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The Cathars - Part 1

Long, long ago (12th centuryA. D.) in a land rich in turreted and fortified stone castles, and peopled with royalty, knights and roaming troubadours as well as hard working peasants, a religion emerged called Catharism and it was embraced with zeal by royalty and peasant alike. Alas, however, this wasn't the beginning of a once-upon-a-time/happily-ever-after story but a story of butchery and blood!

The basic tenet of Catharism was that there are two creations; good i.e. the spiritual world of beauty and light over which God reigns; and evil i.e. the material world of earth governed by Satan. Man is caught in the evil world and the Cathars were obsessed with freeing man from evil and restoring him to divine purity. They also believed that in order to go to heaven, the soul had to be pure. If your soul wasn't pure, you were reincarnated. In other words, you got to have lots of chances instead of just one. What a deal!

I'm not certain I have that quite right, but the bottom line was the Cathars were in conflict with the orthodox Christian church of the time, the Roman Catholic Church, who were mightily pissed off at them. The Cathars decided that the Roman Catholic Church had lost its way and was way too materialistic. The Roman Church decided that the Cathars were heretics and had to repent or be killed…


One of the major cities, which embraced Catharism, was Albi (ergo the name 'Albigensian'). We drove to Albi from St. Chinian for a day trip. It was almost a 2-hour drive by way of St. Pons, Mazamet and Castres. The road in and out of St. Pons is mountainous but then the landscape changes character becoming softer and greener, with rolling hills and lush meadows dotted by light brown cows and large farm houses.

Street in Albi

'La Rouge' Albi (it was constructed from red brick rather than stone) lies along the River Tarn and makes a very pretty picture against the blue sky and river. We found a parking lot not too far from the river and the Cathedrale St. Cecile (an enormous and beautiful cathedral, but that's another story…). It was, however, almost noon (& everything closes at noon!) so we scurried over to the Tourist Office to grab some brochures to peruse over lunch.

The tourist office gave us a brochure with 'self guided walking tours' around the medieval town and we decided that instead of spending the next two hours in a restaurant that we would do one of the tours and grab a sandwich from a shop along the way. We decided on the 'red route' (there was also a blue, purple and gold route), which wound in and through the center of the area. The Map was in French but it wasn't too difficult to follow and there were plaques upon the buildings (some were in English as well as French) indicating the 'points of interests'.


The narrow, twisting, cobbled streets are closed to cars and as they were mostly empty (everyone else was inside eating!) we were able to wander leisurely, making a game of finding 'the next plaque' (we found all 18 of them!) and guessing what the building was - then and now! One of our 'fun' discoveries was a primary school. The windows were painted with whimsical storybook characters. Charmed, we stopped to take photos. The door opened and out rushed students and their teachers. When they saw us, the students wanted us to take their pictures, the teachers 'tsked' and tried to round them up! They were SO cute! As they walked down the street in single file they each either held the hand or the coattail of the little'un in front of them.

Grade school

Another surprise discovery was the cloistered garden of the Church of Saint Salvi. The route takes you up an alley (narrower than most, darker and older than most) and an ancient stairway, which seems to lead to nowhere (that you think you want to go anyway!). Then you open an old, heavy wood door and you are rewarded with a small garden with a metal sculpture of a peacock as its centerpiece! Our walk took us to other 'out of the way' places - quiet courtyards (one with stone sculptures of the original owners…), small gardens (my favorite was the cabbage flower garden), back alleys in which were 'hidden' tiny restaurants - and down the main 'drags' (albeit pedestrian) and past numerous shops.

St Salvi cloisters

Our plan of finding a bakery or deli for a sandwich was not a good one, however, as we discovered that they also close up for lunch! Around 2pm we sat down on a bench under a tree in a small square and waited for a bakery to open which had sandwiches in its display window (and to sit for a while!). We were facing a bookstore and I was interested to see that just after 2pm the tiny store was soon doing a brisk business. Everyone seemed to enter quickly, choose a book or two, pay and leave just as quickly (no browsing!). The end of the lunchtime shopping stop? At 2:30, the bakery had still not opened so we gave up and walked to the Toulouse Lautrec Museum (we were able to buy a roll and coffee at a Café along the way thank goodness!).

