Off To Europe: Southern France, Part Three

Today, we went to two Cathar fortresses, Peyrperteuse and Queribus. Both are perched on mountaintops, and though the height isn’t *that* great – about two and a half thousand feet above sea level – you can certainly feel it going up. Queribus came first, accessible via long drive followed by a fifteen-minute hike. The hike ends in a narrow staircase approaching the castle walls, and it was walking up that staircase I realized why people don’t actually build too many castles on top of high mountains, no matter how cool it looks. ITS WINDY. The gate complex plus the stairway and the walls on either side of it formed a sort of wind tunnel, so the narrow, fifty-foot-long final approach had to be done against great gusts of wind, blowing anything and everything away. My glasses very nearly came off multiple times, and I only made it up by pulling myself up along a length of conveniently provided rope, attached to one of the stairway walls. Once in the castle, the wind receded, and there was a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside; I took pictures and contemplated the idea of going up and down that stairway on a regular basis, or worse yet, trying to storm it, with arrows ready to rain down from above.

Queribus was once held by the Cathars, a group of people who had settled in this region of France centuries ago, and had adopted a form of Christianity that praised simplicty and equality, and defied Rome’s central authority. Rome did not look too kindly on this, and eventually a crusade got formed to wipe the Cathars out. Yep, a crusade by some Christians against other Christians. The Cathars did not stand much of a chance, vastly outnumbered and out-funded, but thanks to these crazy castles they managed to hold out for decades before eventually being subjugated by the French Crown.

After a brief exploration of Queribus, we went on to Peyrperteuse. Peyrperteuse is bigger than Queribus, and looks like it’s growing straight out of a massive rock outcropping at the top of a mountain. It looks completely surreal during the drive up, with ramparts and towers emerging straight from the white rock. Upon approaching, we discovered a massive complex with two separate castles, each with chapels, stairways, towers, high walls and plenty of defenses (including the ever-present wind). Overall, the experience was pretty similar to Queribus, with one major exception: we got to see a falconer! Three falconers, actually, all young guys who got up to the castle with us (a large crowd quickly gathered), and began giving a long Lesson On Falcons in French, which I understood very little of. Eventually, they got around to the live demo: one of the falconers brought out the bird, which was beautiful, explained that it had a special little cap and a bell, and took the cap off, but left the bell on. He then let the falcon go. I’ve never seen a falcon fly, and it was simply amazing. The bird would spread and fold its wings very quickly, riding the air current, moving not in a smooth line but in sharp zig-zags, hovering for a second or two, then dropping like a stone and suddenly swooping back up. It was clearly having to deal with the wind, but handling it beautifully. It felt surreal, like no flying bird I’ve ever seen before.

The drive back from the castles went relatively smoothly, and left me with plenty of time to prepare for tomorrow, when we head out to Carcassone. Yep, just like the board game. Stay tuned!

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