The unmissable castles of the Cathar Way

While researching the new edition of Cicerone’s guidebook for The Cathar Way, a 260km long-distance path through Languedoc in Southern France, Luke Smith and Nell Sleet trekked to all nine of the medieval castles that emerge from the rocky landscape. Here they suggest the four that cannot be missed.

Round a bend, crest a hill or descend a craggy pass on the Cathar Way and sooner or later you will see them. Not really hidden, but not necessarily exposed either. They can be squat or tall, sprawling or compact.

800 years old, and older. It’s astonishing: this 260km rocky route through Languedoc, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, is crowded with castles. And while there are many beautiful things to encounter along the path, it is the castles of the Cathar Way that are truly unmissable.

Quéribus Castle
Cathar Way approaches Quéribus Castle

There are nine castles along the Cathar Way, ruins known as ‘Cathar’ castles, and finding out what these fortifications are here for is really the point of the Cathar Way.

It is a fascinating and grisly story, so here’s a quick history lesson: the Cathars were a radical sect of medieval Christians that blossomed in 12th century Languedoc, then a powerful independent region.

But the Catholic Church, threatened by the Cathars’ popularity, launched a ruthless crusade against them in the early years of the 13th century, beginning a conflict that consumed Languedoc and its surrounds.

Hundreds were killed at a time – Cathars were condemned to burn alive – and castles were built, besieged and lost all over the region. It was a drawn out struggle that ultimately the Cathars and their southern protectors lost, and the consequences changed France forever.

The Cathar Way is an important historical long-distance path, a way to gain access to these remote castles and to their grim history. And while the castles are unmissable for any visitor to Languedoc, we think they are best experienced on foot: built high up on impossible spurs of rock, to approach them along ancient mountain paths and watch them loom above you is a peculiarly humbling and powerful experience.

Montségur Castle
First glimpse of Montségur Castle from the Cathar Way (Stage 10)

Each castle on the Cathar Way has its own often thrilling story, but practicality does kick in for the average walker; each castle is a shortish detour from the route, and often needs a good couple of hours to explore.

The 13-stage route detailed in the Cicerone guide has days up to 27km long (each day varies), with a fair amount of ascent and descent – up to 1000m in a day. The walker must weigh up the extra time and energy spent going to each Cathar castle as they come.

Trekking the Cathar Way guidebook

Trekking the Cathar Way

The GR367 Sentier Cathare in southern France


Guidebook to the GR367 Cathar Way (Sentier Cathare) in the Languedoc region of southern France. The 260km waymarked trail from Port la Nouvelle on the Mediterranean to Foix traces the history of the Cathars through the Eastern foothills of the Pyrenees. Split into 13 stages and offering a northern variant, the route takes about 2 weeks to complete.

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In researching this route, we visited all of these castles. And if you have lots of time, we would recommend going to them all if you can: most are open throughout the year and cost only a few Euros to enter.

But if you’re pushed, we have chosen four out of the nine that we think are the must-see castles of the Cathar Way. We’ve picked these castles for the stories they can tell from history, and the breath-taking experiences of walking to, and within, them. They are worth any walker’s time - even in the sweaty, straitened state you will usually find us all in.

The full list of ‘Cathar’ castles visited on the Cathar Way: Aquilar, Quéribus, Peyrepertuse, Puilaurens, Montségur, Roquefixade, Puivert, Château St Pierre, Castel Sarbordas.

Quéribus (Stage 3)

above Quéribus
Some of the best views on the entire Cathar Way from above Quéribus

Appearing towards the end of Stage 3 of the Cathar Way, Quéribus is one of the first castles to appear on the route, and is a peculiar and arresting sight. A polygonal-shaped castle rising out of limestone rock, it was built in the 11th century and had an important strategic position during the crusade, within visual contact of fellow Cathar redoubt Peyrepertuse Castle (see below).

Inside are several intact and interconnecting chambers, including a chapel, and some well-preserved vaulting, all fascinating to wander through. From the castle there are some of the best views to be found along the entire Cathar Way towards the Pyrenees. Its smaller size and proximity to the route make this an easy and worthwhile visit.

Peyrepertuse (Stage 4)

A name that means ‘pierced rock’, you will first notice Peyrepertuse Castle when you’re walking directly below it; its long walls sitting deep within the towering cliff above you.

Peyrepertuse Castle
Peyrepertuse Castle backdrop from the Cathar Way as the path leads uphill from Duilhac-sous-Peyrepertuse

One of the biggest and most complex to explore, the inside of Peyrepertuse is set over multiple levels, connected together by long precarious staircases entirely exposed to the high mountain winds.

Stray up to the top segment for the birds-eye views of Duilhac-sous-Peyrepetuse, Cucugnan and Quéribus Castle.

Peyrepertuse Castle
Looking back along the Cathar Way from high up in Peyrepertuse Castle

Puilaurens (Stage 6)

A beautifully classic castle, Puilaurens was built to watch over the Rebenty Valley, and its battlements and crenelations peep above the pines that you walk through on Stage 6 of the Cathar Way. The oldest part of Puilaurens is the square tower and keep, which was built before the Albigensian Crusade. The walls and gates were built between the 13th and 17th centuries.

Each of these castles has a short walk from the small ticket offices, often winding up the hill to the entrance, and Puilaurens is no exception, except with the added interest of labelled gardens along the narrow path, introducing you to the local flora and fauna.

Puilaurens towers
Puilaurens towers above the surrounding pine forests
Route round Montségur Castle
Route round Montségur Castle

Montségur (Stage 12)

Probably the most well-known of all the Cathar Castles, this lonely ruin perched at the apex of a high hill has both history and legend attached to it in equal measure.

During the crusade itself the castle famously withstood a relentless siege that lasted over the bitter winter of 1243-4. The people of the castle stood their ground, Montségur’s position was thought to be impregnable. But when the audacious crusaders finally managed to gain a foothold on the side of the mountain alongside the castle, Montségur’s inhabitants had no choice but to surrender.

The Cathars living there were burned, 225 in all. The place at the base of the hill where the pyre was built is commemorated today with a simple cross.

As well as this sombre story, there’s a mystery that wraps itself around the ruin of Montségur: it was rumoured that a great Cathar treasure was stored here, secretly smuggled out shortly before the surrender. This Cathar treasure pops up elsewhere along the Cathar Way, with whispers of its whereabouts, of what it even was. Nothing has ever been found, or proved.

It is a short but steep walk off-route to get to the ruin of Montségur, and inside is little more than a rectangular shell. The views either side though are some of the most far-reaching on the route, seeing back to Puivert and on to Roquefixade, Foix and even Toulouse 88km to the north-west. An eerie and incredible fortress.

Make time to visit these unmissable castles as you walk along the Cathar Way and go deeper into the fabric of this beautiful, wild and ancient landscape.

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