Cabbage 'Flowers'

The Toulouse Lautrec Museum was, quite simply, fantastic!!! It alone made the 2 hr drive worth it! Housed in the former archbishop's palace (which is not humble, I think perhaps the bishops were just a tad materialistic in those days….) it is a marvelous exhibit. He is well known for his posters, which are unique (and which I am enamored with). They are vibrant and interesting, with a feeling of movement and a hint of naughtiness (sometimes, more than a hint!). We also saw some of his early works as well as portraits and landscapes and numerous drawings.

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec was born to a relatively wealthy family (his father was a Count), but he spent his life drawing and painting the world of music halls, brothels and racetracks in turn of the century Paris, capturing the 'seamier-side' of society. "Salon de la rue des Moulins" (oh, a brothel for sure!) in Room 11 of the museum stops you in your tracks (fortunately there are benches to sit on!) and you want to sit and stare and stare. The contrasting colors, the faces and the postures of the women… (what ARE they thinking about?, you wonder!) On one wall is the finished painting; on the opposite wall is the pastel study (both are worth 'staring at').
GO to this museum if you are ever in Albi! Oh, and don't miss the Lautrec-like painting on a side door on the outside of the museum, which gives the illusion of looking inside at museum goers looking at Lautrec paintings - a century ago. Too fun!

Toulouse Lautrec museum


But back to our story about the Cathars. In the first decade of the 13th century representatives of the Catholic Church traveled the country in their efforts (to no avail) of denouncing Catharism and bringing the populous back into the fold. In 1208 one of the Pope's legates was assassinated. The incident sparked off the First Albigensian Crusade.

Knights across Europe rallied to fight the "Holy War" (more I wager, from the promise of loot and land as a reward than religious fervor!). The Crusaders laid siege to Bezier on July 22nd, 1209. The city was pillaged and burned. When the Papal Legate, Arnaud, was asked how they were to tell the Roman Catholics from the Cathars, he told the Crusaders "Kill them all. God will recognize his own!" They did. Nearly 20,000 men, women and children. Bezier was reduced to ashes. Bezier had a long history before the Cathars (there was a Roman colony on this site) and a long history after the Cathars. A lot of it brutal and hard (history has so much brutality and hardship!) but nothing that matches the part it played in the Albigensian Crusade.

Bezier is built upon a plateau overlooking the river Orb, the Midi Canal and the vineyards below. It is very close to Saint Chinian and we drove there early one evening in search of an Internet Café. First we wanted to go to the tourist information office to ask if Bezier even had one! We had a map showing its location but we found the traffic and the directions overwhelming and confusing. We decided to park on a side street off of the Av St Saens and walk around in hopes of finding one or the other (tourist office or Intranet Café!). The streets were "San Francisco-like" in their steepness and busy and seemed more commercial than charming and inviting. But truthfully we did not see much of this city so I don't think we gave it 'a fair shake' tourist-wise. That evening we found neither the tourist office nor an Internet Café and I think our impression of Bezier was tainted by our frustrations and we did not return (which in retrospect is a shame). We did however find a statue of Pierre-Paul Riquet (of Midi Canal and Sete fame!). Bezier was his hometown after all!


Discover Cathar Country, Michele Aue
Wonderful Languedoc-Rousssillon, Alain Dag'Naud, Catherine Bibollet
Michelin Languedoc Roussillon
Musee Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi-Tarn
Brochure, Tourist Map, Office de Tourisme Beziers
Brochure, Albi, Albi Tourisme
The Road From the Past, Ina Caro is owned and operated by Midi Hideaways Ltd - Registered in England number 4956942

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