"Pluie aujourd’hui?" I’d asked the hotel desk clerk that morning as I glanced at the gray skies outside, indicating with my fingers the sprinkling of rain, itsy-bitsy-spider style. "Rain today?" Her shrug in reply indicated it was anyone’s guess. It was dry at the moment, but the dull gray clouds stretching from horizon to horizon looked ominous. I really wanted to see some of the Cathar castles. Once outposts guarding the hazy border between Languedoc and Aragon, and later France and Spain, these castles occupy a series of remote hilltops in the southwest corner of Languedoc. I only had a day in the region, so I decided I’d take my chances.
Apparently not a mistake, since an hour later, the outlook was no better, but also no worse. The two-lane road from Carcassonne curved south, occasionally lined with an arch of plane trees, under skies still a uniform gray. Pastures, vineyards, and infrequent little country towns, drab in the filtered light, slid by my window, backed by rock-topped hills.
A rugged rural landscape under gloomy skies
In a way it seemed appropriate that the day I chose for this outing to see some medieval ruins was so gloomy. Movies romanticize this historical period, with its castles, shining armor, knights, troubadours, noble courts, chivalry and courtly love. But in fact the Middle Ages were characterized at best by the harsh reality of nearly annual military skirmishes, rigid social castes, marriages arranged based on alliances and economics rather than emotion, and religious compulsion and persecution. At worst, they were characterized by the harsh privation of sieges, the brutality of bloody massacres, and the torture of the Inquisition. It was a grim, dark time.
The peasants were less than sharecroppers, bound by necessity to the local lord, trading him a large measure of crops in return for military protection from attacking armies and from the bandits and marauders who lurked everywhere away from towns and castles. A peasant’s life consisted of unrelenting hard work, a hut for a home, and not even a good diet, since the best of his products went to the lord or to the market. Knights were the lowest level of the nobility, and while they got to live in the castles, they were at least as cold as and had much less privacy than the peasants, especially in winter, when everyone slept near the fireplace in the great hall. While they hunted rather than tilling the fields, knights were obligated to go to war on their lord’s behalf whenever they were called, having first provided themselves with armor and a horse, and those lords were bound to higher lords, and those to higher lords still, all the way up to the King. War in medieval times was a personally expensive and highly hazardous undertaking, and no Geneva Convention prevented atrocities, which were usual rather than the exception.
After I turned east at Quillan, the road narrowed through a river valley, at one point shrinking to a lane-and-a-half as it passed under a stone arch, and jagged peaks seemed to lean over me. The sign indicating Queribus and Peyrepertuse pointed to an even narrower road. The road led up into rocky mountains, then began a serious ascent. Mist settled lower and lower as the road rose, winding back and forth along steep switchbacks, the steepest of which were bordered by rustic stone walls. I began to be glad for the mist, since otherwise I might have found the drop-off a little frightening. But the mist also seemed to erase the world below, and I had the eerie feeling of leaving the present for the past as the car moved upward. When the mist cleared as I neared the summit of the road, the view downward showed large swaths of field, sweeping up into rugged mountains; perhaps it hadn’t looked that different all those centuries before.
A rocky ridge overlooking a sweeping landscape
My ears had popped with the altitude by the time I saw Queribus, a tooth of castle perched on a rocky ridge far above its turn-off sign. It was another few minutes upward to the parking lot, from which the hiking required to reach the castle was abundantly obvious and a little daunting to the less-than-fit, such as myself: the trail marched unrelentingly straight up the mountainside to the castle waiting a few hundred yards above. I had to stop several times on the way up to catch my breath, measuring my progress by the growing size of the castle. The castle had looked relatively small from the parking lot, but it was looming larger and larger as I made my slow approach. At least it wasn’t hot, although the humidity was fairly high.
The castle of Queribus on its rocky ridge
As the trail reached the top of the ridge, I could see that the castle was built of, on, and into a knob of rock; it was difficult to tell where the rock ended and the castle began. As I stood just underneath it, the castle was quite imposing, and it was easy to see how challenging it would be to attack this hunk of rock with siege weapons. Stone steps wound up to the arched entry into the lower castle. Queribus is quite compact, clinging to its spur of stone. The castle is built on three levels, each with an imposing curtain wall, with its lofty keep, or tower, on the highest level, farthest from the entrance. Some of the lower walls have windows in the stone opening onto the kind of bottomless territorial views you might get from an airplane.
The view down from the castle is not for acrophobes
Many of the smaller buildings that filled the spaces between are now reduced to rubble, making them hard to identify, but the castle keep, or donjon, is still in reasonably good shape. Since the outer walls of the keep are windowless, it can be quite dark inside, making for some challenging walking. At one point, I was literally feeling my way along the walls while walking up some uneven steps, although of course I could have gone back the way I came. But the keep is well worth exploring, since it holds the surprising Room of the Pillar: in this chamber in an obscure, remote castle built around 1020 is a detailed pillar stretching up and out to support the vaulted ceiling, giving a hint of the onetime careless wealth of the region.
The Room of the Pillar
Living in this castle would not have been comfortable, exposed on its ridge, baking in the heat of summer or, far worse still, with the winter winds whipping around its rocky promontory. The only water supply was rain water collected in two cisterns, and the rocky heights were unsuited to agriculture, with the fields removed to the valleys far below. At the best of times, it would have been cramped and uncomfortable for its residents, and unrelentingly lonely, but it must have been unbearable during a siege. In fact, it probably remains in fairly good condition primarily because it was quickly surrendered on the last occasion when it came under siege.
Looking north from the castle (over the parking lot), I could just make out the jagged outline of Peyrepertuse against the misty horizon. That’s where I’d be heading next. I started down the hill.
Practical Information for Visiting Queribus
The path from the parking lot to the castle will be no challenge for those in good condition. If you’re out of shape, just allow time to rest along the way. The path is wide, smooth dirt and does not require hiking boots. Inside the castle, footing can be uneven; watch your step.
For information on visiting Queribus, call 33 4 68 45 03 69.
Admission: Adults €4, children (6-15 years) €2
April to September, daily 9am-7pm (8pm in July and August)
October to March, 9am-5pm (maybe later – call to check)
Closed in January