The Aude: Cathar Country in Southeastern France

Tucked onto the southeast corner of France is a small department named after the major river that runs through it called the Aude.  To the south lie the Pyrenees, to the north the Black mountain. Two basins, the Languedoc basin on the eat and the Aquitaine basin on the west, contain most of the population, much of it along the Aude river, as you can see in the map below.

Map of the Aude 

Carcassonne is centered in the prefecture of the Aude department in the newly formed region of the Occitanie. The walled old city and its medieval citadel is the second most visited tourist attraction in France after the Eiffel Tower. Castelnaudary is "world capital" of the area's most famous dish, cassoulet. Lovely Limoux is known for its sparkling wine called Blanquette de Limoux, and has a fine medieval center, Rennes-le-Château  has a long history and great views of the countryside, but folks come in droves for the mystery surrounding its 19th-century priest Bérenger Saunière, the funder of the famous Tour Magdala, and his alleged discovery of a buried treasure which allowed him to spend lavishly on such projects. The Aude river runs through Quillan, considered to be one of the best situated cities in France. From here it is easy to reach the Cathar Castles to the east, marked by red boxes on the map. Just beyond are the beaches. Shouldn't you plan a vacation in the Aude?      

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Pictures of Cathar Castles

Remote castles in the Aude département of France, marked on the map

An Incredibly Condensed History of the Cathars

In the twelfth century a new religion swept across southern Europe. Today we call it Catharism. Cathar beliefs were simple and unadorned, unlike those of the ruling Catholic church. They based them on the Sermon on the Mount. 

  • They opposed gross materialism, in opposition to the Catholic church of the time. The material world was evil; they opposed bringing children into it.
  • They doubted the divinity of Jesus
  • They believed that God ruled in heaven and the devil, a bad god, controlled the earth. 

Which means, of course, that the established church didn't like them much, and they quickly became the kindling for the dominent culture's bonfires. They retreated to remote castles. They were burned alive. The last stand was taken inside perhaps the most dramatically situated castle, Château de Montségur, where the Cathars fell after a 10 month siege in 1244. It was a test of what was to come on the heals of the victory at Montségur, the Inquisition.

The following video will acquaint you with the first two bloody massacres at Beziers and Carcassonne in 1209.

The Cathar Crusades: David Raetsen

The "Easy" Château: Arques

Château d'Arques isn't really a Cathar Castle, so it's not on an inaccessible peak. It was completed in 1316, after the Albigensian Crusade. The square keep is 25 meters high. It's also associated with the village of Arques, so you can visit the museum dedicated to the Cathars--and parking is close to the site. 

The chateau has four floors, accessed through spiral staircases, with fantastic views of the surrounding countryside. 

 Arques is 25 km south-east of Limoux and 25 km north-east of Quillan. 

Lodging isn't easy to find in Arques, but we highly recommend the Ducs de Joyeuse, a hotel and restaurant inside a castle built between 1540 and 1560 that isn't as expensive as you might think. It's in neaby Couiza

For Medieval Music Lovers: Chateau de Puivert

You can also easily drive up to Chateau de Puivert. Then it's a short walk up a hill to get to the ruined castle. The interesting thing about the castle is that there are stone carvings in the chapel representing musical instruments being played. These instruments have been replicated and the ethnographic Museum Quercorb-Puivert--Le musée du Quercorb--you can hear them being played. The video below will give you a two minute idea of the town, the chateau, and the museum.

Musée du Quercorb - Puivert 

Alet Les Bains

Unless you're a true Francofile, it's doubtful you've heard of Alet les Bains. It's springs are the source of a popular bottled water and the thermal waters have been praised since Roman times. In 813,  Béra, Viscount of Razés, founded a Benedictine abbey that was made into an Episcopal see, and the cathedral was built alongside the Abbey.  It is in ruins now, victim of the Huguenots during the religious wars. The exposed, honeyed  stones urge you to  pick up a camera and click away. The village, especially it's central square, is a lesson in medieval architecture. Amongst all this ancient eye candy are two compelling places to stay, the Hostellerie de l'Eveche is located in the old Episcopal Palace, restored to its state at the time of the Bishops. Les Marguerites is a very highly rated Guest House with a great location and free use of bicycles, a useful means of transportation in these flat lands. Read more about either by clicking the buttons below.   

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Carcassonne & La Cité

One of the most awesome views of a walled city comes from the Autoroute when you're approaching Carcassonne. La Cité is the medieval part of Carcassonne; it is surrounded by the modern city. There are 3 kilometers of surrounding wall and 52 towers. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. It is very crowded during the summer; go in the off season.

Picture: Carcassonne, Le Cite - By Chensiyuan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons