After our morning adventure in the castle we were ready to set out again. The fog was returning, our clothes were damp and the inside of the Zil was condensing the wet air on the metal fixtures creating trickles of water down the interior paneling. Getting a move on is the best way to warm up.

Anika was suitably tired after her walk and soon was dozing in and out of sleep to the rocking motion of the truck. Miki was curled up in the passenger side foot bay, patiently looking forward to the next stop. Every now and again she would push her head up to the window and draw in a breath of air, as if to inspect the quality, to judge whether we were heading into more forest or a city. Mara and I kept looking out of the windows at the fabulous scenery, imagining that we could buy a ruin on a piece of land in this dream valley.

The route we drove along is the D14. It runs along a valley east to west with the Peyrepertuse ridge on the south side and another lower ridge to the north. The Peyrepertuse castle sits like a book end on the eastern edge of the ridge. Both ridges have several gorges cutting through them that channel rivers between the parallel valleys. The Peyrepertuse ridge has the beautiful Galamus gorge and on the other side, the opposite ridge, is the Verdouble gorge. The valley is itself protected on its western mouth by a further gorge that opens out on the western side to Bugarach. The valley floor is covered in green pasture and for the first time since arriving in France we have seen cows! There are also plenty of sheep. The small villages here, Soulatge, Cubieres-sur-Cinoble and Camps-sur-L’Agly are primarily agricultural and then secondly tourist. We past many small farms that are organic, some of which are still being renovated (which when done with little money can take several years) so that in their yards are several motorhomes, converted buses and box vans, their flues piping thin trails of wood smoke. These people could be our friends. Higher up, the valley becomes thickly wooded with oak. And just before reaching the rocky hill tops there are small copses of fir. Some farms had signs advertising their own produce, selling bread and cheese, vegetables and fruit, or offering space for campers. The vans in the yards looked like the sort that we saw carrying produce to Esperaza market, painted by hand with spirals and dragons, pixies and mushrooms.

We past one abandoned farmhouse as we past through the western gorge into the valley of Bugarach village, beneath the shadow of Bugarach mountain, wistfully imagining it could be our homestead project.

Although I had wanted to climb Bugarach peak, it would be a two hour hike and it was raining. The peak, indeed the entire mountain had disappeared behind a thick fog. There is a parking area and footpath up to the peak about a kilometer before reaching Bugarach village on the D14. Bugarach mountain is a strange place that has attracted attention, rumor and stories for centuries. The first records of strange phenomena are from the 1500’s which talk of faeries on the mountain top. Since then the stories have shifted to beasts living inside the hill, perhaps a lost treasure, the grail, the ark of the covenant, a French secret service base, an Israeli military base, a UFO ‘multi-story car park’ etc. Bugarach, when its not hidden behind the fog, can not help but be noticed. It looks like Ayers rock in Australia, rising profoundly upwards to 1230meters. It is a geological puzzle as the top half of stone is many millions of years older than the bottom half. Various theories exist as to how this is possible, the most widely accepted being that when it was a volcano it exploded, flipping its ancient peak onto younger rock. There are also magnetic anomalies possibly caused by thick veins of metal that may or may not run through the stone. Some say that this is the cause of the strange night-lights that the lucky few get to witness. Others believe these lights are the head-beams of UFO’s. Inside the mountain, yes it is hollow, there is a labyrinth of caves and an underground river, most of which have not yet been officially mapped out. There are a few known entrances but it is rumored that there are more secretive ways to enter the mountain heart. It is also rumored that the underground river is purposefully channeled and at one point there is evidence of a wharf chiseled into the rock. The mountain’s sides are thickly forested with oak before reaching the steep rock. There are a few gentler paths to gain access to the top which are marked on a map in the car park. I am told that after raves in the area party people are partial to making the journey to the top for some ‘chill-out’ energy. I imagine the walk, and strong winds that rip across its top have enough of a chill-out effect.
We past the mysterious mountain without seeing any interference with our vehicle electrical systems. We also passed through Bugarach village without stopping. If not for the ‘end of the world’ hype, one would pass this village without a blink. It is no different to any other little farm village in the valley. I thought it better not to stop as the villagers could do with a break from crazy nuts rocking up hoping to catch a ride on a UFO come the 12th of December. Not that we share such aspirations but travelling in a Zil131 suggests some wackiness.

Next stop is Renne-les-Bain where had it not still been raining we were hoping to go for a swim in a hot spring.

Review – Peyrepertuse Castle

This is one of the most impressive Cathar castles. 1000 meters above sea level, it is 800 meters above the surrounding valleys. We had a fantastic time and as Anika said ‘I did not even need to be carried!’

