Carcassonne At breakfast the dining room is full of Spanish schoolchildren, so lively and yet so ordered and polite that I have to go over and compliment the teachers. One teacher has ‘That fireball whiskey whispered temptation in my ear’ across her tee shirt. One has flowers in her hair. And then comes the interesting child. There is, you hope, always one. She is small and composed, pale. She comes in alone, after the others. Usually the child coming in late looks desperately around for a group to invite her to join. Not this girl. She looks at no one, acknowledges no one. She queues silently, takes a single piece of dry bread, walks to the one empty table, eats alone, looking ahead at no one, leaves. Yes, Miss, I ate breakfast.
I eat in the garden. A middle-aged woman, checking her phone, seeing my ipad, asks if I have wifi this morning. I say no, I don’t. She lives in Paris, was born here, in the ville basse, her parents are buried here. I say, so it’s a place of memories for you. Yes, she says, not all happy. The sense of a deep hurt. I wonder why she is here, don’t inquire.
I ask at reception about the Canal du Midi. The man says it is most neglected in this department, Aude, that many trees have had to be cut down because of disease. But many are being planted, he adds. I say, in that case I’ll have to come again in twenty years, when they have grown, and ride the length of it, and smile.
Already the coaches are arriving at the cité, and I have to push my bike out through the incoming tide. A woman walks in, runs out wide-eyed to her slower, chattering friends, shouts ‘this is great!’, and rushes back in. An American boy passing, ‘in my early years of nine, I went downstairs …’ Mostly it is glazed-eyed tourism, of people shepherded around, onto and off coaches, told what to look for, their attention awoken only at the appointed places, switched on, a shutter clicks. And to record not the place but the memory of the place. Their thoughts are less about where they are than what they will tell people about it. They are script-writing. As am I.
I freewheel down the hill. The restaurants are all closed in the shadowed street, the light above is still dawn-pinkish, the air is cool, but seems to carry within it the heat of the coming day. I cross the polished stones of the empty causeway, and over the bridge. There are few signs of last night’s carnival, it is head-down Monday morning. I pass the St Jacques hospital; it was built in 1317 for pilgrims to Compostela from Narbonne, along the piemont pyrenéen, the French foothill route. Now it is the GR78 long-distance footpath.
To the Canal du Midi Through the city it is a featureless, treeless green ditch. But westward, out of the city, there is a cycle path, and tall plane trees close-planted on either side, giving continuous shade. A breeze shimmers the leaves, and with the moving water, there is a pleasing green and blue, grey and brown dappledness. Most of today I will be following the river Aude south. But first I am backtracking to cycle a short length of the Canal, because of a friend. Six months ago she was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Her first comment was, ‘damn, I always meant to cycle the Canal du Midi!’ I wanted to say, then, ‘you still can!’ But it was January. Now it is June. She is still able. But she has been absorbed into a programme that seems as much experiment as treatment, but that holds out hopes of life. Rather than asking her how she wants to live her life from now until death. She has become medicalised. And it is a medicine that has become too mechanical, too concerned with postponing death, focussing too much on the future, on ‘outcomes’. Whereas life, especially towards the end (where my generation is, I am), must be about the present. And at the heart of it is the one inevitable, death, the black hole whose presence at the centre of one’s life should give an extra vividness to every moment of one’s present (and hopefully of one’s past) life. As I cycle along, a bumpy path that risks my tyres, passing mainly white-haired and blond-dyed English couples, wobbling along (large-hipped women who haven’t been on a bike since they cast aside their Dawes ‘Pink Witch’ for a motor-scooter pillion, thin-legged men in baggy shorts), I want to text her – ‘Do it! Now!’ And if she is not well enough to cycle, why not take one of these boats that cruise along, with Nelson-like captains issuing orders at every lock, imperious and in their element?
Cathars Cycling west, towards Montréal, Fanjeaux, Laurac, I am in the heart of the area hit by the crusading army in 1209. Fanatical papal legates had long been preaching against the ‘heresy of the South’, and their wish for action was granted when the Crusade was proclaimed in 1208. ‘Heresy’ was everywhere in Europe at this time. Partly because a new orthodoxy used fear of it, whether real or imagined, to suppress debate. Partly because a dissatisfaction with a corrupt and centralising church encouraged support for preachers who proclaimed a return to the basic simplicities of Christianity, which rather than being embraced by the church were labelled ‘heretical’ and suppressed. Partly because it was a useful label to stigmatise an enemy. (As with ‘socialist’ in US, ‘revisionist’ in USSR.)
The looser (ie less controlling) church structure in the South meant that ‘it was in that, and in the venom with which accusations of heresy were exchanged among its bitterly competing factions and levelled against it by the predatory neighbours who meant to profit by those divisions, rather than the “heresy” itself that the south differed from the more developed and more closely governed territories around them.’ For ‘there is no real reason to think that the region was especially given to heresy, but it had been repeatedly portrayed as such by those who hoped to dominate it.’ Moore. Innocent III wanted to extend his increasingly centralising (and financially demanding) control over the Languedoc church; Philip Augustus of France, having lost Aquitaine to the English, wanted to extend his realm in the south; and there were lords and barons in the north who were happy to invade the south.
