The last 200. A postcard from Occitania.
“It’s only a 170 meter climb”, the guide said. Around 500 feet above the mountain pass. Technically, that was true. Ten minutes later, it struck me as slightly misleading. Pamela and I were climbing to the fortress of Montségur. The castle of Montségur was, in 1244 A.D., the last stronghold of a sect called the Cathars, in the South of France. In their eyes, they were not Cathars. They simply called themselves Christians. The Roman Catholic church deemed them heretics. A crusade was launched to eradicate their “false” beliefs. It lead to these steps, carved in the rock. That was the only path to the castle where the last men and women of the group had found refuge.
At the end of a long siege, they were only two hundred left.
The Cathars were labelled a threat to the Roman Catholic Church. They believed in good and evil. They considered women equal to men, in spiritual matters. They believed in reincarnation. They only had one prayer, “Our father, who art in heaven”. The exact same prayer spoken in Aramaic by a man called Joshua, in the Levant, centuries ago. And, probably their worse offense, they did not extoll a tax on the villagers who lived on the same grounds. The tax was called the Dîme, a 10% excise assessed by Church representatives on all property and income. Not collecting the tax on behalf of Rome and for Rome was blasphemous. This was a very bad example to the locals, already known for their opposition to regal and religious authorities. The Cathars exemplified local rules against centralized decrees. Decency versus coercion. Benevolence versus cruelty.
A priest from Spain called Dominic Guzman had been trying to impose the ways of Rome for the last twelve years, in the cities of Toulouse, Béziers, Foix and Albi, in a region now called Occitania. No luck. Pope Innocent III had eventually called on the French King, Louis VIII, to launch a crusade against the Cathars. Louis, who wanted to re-impose his authority on his vassal, the Count of Toulouse, obliged. Toulouse was, at the time, the third most vibrant city of Europe, after Rome and Venice. This was before Paris. The King of France had already borrowed extensively from the counts of Toulouse in the past. His coffers were empty. He had no intention of paying them back. Decades of battle and blood shedding followed. Culminating to the siege of the castle of Montségur, an obscure place in the Pyrénées mountains. More than 3,000 feet high, on top of a peak.
The siege had started ten months prior, in the summer of 1243. The five hundred people imprisoned in their own dwellings had survived the winter. They had water in their cisterns, grain in storage. Nobody had been able to leave the fortress to climb down the treacherous path down the cliff. The soldiers assigned to protect them had fended off the armies of the King of France again and again. Only one person at a time could climb up. The citadel was deemed impenetrable.
I was now sweating and breathing hard. For a moment I envied the walking stick that Pamela had purchased at the local market in the village located below the mountain pass. “Not a walking stick”, said the young woman at the local products stand, “a mushroom detector”. She noticed we spoke English with each other, so she explained quickly: “Eet eeze a jok”. Speaking a Foreign language obviously put us in the humor deficient category. We did not get a chance to test and evaluate this marvelous piece of French technology, since the whole region had been without rain for three months. There were no mushrooms to be detected anywhere. But it did a good job as a walking stick. We had had lunch at the “A la patate qui fume” restaurant in the village of Montségur. “At the smoking potato”. A nice goat cheese on toast salad with walnuts and a zest of honey, followed by a home made apple pie and an expresso. I did not opt for a glass of rosé. Smart choice, I thought, looking up at the vertical rocks above my head. I saw the ticket booth, set up in the woods, half way to our destination. Weird spot for a booth. Later that day, it all made sense. There should have been a sign “Last chance to turn around”, right next to it. Or “Are you sure you want to pay 12 euros for this?” The salesman had a cryptic smile when I asked how much longer the climb would be. “Around 15 minutes”, he said, with a strong southern accent. “You are almost there”. I should have known not to believe him. As I kept going, I kept wondering how the builders of the time did it. Pamela started asking me if I could see the walls of the castle yet. Every three or four minutes, we had a glimpse. The brochure said that mules and donkeys had been used during construction, and later to bring goods to the castle. I kept thinking, there should be a saying, “fit as a donkey”. The hundreds of thousands of heavy gray stones required to build a medieval castle on top of a cliff needed an army of mules. A prodigious effort by 13th century standards. By today’s standards too, if you think of it. What technology could we use nowadays? Probably helicopters.
When we finally made it to the ruins of the castle, the 360 degree view was stunning. We basked in the sun, aware that this scene had been shared by holy men and women. We could hear the bells of the sheep down in the valley. Blue skies. The village looked puny. Here we were, in the midst of a spiritual center representing the battle between good and evil, greed and simplicity, control and free will. We walked in the footsteps of knights, saints, and martyrs.
I did not know it, but going up was the easy part.
The steps had become slippery with time. I offered to go down first. I told Pamela that in case she fell, she would fall on top of me. I would be there to catch her. We quickly realized this was not going to work. We would both tumble down and fall from the cliff together. Even though I am the descendant of basque mountaineers, I had to channel my inner goat to manage the next ten minutes. When it got easier, we ran into a group going up. The crossing was delicate, each one taking turns through a narrow passage. In principle, people going up have the priority. But by that point, exhaustion was setting in. We went first. When asked by a member of the group how much longer the climb would be, I smiled and announced cheerfully “You are almost there”.
As I passed the ticket booth on the way back, I noticed that the local tourist office had installed some railings. That was odd. No railings on the top. Railings on the easy part. It reflected a widely held French belief. When it comes to tourist sites, including old ruins and treacherous treks, be prepared. If you cannot manage the climb or the visit without falling to your death, you probably have no business being there to start with.
After catching our breaths and drinking some cold water, Pamela and I pondered what happened to the people living in Montségur, 777 years ago.
In the spring of 1244, things had gotten worse for the inhabitants of the castle. The siege had taken its toll. The Cathars decided to end the ordeal, for all the servants, soldiers and helpers who supported the community, but were not part of it. A truce was negotiated. Three hundred people were allowed to leave. A few of the soldiers and servants decided to convert and stay with the people that they had learned to respect and love. Some of them were family. They knew their act of allegiance was a death warrant.
The Spanish priest was waiting for the last two hundred at the bottom of the cliff. He had prepared everything in a nearby field. Men, women, children. They all burned. For the priest, Dominic Guzman, who one day would be known as Saint Dominic, it was just the beginning. The last two hundred were in fact the first two hundred victims of the organization he created to serve the Roman Catholic Church. A few chosen priests who would terrorize men and especially women in Western Europe for several centuries. The infamous Holy Inquisition.