Here is my lovely waiting to go inside. Visits are strictly limited
so we booked onto tour. We had to make our way over the cave floor
for about half an hour using hand held lamps, (there is no lighting
in the cave). I have to admit I was starting to wonder what on earth
we were doing especially as I hate dark enclosed spaces.
Finally we arrived in what is known as the salon noir. The guide put
all the lights out, (John's hand is still bruised from where I grabbed
hold). Then she turned on her lamp and I could see why we
had bothered. There were amazing living drawings of animals.
Drawn with obvious skill and passion. They were breath taking
especially when you consider that someone had had to climb deep
inside the cave with only a flickering lamp. Whatever the reason
for making the paintings it must have been a powerful one.
Earlier in the day we climbed up to the castle of Montsegur, famous location of many a Grail legend. (Read Kate Mosse's book Labyrinth for a good idea of what might have happened here.) This is me at the top proving that I really made it, although it nearly killed me.
The climb was worth it for the view alone.
The inside was also pretty spectacular. Who is that perched on a rock thinking about life? Actually I think he's trying to get his breath back.
Here you can begin to appreciate just why were were so exhausted and what a challenge the climb was. You can just see the path setting off up the hillside and that was the easy part let me tell you. Kindly note the completely unshaded and totally vertical section at the top. I was very glad I was wearing my boots. Whose stupid idea was this? Err.. actually I think it was mine. Anyway it was definitely worth it.
Nowadays Montsegur is a small village famous for its spectacular castle but in March 1244 about 220 Cathars were burned alive here at the foot of the steep part of the hill. They were judged to be heretics by the Catholic church, although some believe that their faith represents a much moreaccurate picture of what the earliest Christian church was like. The Cathars had been persecuted throughout the Middle Ages because their beliefs about living a simple life free from worldly possessions had brought them into conflict with the Catholic church and the Kings of France. Montsegur became their last stronghold and it was heavily besieged at the end of the Albigensian Crusade which was basically a campaign against the Cathars. When the castle finally fell the remaining inhabitants were led out and burned at the stake. Legend has it that many went bravely and joyfully and that they sang hymnsand praise as they were tied to the stakes. Legend also has it that a few of them slipped away safely before the castle fell, carrying with them a great treasure, maybe even the Grail itself. Montsegur has often been associated with Grail legends and it certainly feels like a mysterious and special place. Walking back down the hill it was hard not to imagine the last Cathars being led to their death and to wonder why I was making such a fuss about the climb on a safe, sunny, 21st century afternoon. Prayers were said.
Driving away from the site it becomes almost impossible to imagine that people lived here, practicing their faith sincerely and courageously. The hill is so steep that the castle looks like a toy on top of the mound and although the buildings which are there now are of much later date the whole site has a presence which is hard to forget.
The whole day had quite an effect on me, and made me think a lot about what we believe and why, and the lengths we will go to to express our beliefs.