The trail had become a broad pathway and the walking was easy. The castle loomed larger and larger. Or, actually, the first castle: Peyrepertuse, meaning "pierced rock," is not one castle but three, strung along a long, narrow limestone ridge. This lowest castle is the oldest of the three, built sometime around 1050.
Little puffs of dark green foliage spotted the stone wall next to the arched entryway into the castle. Inside, many of the walls have been rebuilt, and an immense arched room has been partially restored as well. There’s also a tall round keep, slightly atilt, in the center of the complex, and toward the back of the castle is a doorway into the Church of St. Mary of Peyrepertuse, shaped like the typical nave with a bowed altar area although entered from the side rather than the end opposite the altar. At the time of my visit, a scaffolding had been erected, and a few workers were engaged in painstakingly rebuilding a section of the outer curtain wall. It was clear that this would be a very difficult castle to attack, since the approaches are so difficult and one side of the castle is built right on the edge of a sheer rock wall.
The lower castle of Peyrepertuse
I followed the path out the back of the lowest castle as rain began to sprinkle lightly down. I knew my time was growing ever more limited. I noticed, as I hurried along, that there were ramparts and crumbled walls all along the edges of the ridge which would have provided a degree of protection for all three castles. I suppose at one time this area on top of the ridge between the walls would have been cleared, either by intention or through grazing by horses and cattle, but now it’s crowded with large clumps of greenery. I could see the second castle protruding from its rock outcropping ahead, so I hustled down the broad path. This is a much smaller castle, a tower with a small complex attached. This castle is also entered via steps through an arched entryway. Once again I was impressed by some of the detail built into this remote castle, as one wall features an ornamented cornice along its top.
The middle castle of Peyrepertuse
There’s a wonderful vantage point high up in the middle castle where you have a great view back down the rocky ridge to the lowest castle. You can see the cliff dropping from one side of the castle down toward the parking lot far below, and this is the best view of the overall plan of the architecture.
The lower castle of Peyrepertuse as seen from the middle castle
The highest castle is San Jordi (St. George), the newest one, built by King Louis IX after the Cathars were defeated. It’s farther from the middle castle to San Jordi than to the lower castle. I also knew that to visit the highest keep, you must scale 60 slick stone steps carved into an open rock face, a dizzying prospect. But by this time, the sprinkles of rain had turned into spatters, and I knew it was time to head back down the hill before the rain began in earnest. Somehow it was appropriate that I didn’t see the upper keep during this visit, focused as I was on the fate of the Cathars, since the lower castle is the one that dates to that time, and one of the last castles to fall during the Albigensian crusade.
When his Languedoc bishops proved unable to quell the Cathar movement, Pope (not-so) Innocent III authorized a crusade in the region to eradicate the Cathars. He promised lands in rich Languedoc to northern nobles to induce them to join the crusade, and a number promptly signed on. First to come under siege was the town of Béziers, northeast of Narbonne. The crusaders asked how to tell heretics from true believers. Arnaud, Bishop of Cîteaux, replied, "Kill, kill. God will know his own." When it was over, not a single man, woman, or child was left alive in Béziers. In intimation of the brutality to follow, six thousand residents were burnt alive in the Church of St. Nazaire.
The crusade cut a bloody swath through Languedoc, leaving thousands dead or maimed in its wake. When the army reached Carcassonne, Raimond-Roger Trencavel, tolerant protector of Jew and Muslim and Cathar, the idealistic ruler of the town, was either subdued when the wells ran dry or tricked into leaving his massively fortified city. In any event, the last great defender of the Cathars was arrested and murdered in his prison cell shortly thereafter. The crusade continued unabated for 47 years, through a change of popes. As city after town after village fell under the vicious onslaught of the crusaders, the remaining Cathars fled southward. At the end, the crusade was reduced to a simple but stubborn mop-up of the remaining Cathar strongholds, the remote castles of southern Languedoc.
The last great stand against the crusaders was at the castle of Montségur; from there, handfuls of Cathars hid in the more remote outpost castles, fleeing each time the crusaders approached. Peyrepertuse fell in 1240. The last community of Cathars huddled at Queribus, but, hearing that the crusaders were en route, they were gone by the time the soldiers arrived, and Queribus was last to fall in 1255. The survivors fled into exile or hiding, never again to form a community, and the last Cathar perfect was burned at the stake in 1308.
My hike back down the hill went as quickly as the increasingly wet footing would allow. I was grateful to reach the final sheltered stretch through the forest, as the drizzle was intensifying into actual rain. By the time I emerged from the forest by the ticket booth, I had a mad dash through a downpour to reach my car. It rained all the way back to Carcassonne.
Practical Information for Visiting Peyrepertuse
Although the path is much less steep, this is a more challenging hike than that to Queribus. It is a good bit longer and the footing is much more difficult. That said, I am not very fit and I managed just fine; it took me perhaps 30 minutes each direction, and I didn’t need to stop and rest. To make the trip, sturdy walking shoes are absolutely necessary, as the trail has several rocky stretches and the paths around and through the castle are very uneven.
For information on visiting Peyrepertuse, call 33 4 68 45 40 55.
Admission: Adults €4, children (6-15 years) €2
April to October, daily 9am-7pm (8pm from June to September)
November to March, 10am-5pm
Closed in January