In June 1209, ‘the greatest Christian army ever’ (wrote Arnold Amalric) assembled at Lyon. The main target was Toulouse, ‘the mother of heresy and the fountainhead of error’. But the duke of Toulouse managed to divert its focus onto his nephew and vassal, Raymond-Roger, count of Béziers, Albi and Carcassonne. On 21 July, the army hit Béziers, which quickly fell. Asked what to do with the 20,000 men, women, children and priests in the town, Arnold, the papal legate, replied, ‘kill them. The Lord will know his own.’ ‘After the great slaughter,’ he reported to the pope, ‘the whole city was despoiled and burned, as divine vengeance raged marvellously.’
Albi soon surrendered, and Raymond-Roger was besieged in Carcassonne. He surrendered after three weeks, and although promised safe conduct, was imprisoned in his own dungeon, and soon died, mysteriously. He was 24, ‘handsome, gallant and foolish – or betrayed.’ Simon de Montfort, a minor northern noble with close links to the Cistercians, made Carcassonne his base, and continued ten years of destruction, looting, slaughter and cruelty, a rein of terror until he was killed. At Bran he allowed the garrison to withdraw, after cutting off their noses and putting out their eyes, leaving one man with one eye to lead them home. At Lavaur he had the lady of the house dropped in a well and buried under stones. After which, Arnold reports, ‘our crusaders burned them [400 people] alive, with great joy.’ 140 were burned at Minerve. The destruction and slaughter continued until Montségur fell in 1244. By then Languedoc was part of France. The Inquisition had been founded in 1229, as a specialised department of the church to root out heresy. It was authorised to use torture, and was run by the Dominicans, ‘the hounds of the Lord’, whose Spanish founder evangelised from Fanjeaux for ten years. After the shock and awe of the crusade, its work was bureaucratic, methodical, and over the next century it squeezed the last of ‘heresy’ out of Languedoc.
In the process, the crusade, that was claimed to be ‘a door open to Christian princes to avenge the wounds of Christ, and bring to the desert the garden of the Lord, and to the wilderness the sweetness of Paradise,’ had laid waste a prosperous area and destroyed a rich culture.
One of the last troubadours composed The Song of the Cathar War in Occitan, the only work written from the point of view of the South. Otherwise, as ever, history belonged to the victors.The familiar quote was memorably extended by Peter Esterhazy in Celestial Harmonies: ‘history belongs to the victors, legends to the people, fantasy to literature. Only death is certain.’ For the Cathar story is full of history, legend, and fantasy. And death. One early legend (fantasy?) has Raymond-Roger as the model for Perceval, the knight of the Grail.
After a few miles, my homage done, I leave the canal and head south. Climbing from the canal, the country is pleasantly undulating, much of it under bright green vines, with long views to mauve hills. In the fields are small circular stone structures with conical roofs. It is very hot. I remember that it is Monday, when many shops are closed, especially the local ones. And I am short of drink. I should have found a supermarket in Carcassonne. But I was eager to be on the canal, in the dappling shade, by the glittering water.
At the edge of a village, the vines glow vividly, while the tall, dense cypresses around the church absorb the light. In the village there is no shop, not even the expected ladies’ hairdresser, with its reassuring hum and secluded laughter from within.
I knock at a door to ask for water, but no one comes, and I don’t knock again; it is that time, in the breathless heat, when life feels, less suspended, than having absented itself. To call someone to the door would be to draw them up from the deep well of absence, of forgetting and being forgotten. It would be as unthinkable as waking a sleepwalker, or pulling a hibernating animal out of its deep nest blinking and shocked into the now, an affront.
I cycle through the quiet lanes, and reach the D118, the main road south, and close to the Meridian. I am on a racetrack. An old-fashioned, unimproved road, with vehicles travelling too fast. I wait to be knocked off, especially along the sections that still have the plane trees up to the tarmac, with no margin of escape, fearfully sure that I am invisible in the camouflaging dappled light. I pass a campsite. There will be water there. Reception is open, and they have milk and orange squash. Both are cold from the fridge, too cold to drink, and I ride for a while until the milk has warmed up. Then I drink the whole litre in a single draft. I feel it slowly hydrating me.
The road follows close to the Aude, so that although the land on either side undulates, rising in waves up to 800m, I am climbing regularly, easily, only a few feet each mile.
By the road, in a tree-lined gorge after Limoux, the river dashing below, is a memorial to Paul Swank, an American lieutenant who ‘fell gloriously’ for the liberation of France here on 17 August, 1944, and is buried here, ‘according to his wish.’
