Walks in the Cathar Region
Cathar Castles of south-west France
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Guide to over 30 walking routes around the Cathar castles of south-west France, reminders of religious turmoil from 1000 to 1250. Routes from 16 centres, including Béziers, Minerve, Lastours, Foix, Roquefixade, Lordat, Montailloe, Puivert, Montségur, Usson, Puilaurens, and Rennes.
SeasonsPossible year round, but the winter wind (tramontane) is blustery. Height of summer can be very hot lower down.
CentresBéziers, Narbonne, Perpignan, Carcassonne, Foix, Quillan, Ax les Thermes and many small towns associated with the Cathar Castles.
DifficultyFrom half- to full-day walks. Most are straightforward, but includes some longer and tougher routes and even a scramble.
Must SeeIt's all about the castles really, with Béziers, Minerve, Foix, Montségur, Roquefixade, Peyrepertruse, Puilaurens and many others.
The guide offers 30 walks based on the once strategically important castles that dominate the foothills of the Pyrenees. Each walk has as its focal point a castle or other location associated with Cathar history (mostly the 13th century). Summaries of the historical connections of each location with the Cathar period are given, and together these relate the story of the downfall of the Cathar Church, from the massacre in Bèziers in 1209 to the siege at Montsègur in 1244, which ended with the burning alive of over 200 believers who refused to renounce their Cathar faith.
Table of Contents
Who were the Cathars?
Languedoc, the ‘Cathar castles’ and the Pays Cathare
Weather, equipment, risks
Waymarked walking routes
The walks described in this book
How to use this guide
16 The Pech de Bugarach: final walk, final thoughts
1 Useful addresses
2 General publications
3 Summary of the Walks Described in this Book
Sheets: 2545ET, 2444ET, 2345est, 2147, 2147ET, 2148ET, 2247OT, 2347OT, 2248ET, 2447OT, 2446OT
The sketch maps accompanying the walk descriptions in this book are intended only to offer an indication of the key features in the areas crossed. It is strongly recommended that walkers also equip themselves with the relevant 1:25,000 maps published by the Institut Géographique National (IGN), the French equivalent of the Ordnance Survey in Britain. These excellent maps contain very detailed topographical information. Each walk description specifies the 1:25,000 map (or maps) which cover the relevant area.
There are two types of 1:25,000 map. Maps in the Serie Bleue series each cover an area of about 15km x 20km. Maps in the Cartes topographiques TOP 25 series vary in size but typically cover an area of about 27km x 22km.
The TOP 25 maps show long-distance paths, local walking routes and a lot of other valuable tourist information, much of which is not shown on the Serie Bleue maps. They cover coastal, mountain and other tourist areas. In Cathar castle country, most of the 1:25,000 maps are in the TOP 25 series.
A grid of numbered kilometre squares covers the maps of newer editions of both 1:25,000 series. The newer editions can also be used with global positioning devices (a GPS symbol is shown on the front). At the time of writing, about two-thirds of the 1:25,000 maps referred to in this book are GPS-compatible. The newer editions of all 1:25,000 maps are also being marketed as Cartes de randonnée (walkers’ maps).
Many newsagents, bookshops and supermarkets in France sell IGN maps. TOP 25 maps cost around 10€ each (about £7), while a Serie Bleue map costs around 8€.
The publisher Rando éditions has produced a series of 1:50,000 maps covering the French Pyrenees and their northern foothills, using IGN cartography and also called Cartes de randonnées. In this series, no 9, Montségur, covers an area between Quillan and Foix and is useful for planning walks in the area. It costs around 10€.
The IGN also produces a series of 1:50,000 maps, but these are not usually available in shops and, for walkers, are no adequate substitute for 1:25,000 maps.
For route-planning purposes the IGN’s series of 1:100,000 maps (the Cartes topographiques Top 100 series, or Cartes de promenade) is very helpful. Nos 71 (St-Gaudens Andorre) and 72 (Béziers Perpignan) cover most of Cathar castle country.
