Languedoc - Cathars & Crusaders with Historical Trips
Languedoc was once a thriving province in southwest France and the home of Catharism – an ascetic Christian sect that eschewed and threatened the power of Rome. In 1209 Pope Innocent III launched the Albigensian Crusade to eliminate the ‘heretics’ of Languedoc. Twenty years of fighting followed, leaving behind spectacular castles and abbeys, and fundamentally altering the religious landscapes of Medieval Europe.
We explore Cathar cities and Catholic abbeys, grand ruinous castles that are perched on craggy hilltops, and, of course, the polished turrets of the renowned Medieval Carcassonne.
- Visit the well-preserved, fairytale Château de Foix
- A private musical performance that reflects the region
- Sample unctuous local wines during a special tasting
- Discover the stories of this enchanting part of France
- Let the beauty of Cordes-sur-Ciel inspire you
- Historic Churches
- Special Access
- All Inclusive
We arrive in Toulouse on the banks of the River Garonne, and enjoy a welcome lecture at our hotel – an illuminating introduction to the thrilling world of Cathars and Crusaders.
After a filling French breakfast we travel to the fortified Cathar refuge of Cordes-sur-Ciel, exploring picturesque 13th and 14th-century townhouses perched high on a hill in the Midi-Pyrénées. Corde is widely considered to be the first “bastide” of the region – a town founded to house those displaced by the crusades.
Later we visit Albi’s colossal red-brick cathedral, built as a lasting testament to the Christian faith in response to the Cathar heretics. We also discover Berbie Palace, a fortified residence constructed for the town’s bishops in the 13th century. One of the best-preserved castles in the country, Berbie is surrounded by extensive formal gardens; an enduring remnant of the power and might of the Medieval Catholic church.
Today we rise to explore Lastours, the Cathar stronghold besieged by Simon de Montfort, where four of the few surviving Cathar castles stand strategically elevated atop the rocky outcrops.
From here it is just a short drive to stunning Carcassonne, Europe’s largest Medieval city with fully intact walls, a famous stronghold of the Occitan Cathars. Here we visit the Château Comtal, built on the remains of a Visigoth fortress. The château gives us access to the walls of La Cité, and allows us the chance to wander the battlements, marvelling at the spectacular views from the highest point of the town. Here we also learn about the culture of the troubadours, the courtly Medieval poets of Provençal.
Our final stop today is the Grand Basilica of St Nazaire, a masterpiece of Gothic-Romanesque architecture, first established in the 6th century.
This morning we visit the beautiful village of Minerve. Perched above the rivers Cesse and Briant, this is where, in 1210, some 140 Cathar residents were burned alive as heretics, following a siege from Simon de Montfort that lasted six weeks.
We continue on to Béziers, where, in October 1167, the citizens rose up and killed their lord. 42 years later, the “sack of Béziers” took place within the limits of the town: a bloody massacre resulting from the residents’ refusal to hand the sheltering Cathars over to besieging Catholic forces. In the violent massacre that followed, not even the town’s Catholic priests, or those sheltering in the churches, were spared their lives.
This afternoon, we visit the splendid Gothic Cathédral St-Nazaire – burned by the invaders as part of the Béziers massacre, and subsequently reconstructed – before arriving at the coastal town of Narbonne, a historically prosperous port established by the Romans in 118 BC.
We begin our day at the Cistercian abbey of Fontfroide, close to the Spanish border. A major power in the fight against the heretics during the 13th century, the abbey has been producing its own wines for over 900 years. We sample a selection of the best during a leisurely lunch on site.
Our final stop today is Villerouge-Termenès in the heart of the Corbières region. Here we enter the imposing Medieval castle at which Guillaume Bélibaste – the last of the Cathar parfaits, or monks – was burned at the stake.
After a restful night we start the morning with a visit to the internationally renowned Rennes-le-Château, a rugged hilltop village recently associated with the Holy Grail. According to legend, a vast hoard of treasure and controversial religious parchments were discovered at the old church here in the 19th century, and were used by the local priest to blackmail the Vatican.
Following our brush with the conspiracy theorists we head east to Arques, a castle gifted to one of Simon de Montfort lieutenants, Pierre de Voisins, in 1231. Our final destination today is the vast and ruined Capetion Castle of Peyrepertuse, which towers high above the surrounding countryside. Despite successfully resisting attack during the Crusades, its ownership passed between Catholic and Cathar hands three times. It was abandoned in the 17th century.
