The Montagne Noire forms the western extremity of the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut Languedoc, and while there’s no public transport between the villages within, offer immense and spectacular scenery.
Montolieu, semi-fortified and built on the edge of a ravine, has set itself the target of becoming France’s secondhand book capital, with its shops overflowing with dog-eared and antiquarian tomes. Drop in to the Librairie Booth, by the bridge over the ravine, for English-language titles. Saissac, 8km beyond Montolieu, is an upland village surrounded by conifers and beechwood, interspersed with patches of rough pasture, with gardens terraced down its steep slopes. Remains of towers and fortifications poke out among the ancient houses, and on a spur below the village stand the romantic ruins of its castle and the church of St-Michel.
Some 14km west of Saissac on the D103, the ancient village of St-Papoul, with its walls and Benedictine abbey, makes for a gentle side trip. The abbey is best known for the sculpted corbels on the exterior of the nave, executed by the “Master of Cabestany”. These can be viewed free at any time, although the interior of the church and its pretty fourteenth-century cloister are also worth a peek. The “main” D629 road winds down through the forest past the Bassin de St-Férréol, which was constructed by Riquet to supply water to the Canal du Midi, and on to Revel. Revel is a bastide dating from 1342, featuring an attractive arcaded central square with a superb wooden-pillared medieval halle in the middle. Now a prosperous market town (Saturday is market day), it makes an agreeably provincial stopover.
The most memorable site in the Montagne Noire is the Châteaux de Lastours, the most northerly of the Cathar castles. There are, in fact, four castles here – their ruined keeps jutting superbly from a sharp ridge of scrub and cypress that plunges to rivers on both sides. The two oldest, Cabaret (mid-eleventh century) and Surdespine (1153), fell into de Montfort’s hands in 1211, after their lords had given shelter to the Cathars. The other two, Tour Régine and Quertinheux, were added after 1240, when the site became royal property, and a garrison was maintained here as late as the Revolution. A path winds up from the roadside, bright in early summer with iris, cistus, broom and numerous other plants.