In South West France, pensioners playing pétanque in the place, patrons sipping strong dark coffee, enjoying the peace and quiet. In the countryside, fig trees, orchards, vineyards, sunflower fields, corn fields cover the gently rolling hills like a multicolour patchwork quilt.
This is the Languedoc today, that medieval fairy-tale land of the troubadours and courtly love. It is difficult to picture the violence and devastation that took place here in the 13th century.
Recently I was reading a book about the Cathars, a group of dualist Christians that appeared in the 11th century in Europe, especially in the Languedoc region of France. The Catholic Church declared them heretics and persecuted them, with the help of the French king, in what became known as the Albigensian Crusades. The epicentre of Cathar activity -and therefore of the crusade- was the city of Toulouse, on the banks of the Garonne River, and surrounding areas.
My husband and I got to know the area fairly well. His brother owned a 15th century farmhouse and we used to go on long drives when we stayed with him. We liked to stop at every bastide, fortified medieval towns perched on top of hills. Some spiral up the hill, some sit on flat land.
I loved the old constructions, the stone walls edging along the side of the hill, the little churches with creaky doors. There was always a stray cat lazing around. I wonder what stories these stones would tell. Stories of heroism in times of war, maybe even during the Albigensian crusades to root out the Cathars, of hard work for long hours, of sacrifice, religious and political persecution, love, laughter, triumph and defeat, stories of misery and happiness.
Every bastide had a central square, which was always neat and tidy, with knotty plane trees. Wood benches beneath the trees invited passers-by to take a load off. Potted geraniums on the window sills reminded me of my great-grandmother’s house. She had very similar oblong terracotta pots and white ones with a scallop motif on four squat legs.
It all felt familiar and strange at the same time. I wonder why I need to find something I can relate to in a place I’m visiting to make it mine. This can be a smell, a garden, a flavour, anything that triggers memories.
Paradoxically, the heretic Languedoc was part of the Way of St. James, the medieval pilgrimage route to the shrine of St. James of Compostela in northern Spain. Compostela, where St. James was believed to be buried, became a Christian pilgrimage centre as early as the 9th century and rivalled Rome and Jerusalem in importance. This route is known as Via Tolosana because it passes through Toulouse towards the Pyrenees and Spain.
Some of the bastides we visited in the Lot valley were stops on the Way, like Montcuq and Lauzerte, with its Saturday flea market and little winding streets. Or Moissac, whose abbey is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a major pilgrimage centre even today. There were small effigies of St. James wearing a pilgrim’s hat and staff sitting above door lintels in every town. Guiding pilgrims? Protecting the town’s residents? Staking a claim?
We saw many people wearing backpacks and hiking poles and shoes, they did not look like average tourists, however. There was a mixture of determination, exhaustion and satisfaction in the way they walked and looked around. These modern pilgrims needn’t be Catholic or Christian. They can be Cathar heretics if they wish. No one is going to persecute them in the Languedoc.
For hardcore pinners!