On our last full day in Languedoc we make our way to the tiny village of Vals, location of a rock-carved church thought to pre-date Roman occupation. The foundations of this fabulous church are the massive rocks themselves: an extraordinary vision rising from the valley. After admiring the impressive views we pay a visit to the fairy-tale Château de Foix, a strategic stronghold of counts, and an important shelter for persecuted Cathars.
For our final evening we are treated to a special private performance by a trobairitz, or female troubadour, who will bring the region’s past to life through song.
This morning we explore Saissac Chateau, one of the so-called Cathar castles located in the north-west of Carcassone.
After lunch we visit Toulouse’s Basilica, the largest Romanesque church in Europe, with its magnificent bell tower and beautifully-vaulted crypt.
Later, we say “au revoir” to our wonderful group and make our way back home.
On arrival in Toulouse, affectionately known as ‘La Ville Rose’ because of its red rooftops and warm-coloured churches, we enjoy dinner together as a group and then sit down to an introductory lecture at our hotel.
This morning, we depart from our hotel and travel to the Cathar refuge of Cordes-sur-Ciel. This is a stunning and well-preserved town, perched high on a hilltop that sometimes can be seen peeking out from the low-hanging clouds. Surrounded by amazing vineyards, this location is filled with history and we have time here to explore its gothic townhouses. Later, we make our way to Albi to see the red-brick St. Cecile cathedral, which was built in the late 13th century as a fortress. Its interior is breathtaking and boasts a vaulted ceiling decorated with Italian Renaissance frescoes. Before our day comes to an end, we also pay a visit to the Berbie Palace, a fortified residence for the town’s bishops, which is now home to the Toulouse-Lautrec museum.
An exploration of Lastours, the Cathar stronghold besieged by Simon de Montfort, is on the cards this morning. Situated atop a rocky spur just above the village, the castle was classified a ‘Monument Historique’ by the French Ministry of Culture in 1905 and archaeological excavations continue to be carried out around the site. Troubadours such as Raymond de Miraval and Peire Vidal visited the castle at the request of the Seigneurs of Cabaret to dedicate verses to the Cathar Ladies. Intrigued by their medieval verses, we will depart for Carcassonne. Here, we continue to uncover the rich culture of the troubadours at Château Comtal before making a final stop at the grand basilica of St. Nazaire. Showcasing harmony between the Romanesque and Gothic, this is a truly beautiful church and one that houses some of the most famous stained glass in France’s southern regions.
Today, we drive to Narbonne to visit the fine but unfinished cathedral. The ambition of its founder Pope Clement IV, was thwarted by the unwillingness of the town to demolish the city wall to accommodate the new church. We will also visit the Bishop’s palace. Later we pass on to Minerve, the town where citizens were burnt as heretics in a 1210 siege. This continued for another 34 years until the fall of Montsegur. The village itself is charming, made up of small alleys and a 12th century church. Next, we make our way to Béziers, the site of an October 1167 revolt. In 1209, invaders burnt the Gothic Cathédrale St-Nazaire, the town was pillaged and it was set on fire. There will be a chance to visit the aforementioned cathedral, which is decorated with gargoyles and is home to a garden that offers fabulous panoramic views.
Another morning of fascinating visits awaits us. Today, we begin with a visit to Peyrepertuse Castle, on a high crag. A major fortress during the Cathar wars and later a French royal fortress it is a striking ruin. We go on to the Château de Quéribus, which may have been the final Cathar stronghold following the fall of Montsegur. Finally we go on to Arques and the Chateau d’Arques.
We begin by visiting the Cistercian abbey of Fontfroide whose fantastic self-produced wines we are lucky enough to taste over lunch. Founded in 1093, this abbey is spectacularly preserved and is also home to cloisters, a 12th century chapter house, a lay clergy building, and church. After we experience the atmospheric and unspoilt Benedictine abbey of St Marie d’Orbieu at Laagrasse. From here, we continue on to visit the Château of Villerouge-Termenès.
Today, we visit Puivert, the centre of Troubadour culture, and Vals’ rock-carved church, thought to pre-date Roman occupation. Here, we can admire beautiful frescoes, the fact that it is partially stone-carved and the third-level chapel, from which amazing views can be enjoyed. A travel on to Montsegur to visit the museum and field of the martyrs. We will see the towering castle where the Cathars made their last stand from a distance.
On our final day, we explore Toulouse’s basilica of St Sernin and its crypt. We return home this afternoon.
- Expert Guide Lecturer
- Tour Manager
- Local Travel - Private a/c coach
- Meals - All meals included with wine at dinner
- Entries & Tips - Entry to all sites in program; tips included
- Field Notes