On the road in Occitanie – formerly Languedoc – I head to the village of Lastours, about 15km to the north-east of the famously fortified city of Carcassone.
Here, on a succession of rocky outcrops, I find four towers in various states of preservation. Bleak and rather battered they may appear, but they were once the headquarters of local nobleman Pierre-Roger de Cabaret and a centre of resistance to the crusading forces led by Simon de Montfort – father of the knight who would later play a major part in forcing through Magna Carta in England. Leaving the car in the quiet streets of the village, I begin the ascent towards the lofty fortifications. Not for the first time, my mind dwells on those who must have passed this way before – both Cathar and crusader.
One contemporary chronicler, a Cistercian monk named Peter de les Vaux-de-Cernay, wrote of the fortification as being, “a veritable fountain of heresy”. De Montfort thought so too and the path where I am now walking witnessed one of the more grisly episodes in what was a thoroughly gory episode of European history. In 1209, after an unsuccessful siege of the castle, the crusader general showed his wrath in a particularly gruesome manner. He sent 100 of the defenders of Bram, a village 40km away, minus their noses, lips and eyes, stumbling to the gates of Lastours. At the head of the column was a man who had been left with one eye intact – so he could lead the way.
The place should be thick with ghosts, but seemingly not today. A warming sun beats down and cicadas chirp in the thick underbrush and shapely poplar trees as I ascend towards the gates of the castle. Here, I meet Ingrid Sparbier, an expert on the region and a fount of knowledge about its fortifications and wider history. Lastours, she says, is one of the most dramatic sites in Languedoc. “There is so much to see here – natural and man-made defensive systems, the ruins of a Romanesque church, a fortified village. It all helps tell the story of the crusade against the Cathars, but it’s also fantastic just to walk around the place and enjoy the views.”
As to that grim tale with which the place is synonymous, she suggests, with just a hint of a Gallic shrug, that De Montfort’s cruelty must be seen in the context of its time: “You have to remember it was the Middle Ages. That was the kind of thing that happened.”
As we wander amid the walls and turrets of the site, Sparbier offers a few more insights. “People are often surprised when I tell them that what they can see here – and elsewhere too – isn’t really a Cathar castle. After their victory the royalist forces rebuilt all the fortresses and used them to defend the border with Spain.” With that in mind we head south, past the castle of Termes, ruined but imposing on a peak surrounded by low trees. Peter de les Vaux-de-Cernay, who may well have seen it for himself, described the place as being “marvelously indeed unbelievably, strong and in human estimation… quite impregnable.” Even so, it fell to de Montfort in 1210.