IGN’s 1:250,000 maps (Cartes régionales series) are also designed for route planning by road. Cathar castle country is covered by Midi-Pyrénées (R16) and Languedoc-Roussillon (R17). In France, the 1:100,000 and 1:250,000 maps currently cost around 5€ each.
IGN’s website is www.ign.fr (in French only). Their maps and other products can be bought via that website using a British credit card. But, with the additional postage and cost of currency transfer, their final prices seem to work out a little higher than those charged by British suppliers of the same maps.
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(We are grateful to Bob Carpenter for comments which have inspired many of the following notes.)
"Walk 4" - Foix (Long Walk and Short Walk)
A landowner has withdrawn permission for walkers to use the path across their land between the Col de Porte Pa (point 12 on the sketch map in our book) and a farmstead called the Pech de Naut (point 13).
The result, for the time being at any rate, is that it is not possible to follow the route of the long walk (Montgaillard to Foix via the Pech de Foix) beyond point 12. The best advice that can be offered at present is simply to turn round and descend to Montgaillard, then return to Foix by public transport.
As noted in our book, it is possible to descend by a more direct route from point 11. You meet the outward route at point 5.
The short walk can still be followed from Foix, up towards the Pech de Foix, but the route is currently blocked at the Pech de Naut farmstead (shortly before point 13). It is not possible to proceed beyond there.
Descriptions of other walks from and near Foix (in French, but with detailed route maps) can be found at www.foix-tourisme.com/accueil/bouger/randonnees.
Walk 6 - the Lordat Castle Walk
Between points 1 and 2 on this walk, it may now be unclear which path is the "stony path" to the left which "descends steeply through woodland into the valley below". If in doubt, continue contouring round on the track to the right until it reaches a road. Turn left there and follow the road round to Axiat church (point 4 on our sketch map). From there, continue along the road to Payfoch (point 3), and pick up the walk description in our book from there.
Walk 11 - Puilaurens
As indicated earlier with regard to other walks in our book which follow sections of the Sentier Cathare, the waymarking for those sections is now in red-and-white, not blue-and-yellow or otherwise.
It has been reported that, between points 11 and 12 on this walk, a sign points back uphill to the right for the Serre des Aiguilles. If you see this sign, ignore it. The turning for the Serre des Aiguilles is in fact on the left, further on at point 12, as per the description in our book.
Walk 12 - Quéribus: Long walk and variant
The upper part of this walk, from just before point 8 on our sketch map, can no longer be recommended. The waymarking has been discontinued and the path has become overgrown.
The waymarked route now turns sharp left at a track junction not long before point 8 and very shortly before the "large stone-built farmhouse...which is, sadly, in ruins". It is now advisable to turn left and follow that waymarked route. That route follows a track which more or less contours the hillside for some distance. At a track fork along the way, go to the right.
This route eventually meets the "variant" described in our book just below point 13. If you are still keen to visit Quéribus castle while doing this walk, you need to turn right here and climb to the D19 road. Go right and follow that road up to the Grau de Maury, then go up the access road to the castle. After visiting the castle, descend on the roads by the same route and pick up the "variant" route from point 13. Follow that route back down to Maury.
Walk 15 - Rennes-le-Château
As explained in the update note of June 2015, we now recommend that you split this walk into two: a morning's out-and back from Couiza up to Rennes-les-Château, as described in our book between points 1 and 5; then an afternoon's outing from Couiza out to Coustaussa and back between points 1 and 9.
It is, however, pleasing to have learnt more recently that:
- between points 2 and 3, the open fenced area with junk has long gone; and
- the section between points 11 and 12 is no longer overgrown!
Walk 15 Rennes-le-Château
A reader has reported problems on the route of Walk 15, Rennes-le-Château. With reference to the route map on page 187 of our book, the difficulty (which was of the barbed wire variety) was encountered on the section between points 7 and 8. It seems as if one or more owners no longer want people to walk on this route (which may not be a public right of way).
