The Sentier Cathare
The Sentier Cathare (or Cathar Castle Walk) is a 12 day walk from the sea (near Narbonne) to Foix (in Ariege), passing by many of the Cathar fortresses. Well, actually most of the existing ruins are not Cathar at all, being later (mostly 14th and 15th century) additions or rebuildings - hence all that raving about the mystical properties of the fortress at Monsegur and sunlight through arrowslits on the solstice (part of the Cathar "mystery") is rather silly! (If you don't know who the Cathars were, you'll have to consult a reference or ask someone, I am too lazy to type in a potted history, though I am getting used to the French keyboard. And the really keen will find a copy of the 1:50 000 carte de randonees sheet "montsegur" helpful in following the rest of this travelogue :-)
Anyway, Jenny and I have just spent four days doing the westernmost stretch of the walk, from Puivert to Foix. On Thursday we made our way to Quillan by train (to Carcasonne) and bus. Quillan has the ruins of a small 13th century fort and a nice Romanesque church. It is on the Walk, but too far to the east for our plans, so we hitched to Puivert. (We had no problems with this, getting there in less than 30 minutes after two rides with pleasant, friendly people.) Puivert is one of the bigger castles, and the keep is in very good condition (it has been restored and is used for poetry readings) - it mostly dates from the early 16th century, however. Starting from Puivert at around 2, we walked the 16km to Espezel, which was mostly flat, about half on roads/lanes and the rest on forest tracks/logging roads. Espezel was rather boring (no historical sites, and it is 3km of asphalt road from the main track); we stayed in the gite (hostel) and ate hardboiled egg on bread with instant noodle soup. (We weren't carrying tents or sleeping bags, since we had booked accommodation in gites and most places served food.)
Friday was more interesting; we made our way to Montsegur directly, skipping Comus, so it was a long day. The route worked its way up and down before dropping into the valley of the Hers; then we climbed up over a lovely forested saddle to Montsegur, which really is dramatic, with the castle perched on a huge rock 280m above the village below. (At least three of you should receive postcards of this!) We stayed in a hostel in a dorm room (which I never like doing, partly from worry about theft but mostly because I like my privacy), but had a really nice dinner in a fancy restaraunt - the best confits du canard I've eaten - for about $25 each. Sleeping was difficult, in a room full of Dutch hikers making strange noises.
The following day we climbed up to the castle, from which there are fantastic views all around (we planned next weekend's trip using the convenient 1 to 1 scale model - we intend to climb the peak of San Bartolemy, at 2468m, if the weather is good). It really is an incredible place for a siege. Descending, we set off for Roquefixade. Lunchtime found us in the small village of Montferrier, which had two open patisseries - this meant fresh bread for lunch and I indulged in a chocolate and coffee cream cake. Hard life, this hiking! Some fairly solid climbs (400m the largest individual one) soon worked that off, however. Near Roquefixade it began to rain (apparently the first rain since November, though the area was so green it was hard to believe -- there are lots of springs, I guess, and the melting snows). We stayed here in a gite very much like an English Bread and Breakfast - basically just someone's home. Our room was immaculate, the people were friendly, and the food was wonderful - duck gizzards as entree, with rabbit for main course and pear flan for dessert; for breakfast homemade jam and bowls of coffee/hot chocolate.
Yesterday we completed the final stretch, to Foix - some boring walking on big roads, but lots of lovely forest tracks with birds singing, flowers, and superb views every so often. And some farmers looking for lost sheep! For the first time in the walk it was overcast, but it didn't rain enough to warrant rain-jackets. The last 400m descent to the Ariege was a bit tough on the feet, but I'm definitely in full health and fit. Foix is a big town, so even on a Sunday we found places to eat and drink. The castle itself is in rather good condition (restoration in the 19th century by one of Viollet le Duc's students :-) and there are great views from the towers. Then it was back to Toulouse by train.