 12th century chapel of St Michael, and the church tower which dates to the 14th century and rears above the village. One could almost hear the ghostly voices of a long diminished congregation, under the watchful eyes from the frescos above. Outside, from the top of the hillock one can see across to the distant Pyrenees, including the peak of the aforementioned St Barthelemy, whose spire seems to follow the traveller across the Ariege, a perpetual reminder of its neighbouring site, Montsegur.

(Vals Church, its frescoes, and views. Photos taken by author.)

 

A short drive away lies the town of Mirepoix, with its impeccable Medieval square and cathedral. Another victim of the de Montforts in 1209, the town was destroyed by floods in 1289 and rebuilt the following year. The Mirapiciens who inhabit this town are lucky enough to live amongst one of the greatest surviving Medieval arcaded market squares in Europe, with many of the houses dating back to the 13th and 15th centuries and supported by great wooden pillars. Some of the joists which jut out into the square are carved with faces and animals, and the carvings on the Maison des Consuls (next to the cathedral) are a mixture of bearded heads, tortoises, women’s faces and fantastical beasts. A number of restaurants and shops (including an excellent bookshop where another volume was purchased – ‘Magie et Sorcellerie dans les Pyrenees’ by Olivier de Marliave, 2006 Editions Sud Ouest) line the square and surround the beautiful Cathedral du St Maurice. Construction began on the cathedral (then a church) in 1298 and continued in various forms (renovations, expansions etc. into the cathedral we see now) over the ensuing six centuries until it was fully restored in the mid 19th century. Inside one finds a riot of colour, thankfully well preserved, with blue vaulting and numerous wall paintings (and wall papers!) still surviving, and the second widest nave in Europe.

 

(The Cathedral of Mirepoix, its interior, and an example of the 13th century buildings that line the main arcaded square. Photos taken by author.)

 

Thankfully the sun was shining, making an excellent lunch all the more pleasant, and despite the high volume of tourism, there was an overwhelming sense of tranquillity in this picturesque Medieval square, with no more noise than the slurping of wine, puffing of cigarettes and gentle chatter.

Fortified, it was time to make our way to the final stop of the day and this miniature tour, the mountain castle of Montsegur. This site has been mentioned previously in Article #7, however, it has become such a symbol of the region and Catharism itself (not to mention other, more esoteric matters) that it is worth recapping. The fortress we see today is actually a post-Albigensian Crusade rebuild, the original having been destroyed by Rome, however, it occupies exactly the same site as its former incarnation. The commune itself was ruled variously by the Counts of Toulouse, the Viscounts of Carcassonne and finally the Counts of Foix, hence Esclarmonde’s ability to order its increased fortification. It is popularly considered the final castle to be besieged during the Albigensian Crusade, and in 1244 the Cathar occupants agreed to surrender. Not however before insisting on a delay and exchanging hostages to ensure that this delay was observed. Some have suggested that it was in order to celebrate a particular day or period sacred to the Cathar faith. Others insist that during this time, four Cathars escaped during nightfall, over the edge of the fortress and down the steep cliffs, carrying something of great value; this has led to intense speculation about the nature of the ‘treasure’, with some claiming it to be gold and jewels, others that it was a book or series of teachings that would ensure the survival of the Cathar dualist doctrine, and other still insisting that it was something far greater, possibly the Holy Grail itself. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is recorded that these four men did escape with something of value, but its destination and nature is forever a mystery. In March 1244 Montsegur surrendered, and in an extraordinary display of faith, 244 of the occupants refused to renounce their faith and were burnt en masse in the field beneath the castle. This event is remembered every year on March 16, and their names (collected by the Inquisitors) are displayed in the local museum.

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(The view of the field before the castle, where the Cathars were burnt. This auto de feu may have had less success when we visited due to the weather! Photo taken by author.)

 

The connection (see Article #7) with figures like Antonin Gadal, Otto Rahn and others, as well as the enduring popular connection between Montsegur and some fabulous ‘secret’ (be it the Grail or a deep esoteric understanding of the universe) has meant that Montsegur occupies a special place in the hearts of many who travel there. Winding up the road to the village and castle, the heavens broke open and a tremendous storm shook the commune for the entirety of our stay here, preventing access to the castle and plunging the whole area in a dark and highly atmospheric mist. Stoically sitting the weather out with a beer or two, it was with great fortune that we spied the director and Montsegur resident Richard Stanley on the horizon, feathered hat and staff in hand, and briefly made introductions. Richard is responsible for the Otto Rahn documentary ‘The Secret Glory’ (as well as numerous other films during the nineties) and moved to this village many years ago after having been captivated by Rahn’s story. With the rain pouring down, it was easy to imagine Rahn in his small hotel room, writing furiously and leafing through his copy of Parzifal, and this encouraged us to leaf through the two newly acquired books on his life and findings, enjoy some local wine and talk long into the night.

 

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(The view of Montsegur from its base and approach, taken during a more clement previous visit. Photo taken by author.)

 

The rain continued to pour down all through the night, cloaking the little valley in mist and, sometimes, hailstones, showing just how treacherous the weather can be in the Ariege. By the morning, it still continued to pour, rendering a visit to the castle both unwise and uncomfortable, and so we decided that a return trip was necessary when the sun could be depended upon. After an interesting and unexpected journey to the border which took us over hill and vale through a thoroughly Wagnerian landscape, we dropped down into Ax-les-Thermes and wound up towards Andorra, where the sun was breaking through the clouds. An enjoyable, if wet, jaunt through some of the more celebrated sites in the region, and an encouragement to explore deeper into this Cathar territory when the opportunity next presents itself!

 

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