I emerge from the gorge, and suddenly, from being a blue wall in the distance, the Pyrenees are close, there are hills, mountains all around me, I am in the Pyrenees. This is the area of the last strongholds of the resistance to the crusade, the great Cathar castles, the last Cathar villages. The defile I have passed through, that has closed behind me, has taken me into a different world.
At Couiza, the temperature on the pharmacie sign is 35º. My bike thermometer reads 100ºF. It is hot. A battered van passes, a man walking, thin, wispy beard, long hair, in vest, ragged shorts and flip-flops, suddenly sees the van, breaks into an ungainly flapping trot, shouts ‘Gilles!’, the van drives on, the man runs on, waving his arms, the van disappears, he stops, says ‘dingue!’ and flaps disconsolately on. I imagine him a soixante-huitard, arriving here on the tide of the exodus after the 1968 Events to the fringes of France, to make the dream real, and left here, flotsam, when the tide receded. But he’s too young, a generation too young. Child of soixante-huitards? Or drawn by the mystical connections? This is very close to Bugarach, the one place that would survive the end of the world in 21 December 2012. There is a sign to Rennes-le-Château, the village of The Holy Blood and Holy Grail. I ask him which way is it to Quillan. He says, turn left, his hand points right.
Quillan I come into Quillan along the river bank. The river isn’t wide, but shallow, dashing and fast. I can imagine the rafts of timber bucking their way through the town. The backs of buildings rising straight up from the river. On one side of the bridge is the castle, on the other the town. The castle was built by the church, fought over in the crusade, taken by the crown in 1229, and was a frontier fortress against Spain until the 1659 Treaty established the crest of the Pyrenees as the frontier, having changed hands several times in the wars of religion. I cross the bridge, the wooden original rebuilt with stones from the castle, to a small, placid square.
There are old men on benches, shops and cafés all around, a painted advertisement for ‘Suze’ fading on a wall. A tabac, ‘l’Alhumetur’. Bushy-topped plane trees give shade.
The shops are closed, but I find an insurance agent office open. I ask the brisk, bespectacled woman for directions to the youth hostel. She says, go back to the main road, and turn left. I say, what, back to the rond point? What roundabout? she says, indignantly, there is no roundabout! I thank her, return to it. It is a junction, with a traffic island. Technically she is correct. And I am in the French world of correctness, and needing to correct, in which something is right, or wrong. I realise why there are so many road signs, why the ‘zones of uncertainty’ that have been introduced in Dutch and English towns, where road users have to negotiate, would not work here: there is only rule (the simplicity of priorité à droit rule which established responsibility absolutely, and which the French found so hard to let go of), or anarchy. We’re back to de Tocqueville.
But also, I realise, and pertinent in talking about heresy, we’re back to the university of Paris of the twelfth century. The Scholastic method, of dialectical reasoning used to resolve contradictions, involving the careful drawing of distinctions, was fundamental to it. A thing might be a, or not a; it cannot be both. A road junction resembling, and having the same function as, a roundabout, cannot, in any circumstances, be called a roundabout.
I head up the Perpignan road. The youth hostel is part of an outdoor-activities complex, offering kayaking and rock climbing. It is by the fast-running river, and surrounded by high, steep, tree-covered slopes. There is a nice woman in a big office. There is an excellent kitchen, tables outside, lots of space, and it is set well back from the road. The only drawback is the low-level hum from the hydro-electric generator on the river. But even that is a reminder of the power of these mountains. And I have a room of my own. For three nights.
I head into town to eat. There are a couple of places open. One has a group of pallid English-looking diners. The other says ‘bikers welcome’, is empty except for one man sat outside. The woman says desolé, the kitchen is closed. But she can do steak and chips. Fine. I sit down outside. First two men together, then four Irish, then four elderly English arrive, the same worried tale for each, the same response – great! Soon every table is filled. By this time the first man has finished, he leaves with a smile, he has filled the restaurant. One Englishman is disabled, perhaps by a stroke, and struggles to cut up his tough steak. No one helps him. His wife talks of the house they are here to buy. As I leave, the old lady sitting by road nursing her beer says hello, we talk about the heat, I tell her of my travels, say I haven’t far to go now, she misunderstands, says, oh you’re staying at the Forge, are you? she says she understands more than she can speak, having spent some time in Dunstable, and wishes me bon courage.
Back at Forge there is a noisy party of French outside, spreading over several tables, doing the French thing of preparing a beautiful table on white paper tablecloths even while camping. The wine flows as they prepare great platters of beautiful salad, carefully arranged meats. I can never decide if this is sophistication, bringing style to the outdoors, or the laying of domesticity over nature. I hurry to my room, to decide what I’ll do for the next two days, and go to bed.
R I Moore, The War on Heresy pp 203, 248, 247, 248, 251.
Peter Esterhazy, Celestial Harmonies.