As my husband and I climbed up the wide circular stone staircase to our hotel room in the Chateau des Ducs de Joyeuse on the first night, I knew this would be a very different trip. Already I felt all I was missing was a jousting spear and I could just as easily be accessing a medieval castle as a lodging facility -- and then I found out I was. This certainly set the tone for our Walking Through History Tour of southern France, sponsored, ironically, by a company called New England Hiking. We hiked through, around, up and over one medieval village after another, spanning an area of the country that even many French natives know little about. As we traversed castles and countryside covering the Middle Ages of the 11th to the 14th centuries, we also were immersed in their history.
According to our guide, Richard Posner, every mountain, every hill has great historic and cultural significance, and his running commentary throughout the trip bore him out. Visigoth chateaux, Knights of Templar towers, Cathar castles -- admittedly I knew little about these guys when I got there, but by the time we were done visiting their many abodes, I felt we were all old friends.
The walks ranged from easy to moderately challenging and the talks from fascinating to eyes-glazed-over, usually in direct proportion to the difficulty of the hikes. There were times when I might have preferred to be back at the castle courtyard relaxing with a vin de pays -- but I was willing to wait. Cresting a hill, I would often turn and look back down upon an expanse of beautiful countryside that had been there the whole time but I was too focused on putting one foot in front of the other to notice.
As we walked, we would come to a crossroads where the fragrance of multihued wildflowers heightened senses that had already been challenged by vistas of distant mountains and castle ruins. Bean crops, vineyards and barley were all vying valiantly for attention -- demanding notice in many directions at once.
Our first visit was to the tiny medieval town of Cassaignes, which consists of a few houses and churches dating back 900 years. As we traveled from one medieval village to another, we heard stories of church intrigue and love stories, military battles and religious controversies, mysterious anecdotes of priests and royals and other local residents over the centuries that brought the towns to life in a very tangible way.
At night we were regaled with tales pertaining to the next day's adventures. As one of our compatriots, Genevieve Auman of Chesapeake, Va., enthused about Richard: "He opens his mouth and facts fall out." The fact that he could make these facts endlessly interesting was the real accomplishment. He spoke about art, flora and fauna, food, geography, geology, history, wine, zoology -- an A to Z anthology of topics that piqued our interest.
Every morning Richard's wife, Marion, scoured the market in preparation of our picnic lunch, comprised of different breads, cheeses, fresh fruit, French sweets and some local village delicacy, which we feasted upon overlooking a lake, a garden, a vineyard or some random medieval ruin. And every day they got the same response -- it just doesn't get any better than this!
Accompanying us on much of our journey were the Cathars, Roman Catholic heretics who were in prominence from the 10th to the 12th centuries and ultimately destroyed by the Crusades, and the Knights Templar, a well-financed military religious order of the 12th to 14th centuries and later rumored to be a secret society that exists to this day.
One of the castles we visited, the impregnable Queribus Tower, was the last of the Cathar castles to fall. The old Roman structure, which was probably initially constructed in the fourth century, had been later refurbished by the Cathars to resist attack during the Crusades. Those "recent" restorations took place in the 13th century. This sense of time warp is ever present. The present and past -- long-ago past -- coexist harmoniously as one can travel back and forth through multiple centuries within a couple of hours of doing day-to-day errands.
As we climbed the almost half-mile straight up, I couldn't help but wonder why anyone would want to attack this place. And did they really think that their bows, arrows and swords were going to penetrate the 10-feet thick walls?
Views from one tower to the next compete with each other for their own personal sense of wonder and enormity of vision. We could look over a vast countryside from a 360-degree angle from multiple towers in a single day.
Early one morning Richard pointed knowingly to a small abbey halfway up a mountain. Our collective response was, "You're kidding, of course." He wasn't. And not only did we make it to the abbey, but we got to the top of the mountain, as well. Admittedly the ascent was much less challenging than it appeared, but we still all felt proud.
Near Rennes les Bains, we stopped at Mount Cardou (Mountain of the Body of God), where one of the most controversial of the Knights of Templar theories is in evidence -- that within the mountainside is a cave containing the buried remains of the body of Christ. Whether true or not, just standing there felt like a spiritual experience. The Knights were ostensibly eliminated as an organized religion by the 14th century -- although that may be a surprise to Dan Brown, whose "DaVinci Code" perpetuated many of these theories.
But nothing we had seen up to then could prepare us for Carcassonne, Europe's largest and best-preserved fortified city, an entire medieval town protected by almost two miles of double walls and 52 watchtowers.
It's hard to imagine walking among the knights, priests and ladies of the time with the proliferation of cafes and souvenir shops that are reminders of the modern world. But anyone who looks up long enough at the towers, castles and cathedrals can almost block out the intrusion. Still, it's not often you ask for directions to a bathroom and are told to take a right turn over the drawbridge.
Late in the evening or early in the morning when most of the tourists are gone, it's much easier to imagine yourself a Cathar merchant meandering the cobblestone streets, through the maze of bridges, towers, concentric walls, castles, archways, tunnels and streets so narrow you can reach out your arms and touch both sides simultaneously. Once the crowds are back in, it's possible to imagine another similarity to medieval times -- only now the throngs, equally motivated, are coming to shop rather than siege.
As we left Carcassonne, our exposure to medieval architecture and lifestyle wasn't over, but our connection with the Cathars and the Knights Templar was, so it seemed an appropriate time to say goodbye. We would spend three more days exploring the medieval city of Conques, a major stopping point along the French route of the Spanish Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage of the 12th to 13th centuries that is still popular today, but that's a story for another time.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information about the Walking Through History Tour of Southern France, visit www.nehikingholidays.com or call 800-869-0949.
Fyllis Hockman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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