Southwest France: Caves and Cathars

April 17, 2009
Eglise in Saiguede

Eglise in Saiguede

One can’t get much luckier than having family in a small, French village. Saiguède, a petit village outside Toulouse in Southwest France, is a sleepy town of around 500 souls, and consists of the obligatory école (school), mairie (mayor’s office), and cenotaph (monument bearing the names of the townsfolk, both military and civilian, who perished during the World Wars). There is, of course, a roundabout in the centre ville, near the church whose Christ had recently tumbled from a wooden cross during a particularly unruly windstorm. Directly across from the church, on lovely cut grass, an eviscerated bunny carcass laid face up, limbs extended to the heavens. By the looks of the skid marks on the road, my nephews estimated it had been hurled fifty feet upon impact. This was Saiguède’s excitement for the day.

Saiguède (pronounced sah-ged) won’t appear on many maps, but the nearby town of St-Lys will. As long as you’re not afraid of a little driving, the possibilities for day trips from the St-Lys-Toulouse area are almost endless.

Pick your history

If you love history, you can plan history-themed day trips – or, I dare say, full vacations – based on a variety of historical timeframes in Southwest France; you can also  mix-and-match a mélange of all that is offered. Southwest France has been home to homo erectus, homo sapiens sapiens (i.e., cro-magnons), the Celts, Romans, and early Christians; the Franks, Vandals, Visigoths, Moors, and Vikings. She witnessed the rise of fiefdoms and bastides (fortified towns), followed by the construction of massive cathedrals and abbeys; these invited the passing of thousands of hungry and pious pilgrims during medieval times. The English brought the Hundred Years War (and lingering anti-English sentiment), and of course there was Eleanor of Aquitane, the crusades, revolts, and finally revolution.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Prehistoric cave art

About an hour and a half drive south of St-Lys, La grotte de Niaux offers views of terrific prehistoric art from around 12,000 B.C. There are many other caves to explore near Niaux in the vicinity of Tarascon-sur-Ariège – Bédeilhac, Lombrives, La Vache, Mas d’Azil – and if traveling north of Toulouse, La Bouiche.

In general, the caves open after Easter, but Niaux can be visited year-round (13.50 euros per adult). Reservations must be made well in advance of the planned visit as conservationists are serious about keeping the human footprint to a minimum. The cave is not for claustrophobes and has no artificial lighting; carry a (supplied) flashlight to avoid stepping in puddles.

The graffiti inside la Grotte de Niaux is almost as impressive as the prehistoric drawings of bison and horses themselves, with fellows from as far back as 1602 leaving their John Hancocks throughout the cave. Reservations are indispensables and can be phoned in at +33-561058837. Speak French or find someone who can.

On my list of things to do next time I visit the Southwest of France is a stop in the small town of Tautavel (near Perpignan), which lies helpfully on the drive to Spain’s Costa Brava coastline. It is here that you can view the half-million year old skull of Tautavel Man, which is on display at the village museum, and visit the cave where archaeologists excavated him.

Live like the Gallo-Romans

Seviac tiles

Seviac tiles

Romans made themselves thoroughly at home in Gaul by the 4th and 5th centuries AD, as can be viewed in exquisite detail at the ruins of Séviac; there are other Roman ruins in the area. Séviac was a grand villa in its day, containing luxurious baths and pools, some based on Oriental models;  the most impressive sites are the elaborate, well-preserved tile floors. All floors were kept warm by an underground heating system provided by fires and the warmth of stacked stones.

It might also be fun to be able to tell your friends that you visited the town of Condom. It’s only 13 km from Séviac, and only 5 km from Larresingle (mentioned below).

Following in the footsteps of the Compostela Pilgrims

Saint James the Apostle is rumored to be buried in the city of Santiago de Compostela in Northwest Spain. In medieval times, pilgrims from Western Europe and beyond made the long, arduous trek on one of four routes leading over the Pyrénées. Each of the routes contains impressive cathedrals, bridges, and other landmarks where the pilgrims could stop, commune, eat, and pray for safe passage. Modern day pilgrims can make the same trek, in significantly more comfort.

Tracing the Decimation of the Cathars

Montsegur

Montsegur

There are many Cathar villages, cities and strongholds that can be visited, but one that shouldn’t be missed is Montségur.

The “heretical” Cathar sect grew rapidly in the 12th and 13th centuries in Southwest France as a reaction to the rich and autocratic Catholic Church. Pope Not-So-Innocent III began the Albigensian Crusade in 1208 (named as such since many of the Cathars were based in the French town of Albi), with the able assistance of the French King and his military.

In May 1243, a ten-month siege began, with the French military surrounding five hundred or so Cathars who were tucked on top of a craggy mountain, with magnificent views of the snow-capped Pyrénées. It was a brutally cold winter, and even under the best conditions it’s hard to imagine five hundred people huddled in one large stone complex at the top of a bleak but excellently fortified hill.

