Traveling in France
If you have followed this blog-project for a while you might think me as one experienced, solid and well-traveled guy who has probably scores of travel stories in mind (all worth writing about, of course).
This would really be a cool thing, but I have to admit that this is unfortunately not exactly the case – I never traveled that much in my life, and I visited France (one of my favorite destinations by now and the immediate neighbor of Germany, after all) for the first time as I was well over 20.
Much later, in my mid-30s, I started to visit France at least twice a year, but sidestepped the more popular tourist destinations like Paris or Bordeaux for various reasons.
And so one of my very first more extensive hiking tours took place near the border to Spain, on parts of the Sentier cathare (“Cathar Trail”) between the towns of Foix and Montségur.
The whole trip was rather random sightseeing and I didn’t even wear adequate hiking boots during my tour. But in hindsight it was a noteworthy experience nonetheless, not least since particularly Montségur has a very illustrious (or rather tragic) history.
The Sentier cathare is a long distance trail in the very south of France with an overall length of about 220 kilometers. It is split into twelve stages, with the end points Foix in the Ariège department and Port-la-Nouvelle at the Mediterranean Sea.
Of these twelve stages, you can find the first (or the last, depending on the starting point) between Foix and Roquefixade, and the second between Roquefixade and Montségur.
Onto those two stages I want to focus in the following paragraphs.
The Castle Foix (Château de Foix) with its three distinctive towers dominates the small town of Foix (10.000 inhabitants), which is located eighty kilometers south of Toulouse.
The striking architecture stems for the most part from modifications of the castle structure during the 15th and 16th century. The towers served several purposes, but the (most recent) round tower was mainly utilized as a dungeon.
The château, whose individual parts appear in some sections like mere ruins, houses a museum (Musée départemental de l’Ariège) today. The ascent to the castle itself starts usually at the church Abbatiale Saint-Volusien de Foix, but is actually not part of the described trail.
The trailhead of the Sentier cathare is situated near the train station in Foix next to the stream Ariège, and leads after sixteen kilometers to the village of Roquefixade and the second stage of my tour.
Roquefixade is a very small village of about one hundred inhabitants somewhat aloof from major traffic ways.
The place possessed also a castle (built in the 11th or 12th century) until its complete demolition in the 17th century.
Reconstructing the original appearance of the castle is almost impossible since there are only minor remains on the castle hill which one will find.
The site used to serve as a quarry for local residents after the destruction of the château which had led to further deterioration of the ruins.
The final destination of my tour was Montségur fifteen kilometers south-east from Roquefixade.
This very location was the last resort for the Cathars, a persecuted Christian movement in the 13th century who are the actual eponym for the Cathar Trail.
After the capture of Montségur in 1244 and burning alive its still resisting inhabitants (the usual verdict for supposed heretics at the time), the Cathar castle on the crest was razed to the ground and replaced by a new château shortly after – the remains of this one still present and visible today.
The pictures might suggest an exhausting ascent to the former castle grounds, and indeed climbing up the steep hillsides is not a piece of cake though you can do it in around thirty minutes – the magnificent view from the hill will make up for all your efforts.
The described tour was only a foretaste of what would follow the next years – hiking in high altitude mountains and on really challenging trails like the GR20 on Corsica.
Nevertheless the Sentier cathare is a trail I want to repeat one day. I cannot imagine ever getting bored of tours like these, however short they may be.
Featured image: View from the Montségur crest