There is at present no convenient alternative route here. Two other options are suggested:
- Walk from Couiza up to Rennes-les-Château, as described in the book between points 1 and 5, then return by the same route. That is a good morning's walk. For an afternoon outing on the same day, walk from Couiza out to Coustaussa and back, also on the route described in our book, between points 1 and 9. The route between Couiza and Coustaussa is indicated by yellow waymarks and is described in a leaflet that you can find on this web page: www.paysdecouiza.com/randonnees/pdf/fiche-randonnee-4.pdf.
- Try a completely different walk, starting at Rennes-le-Château. This is a circuit of 13km, known as the Circuit du Ritou, which follows a waymarked route in the hills south of Rennes- les-Château. It is described in a leaflet that you can find on this web page: http://www.paysdecouiza.com/randonnees/pdf/fiche-randonnee-7.pdf.
Since the latest printing of the guide, the following website addresses have changed:
http://perso.wanadoo.fr/tpcf has changed to www.tpcf.frIntroduction/Accommodationwww.logis-de-fr.fr has changed to www.logishotels.comIntroduction/Waymarked walking routeswww.ffrp.asso.fr has changed to www.ffrandonnee.frWalk 1www.lecanaldumidi.com has changed to www.midicanal.frWalk 2www.ot-herault.com/minerve has changed to www.minervois-tourisme.frWalk 3www.ot-foix has changed to www.tourisme-foix-varilhes.frWalk 7The best website for information about Montaillou is now www.histariege.com/montaillou.htmWalk 11www.lapradelle-puilarens.com has changed to www.audetourisme.comWalk 14The website for the Chateau Villerouge and Chateau de Termes is now www.audetourisme.comWalk 16www.audetourisme.com/pointBugarach has changed to www.audetourisme.comContact details have also changed for the two following organisations:Comité Départemental Ariegeois de Randonnée Pédestre, Pôle d'Activités - ferme d'Icart, 09240 Montels; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.cdrp09.comOffice Intercommunal de Tourisme des Corbières Sauvages, Route de Padern, 11350 Cucugnan; tel: (00 33) (0)4 68 45 69 40; email@example.com; www.corbieres-sauvages.comFebruary 2012page 112Circular walk north of NébiasRecently it has been possible to follow a route closer to the lake between points 3 and 4, across private land. The text should now read:After descending a fairly steep slope, the path meets a track where you turn left (3). Where the track forks a little further ahead, go right, and soon approach a lake in an open area. This is on the edge of a campsite. Notices may tell you it is private property. If all is well, you should be able to go straight ahead, past the lake. (Formerly, the route was diverted to follow slightly higher ground on the right. If the route is waymarked to follow that diversion once again, follow the waymarks.) About 200 metres after the lake, take a turning on the left (if you follow the diversion, the routes rejoin at this point). The track goes downhill and crosses a small wooden footbridge over a streambed (4).page 207Appendix 2; General publicationsThe latest edition of the guidebook in French to the Sentier Cathare, published by Rando éditions, appeared in 2011 at a price of 9.90 euros.Also published in 2011 by Rando éditions was an excellent map at a scale of 1:55,000, showing the route of the Sentier Cathare. That map also shows the routes of many local circular walks, including some that appear in this book. The map currently costs 9.95 euros.January 2012Walk 4 – FoixPages 68 and 73: where the walk follows the Sentier Cathare, the waymarking is now red and white, not red and yellow.Walk 5 – RoquefixadePages 80 and 81:Waymarks are now as follows:- from (1) to (3) – red and white (Sentier Cathare)- from (3) to (6) – yellow- from (6) to just before (9) – no waymarks (formerly red and yellow, but now removed)- from just before (9) to just after (10) – red and yellow (the Tour du Pays d’Olmes)- from just after (10) to the finish – red and white (Sentier Cathare)Pages 82 and 83:Between point (6) and just before point (9), the Tour du Pays d’Olmes (indicated by red and yellow waymarks) has been diverted to a route that winds uphill through the forest to the north-west of the route described in our book (ie, the route that goes past point (8)). The new route is longer, but is less steep and, in wet conditions, is less slippery than the route described in our book. You may prefer to follow this new route. But take care to follow the red and yellow waymarks – the new route is not yet shown on the IGN 1:25,000 map.Walk 9 – MontségurPage 122:The waymarks between Montferrier and Montségur (on the Sentier Cathare) are now red and white, not red and yellow.August 2006Quéribus Circular Walk, page 160:The route here has changed and should now read:"...The soil here is in places almost bright orange. The vineyards become sparser and on both sides of the track there is now mostly dry, scented Mediterranean scrub. The Sentier Cathare soon branches off to the left, to climb a steep slope. The route of this walk formerly went straight ahead, to pass a smallholding, but it is now best to follow the Sentier Cathare and climb the slope on the left. You eventually rejoin the former route of this walk at a path junction. Turn left there and continue to climb. The ground is rocky in places, and it can be slippery after rainfall, so take great care here...."
