This article was first published in the February 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
Castles and crusaders, cathedrals and heretics – Languedoc is a medievalist’s dream destination. Add to the mix the snow-capped mountains, sweeping valleys, stunning vistas and regional cuisine, it makes for a perfect holiday, too.
Languedoc is a region of south-western France bordering the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean. I visited the area for the first time in 2013 while researching my book on the early 13th-century Albigensian Crusade launched against the area’s Cathar heretics. The book’s title, Kill Them All, reflects the widespread, shocking savagery and destruction of this episode.
The crusade began in earnest at Béziers. On the very first day, thousands of its townspeople were massacred by the crusaders for not handing over the Cathars who lived among them. Hence the infamous (and largely genuine) order of “Kill them all! God will know his own.” It is chilling to stand in the medieval church of Sainte Madeleine on the same site that witnessed the epicentre of the slaughter. The town still sheds blood today with its famous Féria bull-fighting festival held every August.
Béziers is a fascinating town where the lengthy boulevard, cafes, bookshops and elegant 19th-century buildings lie close to crumbling tenements. Here, the Midi Canal, one of the most impressive feats of 17th-century engineering, crosses the 800ft-long Orb Aqueduct, as it links the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
From there, a train or car journey to the crusaders’ next target at Carcassonne takes you through a landscape utterly dominated by never-ending vineyards. It promotes a real sense of continuity: now, as in the Middle Ages, these vines declare the wealth and importance of wine-making to the region. No wonder the medieval chronicles repeatedly tell of vines belonging to the enemy being constantly destroyed. Everywhere you have the opportunity to taste local wines with such suitably historic names as William the Heretic.
Carcassonne itself is arguably the most famous medieval city in Europe. Criticisms of its 19th-century renovations are overdone and cannot detract from the impact of its sheer scale when you first set eyes on it. To walk along its crowded streets in the shadow of over 50 barbicans and towers is to immerse yourself in a medieval world. It was here that the crusaders and the Inquisition set up their headquarters. The basilica is home to what many believed to be the tombstone depiction of the most famous crusader, Simon de Montfort.
The fortified old city is undoubtedly the jewel in Carcassonne’s crown, but neglect the nearby newer town at your peril. Here you will find some of the best examples of the regional dish: cassoulet. This slow-cooked rich casserole of goose or duck leg, pork sausage and haricot beans is as filling as it is delicious.
Don’t worry – you will have ample opportunity to burn it all off as you clamber up the steep and narrow paths of numerous small mountains to visit the glory of Languedoc: its spectacular castles. Vertiginous, precipitous and built into the rock, these incredible fortresses dominate the human landscape on the northern edge of the Pyrenees
Termes, Peyrepertuse, Puilaurens, Quéribus and the four castles perched side-by-side at Lastours are all astonishingly powerful and inaccessible structures. They also appear impervious to military threat, yet all fell to northern French control in the end.
Nearby Montségur saw the last stand of the Cathars in 1244. This most famous castle is the least prepossessing of them all. But it did not have to be: built at nearly 4,000ft, it let geography defend it (hence the name, which means ‘safe mountain’). In fact, it took a 10-month siege to defeat it, after which more than 200 Cathars were seized and burned alive.
But the smaller-scale can be equally impressive and evocative. A highlight is the quiet, isolated mountain village of Montaillou. Its Inquisition records are brought to life in the eponymous bestseller, which lays bare the everyday lives of peasants and heretics. Here you can feel, in the cliché, that you are really stepping back in time. The same is true of the cave complex at Grotte de Niaux, where you can walk into the bowels of the mountains to view prehistoric cave paintings.
Languedoc attracts not just historically minded tourists but ufologists, cultists and mystics. Believers in the Mayan apocalypse of 2012 gathered at Pech de Bugarach mountain waiting to be saved by aliens; they were disappointed on both accounts.
At a guesthouse believed to be the birthplace of the last Cathar perfect (minister), a coven of white witches offered to cure me of my sunburn. Their proposal only made my face turn even redder.
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
July–August sees a host of festivals and ferias take place in the region, but be warned, it can get very busy. Many other events take place at various points during the year, including a medieval festival in Sommieres, in April.
Languedoc is served by five regional airports: Nîmes, Montpellier, Carcassonne, Perpignan and Béziers, all of which can be reached by a number of UK airports.
What to pack
A sturdy pair of walking boots and possibly a hiking stick. Also a hat to prevent sunburn – as I discovered to my cost at nearly 4,000ft on the snow-capped Montségur.
What to bring back
The obvious answer is a bottle of wine – though, in a region utterly dominated by vineyards, you may find the choice overwhelming!
Visited Carcassonne and nearby towns inc Narbonne. Steeped in history, delicious food, friendly people
Been at old Carcassonne long time ago; impressive city walls
Lots of pretty villages and castles about
Sean McGlynn’s forthcoming book, ‘Kill Them All’: Cathars and Carnage in the Albigensian Crusade, will be published in March 2015. Read more about Sean’s experiences in Languedoc at historyextra.com/languedoc