Before we arrived in south west France, I’d done quite a bit of reading about the area’s history and knew the basics of the Cathar story. Carcassonne, Minerve, Beziers and Queribus Castle were all regularly mentioned, but until we got to Languedoc, I hadn’t heard about Lastours. Many guests had commented in the guest book at Castel Grand Rue that Lastours was well worth a visit so we decided to check it out.
Lastours Castles are four medieval castles built on the same rocky outcrop high above the little village of Lastours. It takes a bit of a trek to reach the summit where the four castles, in various states of repair, are situated, but it is definitely worth the effort. The climb from the ticket office/entrance in the village is quite steep but the stairs and paths are in good condition. The average visitor should allow a good hour and a half to climb to the top and inspect all four castles, and return to the bottom.
We set off on a chilly day and, as we were visiting in low season, almost had the site to ourselves. It is quite baffling to think that 900 years ago these four castles were built in such a hard-to-access and precarious position. Of course that was the point – the Cathars needed to build watch towers on high peaks so they could see when the enemy were approaching – but without our modern technology, it is really an amazing feat.
The four castles are of various sizes with two of them almost completely intact, and the views from inside them, and on the summit of the peak, are spectacular.
After leaving Lastours, we headed home via Caunes-Minervois where we enjoyed a delicious 3 course ‘Le Formule’ meal for €12 each. The restaurant owner/waitress spoke no English and we speak very little French, but we managed to work out that the meal would comprise vegetable soup, lasagna and dessert. The bread basket was repeatedly re-filled, a glass of wine and coffee were included! It was a delicious, rustic, country-style French meal and we left so full we vowed we would never need to eat again!
With our time in Languedoc running out (or so we thought – but more on that later!), our next outing was to another small village which also has a place in Cathar history. This time, though, we weren’t visiting with the intent of seeing the Benedictine Abbey, which, according to legend, was founded by Charlemagne in the 8th Century. Instead, were just keen to visit the village simply because it is widely regarded as one of France’s most beautiful villages.
Lagrasse is your typical picture-postcard French medieval village with winding, narrow, cobblestone streets and surrounded by a protective wall. Its Abbey, which is still one of the most important in France, watches proudly over the village but probably the most stunning view is from the other end of town. Here two humpback bridges dating back to the eleventh century, cross the Orbieu, and provide the perfect photo opportunity.
Surprisingly, Lagrasse is not overly touristy, particularly given its inclusion in the Les Plus des Beaux Villages du France (The Most Beautiful Villages of France) organization. The day we visited (albeit in early December), the only restaurant open in town was full (probably local workers enjoying their two hour lunch break!), so we grabbed some lunch from the boulangerie and ate it in a park. It was then very easy to spend a couple of hours wandering the streets and admiring the buildings, of which the residents are justifiably proud.
We've had a bit of a change of plan to our remaining holiday itinerary. I'll update you on that shortly!