Rennes-le-Château, page 186:
The author has discovered new information about Saunière:"... One theory is that Saunière financed all this after discovering Cathar treasure which had been smuggled out of Montségur just before its capitulation and which had been hidden in the churchyard at Rennes-le-Château. But there is no shortage of alternative theories, including some which revolve around Visigothic treasure, the Holy Grail and plundered gold. However, the writer Jean-Jaques Bedu has argued persuasively that Saunière really obtained much of his wealth from a fundraising strategy based on a trafic de messes. To the consternation of his bishop, Saunière successfully solicited, and retained, payments from all over France for saying masses for dear departed loved ones. Nevertheless, the mystery of Saunière's treasure persists - if only because people love to believe that a mystery remains to be solved."
Location map, page 6:
Axat should be on the road between Quillan and Usson, not just to the right of it.
Also there is now no railway service between Axat & Quillan.
Foix castle and museum, page 78:
The telephone number should now be: (00 33) (0)5 34 09 83 83.June 2015
Walk 15 Rennes-le-ChâteauA reader has reported problems on the route of Walk 15, Rennes-le-Château. With reference to the route map on page 187 of our book, the difficulty (which was of the barbed wire variety) was encountered on the section between points 7 and 8. It seems as if one or more owners no longer want people to walk on this route (which may not be a public right of way).There is at present no convenient alternative route here.Two other options are suggested:- Walk from Couiza up to Rennes-les-Château, as described in the book between points 1 and 5, then return by the same route. That is a good morning's walk. For an afternoon outing on the same day, walk from Couiza out to Coustaussa and back, also on the route described in our book, between points 1 and 9. The route between Couiza and Coustaussa is indicated by yellow waymarks and is described in a leaflet that you can find on this web page: www.paysdecouiza.com/randonnees/pdf/fiche-randonnee-4.pdf.- Try a completely different walk, starting at Rennes-le-Château. This is a circuit of 13km, known as the Circuit du Ritou, which follows a waymarked route in the hills south of Rennes- les-Château. It is described in a leaflet that you can find on this web page: http://www.paysdecouiza.com/randonnees/pdf/fiche-randonnee-7.pdf.
‘Former Ramblers Director Alan Mattingley retired to southern France
several years back, but this little book demonstrates he is still
putting his walking expertise to good use. It explores the beautiful
and evocative eastern corner of the Pyrenees associated with the
Cathars, a mystical and egalitarian Christian sect, who were ruthlessly
suppressed as heretics by the Roman Catholic church in the 13th
century. The looming castles where the Cathars hid from their
persecutors, some of them seeming to grow from the rock of their
hilltop perches, provide the bases for a varied range of day walks
using the extensive waymarked footpath network in the area as well as
parts of the long distance Sentier Cathare.
It’s an evocatively written guide, with much on history and nature as well as practical walking information and great colour photos of striking landscapes.’
(Des de Mor, Walk Spring 2006)
Where to Buy
Alan Mattingly was director of the Ramblers' Association from 1974 to 1998. He has also held various other posts in the outdoor field, including that of chairman of the Council for National Parks. He is now based in a small town in the eastern Pyrenees which lies just below the 9,000ft Pic du Canigou. When not exploring the Pyrenees on foot, Alan writes and also teaches English. He is author of Walks in the Cathar Region published by Cicerone.View author profile
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