Romantic and ruined, the medieval fortresses that pepper the hills between Quillan and Perpignan have become known as the Cathar castles, though many were built either before or after the Cathar era. Roussillon, Languedoc and the eastern Ariège were the twelfth-century sect’s power base. Their name derives from the Greek word for “pure” – katharon – as they abhorred the materialism and worldly power of the established Church, and they were initially pacifist, denying the validity of feudal vows or allegiances. While the Cathars probably never accounted for more than ten percent of the population, they included many members of the nobility and mercantile classes, which alarmed the ruling powers.

Once disputational persuasion by the ecclesiastical hierarchy proved fruitless, Pope Innocent III anathemized the Cathars as heretics in 1208 and persuaded the French king to mount the first of many “Albigensian” crusades, named after Albi, a Cathar stronghold. Predatory northern nobles, led for a decade by the notoriously cruel Simon de Montfort, descended on the area with their forces, besieging and sacking towns, massacring Cathar and Catholic civilians alike, laying waste or seizing the lands of local counts. The effect of this brutality was to unite both the Cathars and their Catholic neighbours in southern solidarity against the barbarous north. Though military defeat became inevitable with the capitulation of Toulouse in 1229 and the fall of Montségur in 1244, it took the informers and torturers of the Holy Inquisition another 180 years to root out Catharism completely.

The westernmost Cathar castle, Puilaurens, perches atop a hill at 700m, its fine crenelated walls sprouting organically from the rock outcrops. It sheltered many Cathars up to 1256, when Chabert de Barbera, the region’s de facto ruler, was captured and forced to hand over this citadelle and Quéribus further east to secure his release. The castle remained strategically important – being close to the Spanish border – until 1659, when France annexed Roussillon and the frontier was pushed south. Highlights of a visit are the west donjon and southeast postern gate, where you’re allowed briefly on the curtain wall for views, and the Tour de la Dame Blanche, with its rib-vaulted ceiling.

The history of Quéribus is similar to that of Puilaurens, and it too held holding out until 1255 or 1256; not reduced by siege, its role as a Cathar sanctuary ended with the capture of the luckless Chabert, though the garrison escaped to Spain. Spectacularly situated above the Grau de Maury pass 6km north of the Quillan–Perpignan road, the castle balances on a storm-battered rock pinnacle above sheer cliffs – access is forbidden in bad weather. Because of the cramped topography, the space within the walls is stepped in terraces, linked by a single stairway and dominated by the polygonal keep. The high point, in all senses, is the so-called Salle du Pilier, whose vaulted ceiling is supported by a graceful pillar sprouting a canopy of intersecting ribs. A spiral staircase leads to the roof terrace and fantastic views (best outside summer) in every direction, including Canigou, the Mediterranean and northwest to the next Cathar castle, Peyrepertuse.

If you only have time for one of the Cathar castles, make it the Château de Peyrepertuse, not only for the unbeatable site and stunning views, but also because it’s unusually well preserved. The castle was obtained by treaty with the Kingdom of Aragón in 1258, and most of the existing fortifications were built afterwards, staying in use until 1789. The 3.5-km access road starts in Duilhac village or, alternatively, you can walk up from Rouffiac des Corbières village to the north via the GR36 – a tough, hot climb of over an hour. Either way the effort is rewarded, for Peyrepertuse is among the most awe-inspiring castles anywhere, draped the length of a jagged rock-spine with sheer drops at most points. Access is banned during fierce summer thunderstorms, when (as at Quéribus) the ridge makes an ideal lightning target.

Overlooking the Côtes de Roussillon-Villages wine domaine is the isolated, thirteenth-century Château d’Aguilar; perched at the end of a steep, one-lane drive, its hexagonal curtain wall shelters a keep, with the chatelain’s lodge on the top floor.

Cucugnan, fifty kilometres east of Quillan, half way to the coast, is a popular base for visiting Quéribus (and Peyrepertuse) and there’s ample accommodation in chambres d’hôtes and hotels.

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