Positively Medieval: Hiking through ancient mysteries in southern France
Climbing up the wide circular stone staircase to our hotel room in the Chateau des Ducs de Joyeuse on the first night, I could just as easily have been accessing a medieval castle as a lodging facility.
Then I found out I was, although I suspect our room was a lot less drafty than those of the lords and ladies who preceded us.
It set the tone for our Walking Through History Tour of Southern France conducted, ironically, by a company called New England Hiking.
As we hiked through, around, up and over one medieval village after another, our guide Richard Posner immersed us in their Middle Ages history stretching from the 11th to the 14th century with a running commentary of the historic and cultural significance of every mountain and hill, Visigoth chateaux, Knights Templar tower, and Cathar castle.
Our first visit was to the tiny medieval town of Cassaignes that does not see a lot of drive-by traffic. Consisting of a few houses and churches dating back 900 years, the sense of history was moderated by a large red tractor by the side of one house that appeared out of place by several centuries.
Along the way, tales of church intrigue, love stories, military battles and religious controversies, and mysterious anecdotes of priests, royals and other local residents long dead brought the towns to life. For one, in the 1890s a priest named Berenger Sauniere sold medieval documents he found in the hollow of the church at Rennes Les Chateaux for great sums of money. What were those documents about? Does Holy Grail mean anything to you?
Each morning, Richard's wife, Marion, scoured the local market to prepare a picnic lunch of bread, cheese, fresh fruit, French sweets and some local delicacy that we feasted upon overlooking a lake, garden, vineyard or some medieval ruin.
Much of our journey included the Cathars, Roman Catholic heretics who were prominent from the 10th to 12th centuries but ultimately destroyed during the Crusades, and the Knights Templar, a well financed military religious order of the 12th-14th centuries rumoured to be a secret society that still exists.
The last Cathar castle to fall, the Queribus Tower, was an old Roman structure built in the 4th century that was refurbished by the Cathars to resist their attackers. The most recent restoration took place in the 13th century.
This sort-of time warp is ever present in southern France. The present, past and long-ago past coexist seamlessly as one travels back and forth through multiple centuries within a couple of hours of doing day-to-day errands.
Near Rennes les Bains, we stopped at Mount Cardou, where one of the most controversial of the Knights Templar theories is in evidence. Within the mountainside is a cave said to contain the buried remains of the body of Christ. True or not, standing there felt like a spiritual experience. The Templars were ostensibly eliminated as a religious order by the 14th century, although that may be a surprise to Dan Brown whose "DaVinci Code" perpetuated many of these theories.
Nothing we had seen up to then could prepare us for Carcassone, an entire medieval town protected by almost three kilometres of double walls and 52 watchtowers that is one of Europe's largest and best-preserved fortified cities.
It's difficult to imagine yourself walking among the knights, priests and ladies of medieval times with the proliferation of cafes and souvenir shops keeping you grounded in the modern world.
Still, how often do you ask for directions to a bathroom and are told to take a right turn over the drawbridge? I managed to avoid the moat en route.
Late in the evening or early in the morning, when most of the tourists are gone, it's much easier to imagine yourself a Cathar merchant meandering the cobblestone streets, through the maze of bridges, towers, concentric walls, castles, archways, tunnels, and streets so narrow you can reach out your arms and touch both sides simultaneously.
For more information about the Walking Through History Tour of Southern France, visit nehikingholidays.com or call (800) 869-0949.