Carcassonne will imprint itself on your memory whether you first cast your eyes over it in the soft morning light, harsh summer sun or gentle moonlight. And once you know about the Five Sons of Carcassonne you’ll want to explore more than just the walled la Cité, so please read on and enjoy Keith’s post…
One of the most impressive sites in France is Carcassonne, a beautifully preserved medieval fortress and one that is still imposing today. For anyone who has seen the mighty walls of la Cité, it is easy to understand that it was once considered impregnable.
Carcassonne has been an important strategic location since Roman times, with successively stronger fortifications built over the centuries. Even Pepin the Short, who conquered most of southern France in the 8th century, was unable to take Carcassonne.
The Trencavel viscounts were masters of the region in the Middle Ages. They were vassals of the King of Aragon (later part of Spain) and religiously tolerant, allowing the Cathars to prosper in their lands. Which was to lead to their downfall.In the 13th century, Philip II of France wanted to expand his kingdom. At the same time, Pope Innocent III was looking for a way to stamp out what he considered the Cathar heresy. Their interests aligned and together they launched the Albigensian Crusade, with Simon de Montfort at the head of thousands of troops.
Despite fierce resistance and its mighty walls, Carcassonne eventually fell and the Cathars were wiped out. In 1247 the Trencavel lands were absorbed into the growing Kingdom of France. As a result, a new border was created between France and Aragon, north of the Pyrenees and just a few miles south of Carcassonne.
On the French side, this border was protected by a series of large fortresses, the “Five Sons of Carcassonne,” each perched high on a hill. You can visit them today and they are as impressive as Carcassonne itself.
The best ones to visit are the Château de Peyrepertuse and the Château de Quéribus (the others are Aguilar, Puilaurens and Termes.) Besides being the two most impressive fortresses, they are near each other and can easily be visited on the same day.
Peyrepertuse is known as “Celestial Carcassonne” because it is as big as the Carcassonne fortress itself. It sits atop a 100-foot cliff and dominates the surrounding countryside. As you approach, it is hard to see where the rocky crag ends and the castle begins. Woe be it to anyone who tries to conquer this place!
At Peyrepertuse you are able to visit the dungeon, the church, many towers and some of the living quarters. And you’ll have company because nearly 100,000 people tour it every year.
On an equally dramatic high point, Quéribus is regarded as the last redoubt of the Cathars. Their deacons are said to have sought refuge here after the fall of their stronghold of Montsegur. They were never captured, though, but slipped away to the south in the dead of night.
As well as the three rings of defensive walls, at Quéribus you are able to visit buildings like the dungeon, main hall and water cisterns. You can also see numerous defensive structures like arrow slits and walls angled to deflect projectiles.
For both Peyrepertuse and Quéribus, the buildings are great but the real highlight is the view. You can see for miles in all directions, across a landscape that is little changed since Cathar times.
When I visited, I gazed south to the Pyrenees and imagined myself as a soldier defending the old border. Tensions were often high between France and Spain, with the constant threat of invasion.
As the light started to fade I saw a cloud of dust in the distance. Could it be Spanish soldiers? Should I raise the alarm? My heart raced while I tried to figure out what was moving. Then I laughed – it was just a shepherd moving his flock of sheep.
Things really haven’t changed much over the centuries!
Thanks to Keith for this fab post on the large fortresses known as the “Five Sons of Carcassonne” and in particular Château de Peyrepertuse and Château de Quéribus. Keith, a technology industry veteran, lifelong traveler and now part time Frenchman shares more of his adventures (and misadventures) of living in Provence over on his website Life in Provence. If you love the idea of relocating to Provence then Keith’s book and blog will inspire you. A link to Keith’s book is below for those of you who just can’t wait to read it!
MORE ON CARCASSONNE
Do the legends and history of the Middle Ages, the Cathars or Carcassonne interest you? Then you will enjoy books Labyrinth, Sepulchre and Citadel by Kate Mosse all set in Carcassonne.
Labyrith is a timeslip story moving between 1209 when Alais is given a book containing the secret of the Grail, and 2005 when Alice discovers two skeletons in a forgotten cave in the French Pyrenees.
Sepulchre travels from 1891 when Léonie Vernier abandons Paris for a country house near Carcassonne and stumbles across a ruined sepulchre, and 2007 when Meredith arrives at the Domaine de la Cade to research a biography.
Citadel is set in 1942 when Sandrine finds herself drawn into the world of the Resistance in Carcassonne under German Occupation.
I’ll write a review of these books one day but for now I’ll let you know how much I enjoyed them and include them below if you wish to get your own copy. Our Affiliate Disclosure Statement can be read here.
To stay at Carcassonne and explore Château de Peyrepertuse and Château de Quéribus check out the maps, attractions and eating guides on the official Carcassonne Tourism site and HotelsCombined for accommodation.
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