Eventually, the French King offered a truce, but only on the condition that the Cathars renounce their beliefs and join the Catholic fold. This they couldn’t do. On March 16, 1244, over 200 Cathars were burned at the stake at Montségur. This was a demoralizing blow to the few remaining Cathars, the last of which were extinguished by the early 1300’s.

Bastides and châteaux

Cordes-sur-Ciel blue

Cordes-sur-Ciel blue

Hilltop bastides and châteaux, many with Cathar history and connections, are numerous and many make terrific destinations from Toulouse. International tourists tend to visit the oversized (some would say Disneyfied) medieval city of Carcassonne, but the locals head to the more modest and cozy Cordes-sur-Ciel, with its cobbled streets, winding alleys, and dark chocolate crepes.

Larresingle, “the cutest little medieval village in France,” is a stone’s throw from the Roman tile wonderland at Séviac and makes for a nice stop on your way there. Larresingle was founded in the 12th century and was allied with Condom. The ancient town walls and moat are in impressive condition. An unmarked pilgrim bridge, the Pont d’Artigues, lies 1.5 km from Larresingle, and is lovely in its simplicity, with its unusual asymmetrical arches across the murky River Osse.

Hang out in the pink city

St-Sernin

St-Sernin

Or just stick with Toulouse for a day to take in the pink-colored Place du Capitole and its pastel-colored sister buildings on the square. Toulouse was on the southernmost Compostela pilgrimage route and the incredible St-Sernin Cathedral should be on any to-see list. Saturnin (Sernin in Occitane), Toulouse’s first bishop, was martyred in 250 AD, after being dragged through the streets by a bull.

The cathedral can be entered for free, but it is well worth the 2 euros to visit the crypts and ambulatory, where relics (body pieces of saints – a phenomenon that boggles the mind) from several apostles can be gruesomely imagined in their ornate cabinets. Most impressive is the 11th century wall carving of Christ, surrounded by apostles and angels, and containing many symbols that would be of great interest to anyone who read The Da Vinci Code or follows the enigmatic stories of the Knights Templar.

This little piggy went to market

Chocolate cochons at Samatan

Chocolate cochons at Samatan

A careful reading of a good guidebook will inform visitors about which day weekly markets occur in which lovely little towns. The largest and best-known market west of Toulouse is in Samatan, on Mondays. Samatan hosts France’s largest foie-gras market (Halle au Gras), where famous and non-famous alike stand side by side and point at and haggle over bloated duck livers. A more savory market exists outside on the produce side of things (Place des Halles), but there are also plenty of stalls for general market items like clothing, bread, cheeses, snacks, soaps, and chocolates.

A jaunt to the Costa Brava coastline

A trip to Southwest France can benefit from a jaunt into Andorra, known only for “shopping or skiing,” or to Northeast Spain – Catalonia and the Costa Brava coastline – depending on your mood and priorities.

Tossa de Mar

Tossa de Mar

I recommend staying away from the busier and more spring-breakish Lloret de Mar in Catalonia and sticking with the tried-and-true Tossa de Mar. Tossa is a lovely town of around 5,000 with a fantastic hilltop medieval fortified village on Mont Guardi, built during the 12th-14th centuries. Mont Guardi overlooks the sea, and visitors can still walk the Vila Vella (old town) walls and wind down into the Vila Nova (new town) with its cobblestone streets and quaint shops and restaurants.

An even more impressive hilltop fortified city lies in Girona, a short drive from Tossa on your way back to France, which could handily surpass Tossa as the place to stay if you’re willing to be sans plage. With a population of around 80,000 (it feels larger), Girona’s medieval city couldn’t possibly be more magical, with its narrow walkways, steep climbs, Jewish history (centered on Carrer de la Força), and fantastical Romanesque and Gothic buildings. Even before seeing the colorful buildings on the canal/river, Girona felt more like Italy than Spain. And there’s no need for that extra pesky plane fare.

Though I have yet to see for myself, I’ve heard nothing but raves for a village further north on the coast, Cadaquéz, and the nearby Port Lliget, where Salvador Dali enjoyed part of his colorful past.

If I knew then

Vals church entrance

Vals church entrance

Instead of opting for economical airfare in March, I would arrive after Easter, preferably in May (though September would also be nice) – a bit warmer, more places open to the public, but still without the hordes of tourists.

I would return to the tiny village of Vals, located between Pamiers and Mirepoix in the Ariège region, and bring my tripod to get better indoor photos at the subterranean church for the Compostela pilgrims that was literally built into a rocky hill. The views from the grounds are astounding; a photographer’s dream.

In general, I would prioritize more time in the Ariège region – perhaps two nights at Mirepoix and two at Tarascon-sur-Ariège. Mirepoix is a lovely medieval town and a nice springboard into sites east of Foix such as Montségur, whereas Tarascon is just minutes from a handful of caves with prehistoric cave art and fantastic formations. A nearby option that would include spa time is the town of Ax-les-Thermes, close to the Andorra border.

Get your little butt out there!

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