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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons