Even with someone else transporting your baggage, a hike in the French Pyrenees is no walk in the park! By Day 10 of our rondonné (“tour”) along the mountainous Cathar Trails in April, we were truly ready for a day off. I guess we are not alone, as the walk organisers have built an extra night’s stay at Montségur into their itinerary.
The delightful town of Montségur is the perfect place to spend an extra day or two. The trip notes suggested a 12 kilometer hike along steep rocky trails to the Massif of Tabe. We opted instead for a more “touristy” day, climbing up to the fortress in the morning before lunching half the afternoon in a charming restaurant with style (and prices) worthy of any Parisian café. It was a wise decision, as half way through the afternoon the skies opened up, and we were caught in the first real rain of our trip. The local museum was the perfect umbrella.
The climb up to the ruins of château Montségur is steep and treacherous, especially in windy weather. What remains of the castle, which was predominantly built in 1204, is not particularly impressive, but as it is perched 1216m high on a “pog”, a massive rock, overlooking the current village and the surrounding mountain ranges, the views are worth the effort.
Montségur is the best known of the Cathar castles, and was one of the last strongholds during the Albigeois Crusade. It seems like an unassailable location, but in 1244, after ten long months of seige to an army of 10,000, the community of Cathar refugees living on the rock succumbed to what the Michelin Green Guide calls the “Montségur holocaust”.
Our hosts at L’Oustel were true characters: round and rosy, Annick is the embodiment of “apple-faced” as an adjective; Serge is a laughing, bawdy cross between David Jason in “Darling Buds of May” and Gérard Depardieu. The food was, naturellement, superb, and provided topic for discussion as the merits of, for example, illes flottant were compared with des blancs d’oeuf en neige. Ample muscat and wine smothed out any possible edges.
These tiny Pyrenean villages are refuges for artists, many of whom come from other parts of France. Serge, our host, was able to pursue his artistic passions once they moved away from the city, and after working in many mediums found his calling in metal-work. His pieces can be seen around the house and yard, and it is his commisioned oxen that grace the entry to the village.
From Montségur the Cathare trail weaves its way to the village of Montferrier, traversing the Modini forest before reaching the Pyrenean village of Roquefixade, an ancient bastide of the 13th century.
We were working our way downhill, following damp paths along side a riverbank, delighting in the delicate colours of spring flowers in the wet undergrowth and the hum of the insects in the air, when the silent stillness was broken first by runners from behind us, and then by moto-cross bikes screaming and leaping towards us. Spring had truly arrived!
I got really excited when we reached Montferrier and I saw a building brightly painted with a sign for a café… unfortunately, the sign was all that remained of the coffee shop, and we had to make do with picnic supples from the local grocers.
When the notes say: “The waymarking is good”, it is no grounds for complaceance; although there were plenty of signs as we traversed two more forests, there were also plenty of sign-less cross-points. But, we eventually worked our way under and around Roquefixade – another Cathar castle dug into the top of another imposing rock – and after enquiries of several locals, found our home for the night.
Of course, we were met with muscat, wine, glorious food, new good hosts and our familiar French walking companions, for another wonderful evening around a dinner table.