The site of the castle was once a Roman fort. It is built on rocky crags that rise above the Peyrepertuse limestone ridge. How it was built and how an attacker could take it is beyond me. But at some point it was surrendered over to the attacking Papal armies that swept through the Corbieres massacring the population and wiping out their Cathar belief system.

After the Cathar period it continued to be of strategic importance sitting on the old border with Aragon (one of the powerful Spanish kingdoms in the mid-Pyrenees). Now it is a ruin but an impressive one at that! The walls are still tall, with doorways, rooms, porches, latrines (what a view the latrines had), two chapels, five wells. The blend from natural rock to carved stone is seamless. Stone-smiths carved stairs straight out of the rock (these stairs can be treacherously slippery).

The castle is composed in three parts (keeps). The first is triangular, then it connects to a central space in which stood a tall tower, then there is the final climb to the really impressive San Jordi keep. The San Jordi takes the full force of the wind and one must exercise care as the stone is slippery and the 800meter drop pretty terrifying. This part was a little stressful with Miki (who I put on the lead at this point), and Anika who was crumbling before the icy wind.

The views from the castle are magnificent. On a good day one can see a great distance across the Aude and into the Ariege, with the snow capped Pyrenees in the distance. The sister castle (an equally impressive Cathar stronghold) of Queribus can also be seen on her own rocky perch twelve kilometers distance east. Then further east still is visible the tower of another castle. For us, apart from the two castles, we could not see much else as there was thick cloud that swept over head, at times making the turrets of Peyrepertuse disappear.

This was a great castle. One has the freedom to explore as one likes, no cameras or security. We were the only ones there at 10am (as we had parked up the previous night). There is not much by way of information plaques but there is a audio guide available at the information point for hire.

Cost e8.00 summer rate, e6.00 winter rate for adults, children under five are free.
Location: D14 in Aude, access is through the village of Duilhac.
Opening times: Every day 10:00-18:00 summer hours, 10:00-16:30 winter hours, closed all of January. It will also shut during storms or exceptionally high winds.
Dogs are permitted but with a lead.

In the Corbieres

Leaving our night stop beside the ruined farm in the green meadow, we drove along the gorge passing through Termes. The road wound through a splendid gorge, the road boring through two rock faces below which was the fast running, but small, river Termes. This river is known amongst locals for swimming as there are several cascades, waterfalls and deep pools. The small village of Termes sits along the river, a steep sided valley but no longer the cliff drops of the gorge.

This little village was a bit of a squeeze for the Zil as half a dozen hunters vehicles were parked up in the center waiting for a signal to go and get pig. The road climbs above Termes, and its ruined Cathar castle joining the D613.

We took the first exit south of the D613 going up a steep single lane road, through the beautiful villages of Davejean, Dernacueillette and Montgaillard. This is fertile land, with grass pasture on which sheep graze. Villages have tractors and ploughing equipment kept in sheds. These are things that we missed in the Lagrasse area. We had intended to use the D123 which passes through a stunning gorge along the Torgan river but a landslide had shut the road. So we doubled back on the D410 to Rouffiac-des-Corbieres on route to Duilhac. On reaching Rouffiac we were now under the watchful eyes of the ghosts of the ruined Peyrepertuse castle. The castle is built on top of a cliff drop hill, 800 meters above the valleys around it. One wonders firstly how engineers were ever able to build it. It seems to grow out of the rock so that it is hard to distinguish the jagged hill from the castle walls.

Duilhac is the village that lies under the shadow of the castle, enclosed between two limestone ridges. It supplied the garrison with food, fire wood and men. Those peasants that volunteered to man the walls were exempt from tax to the crown. The relationship between the castle and village was a good one and Duilhac prospered. The lower valley has vine and there is a winery just outside the old center. Higher up the valley sides are sheep. I have also read that wild honey is a big industry here too. The old village (there is very little new development) is built around a small hill in the typically French medieval layout that we have seen all over. The difference being that this Cathar village was fortified in the spirit of the castle. In town there were two very smart restaurants beside the village spring,one of which was once an olive press. It drew its water from the spring which is reputed to have excellent water. The spring has been lovingly restored so that it flows out of three spouts into stone toughs that feed two little channels. The main force of the spring flows from behind the sprouts opening out of the rock like a stream and getting channeled off in another direction. All the stone channels and mini sluice gates was a great success with Anika!

We explored the village then drove three kilometres up the hill towards the castle where we camped for the night. It was already getting dark and a thick fog descended reducing visibility to about three metres. We were parked beneath the castle walls, enveloped in wet fog, appreciating what life was like for Cathar knights.