Midi-Pyrenees and the Cathars of Languedoc

The Pyrenean mountain range separates the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of continental Europe and forms a natural barrier between France and Spain. The mountains have formed between 100 and 150 mln. years ago, which makes them older than the Alps. This region has a very sparse population – one of the lowest densities in Europe – only 12 to 60 inhabitants per km² (31 to 155 inh. per sq. mile). Half an hour drive from the thriving city of Toulouse and we find a different world with quiet mountain villages, where the pace of time is slow and emotions of the people are pure. Due to their geology, Pyrenees lack low altitude cols, and the major highways and railroads between France and Spain go on the sides of the range, leaving the communication to narrow and winding mountain roads. All this is reflected with gratitude in the nature of the Pyrenees – undamaged and clear, it hosts a lot of endemic animal species and plants.

The etymology of the name Pyrenees comes from a myth about Pyrene, the beautiful, but misfortunate lover of Hercules. It is said that she has been torn apart by wild beasts. While Hercules cried over her remains, he has broken the earth to create mountains over the grave of Pyrene, and that these mountains still echo his cries for her. The first evidence of human habitation here dates to prehistoric times (over 600 000 years BC). The large cave systems in the mountains provided good shelter for the ancient men and still hold their drawings. Around 1000 BC the region was populated by Celtic and Iberian tribes. The Roman Empire held control over the lands from 60 BC, constructing roads and several structures that can be still found. The Roman militaries enjoyed the local thermal water baths and came here for health improvement and recreation. After the fall of the Empire the region was subsequently invaded by Alans, Vandals and the Visigoth (who founded Toulouse) and then – the Moors (8th century AD), and then – the Franks. A mountainous land on the threshold of Central Europe, the Pyrenees naturally became a melting pot for different ethnic groups, keeping the descendants of invading and retreating armies, providing sanctuary and absorbing cultures and beliefs.

By the 11th century the area for hundreds of miles around Toulouse was run by local Counts and was called Languedoc (the Langue d'Oc). This was the time of Troubadours, who spoke Occitan as a literary language and took it across 1/3 of modern France. It was also in the beginning of the Middle Ages that a religion called the Cathar faith took root in the free-minded lands of the Languedoc. Formally Catharism is considered to be a Christian dualist movement. However, Catholic theologians debated with themselves for centuries whether Cathars were Christian heretics or whether they were not Christians at all. The question is apparently still open. The Cathars supported several concepts that were quite progressive for the time, like tolerance and liberalism, development of culture and arts, social equality among men and women, disapproval of the feudal system and even the acceptance of sex for pleasure (and not just for procreation). Cathars also believed in reincarnation and refused to eat meat. The religion was accepted by both, the poor and the noble, and by the end of the 12th century became the faith for the majority of the Languedoc population. This was a great annoyance to the Roman Church, and resulted in a massive crusade that we know as the Albigensian Wars. Over the period of 1208 – 1244 the Cathars were massacred, their beliefs banned and the region of Languedoc annexed to France, significantly extending its borders. But the Cathars have left a romantic and memorable footprint – their Castles.

Our trip to the Pyrenees (October 25 – November 4) will allow to immerse in the peaceful silence of the mountains, explore the remains of the Cathar Castles and learn the story of the Cathars.