The Languedoc region has a rich Medieval history and a gruesome past with the Catholic Church’s persecution of the Cathar people taking place here in the 13th Century, and the area is dotted with historic sites that played a big part in this important era. One such place is Minerve, now classified as L’un des plus Beaux Villages de France (one of the most beautiful villages of France), the tiny fortified village built on the side of a cliff, would not have been regarded as such back in 1210.
Under attack from the Catholic Church, under the rule of Simon de Montfort, the townsfolk held out for five months against their powerful opposition. When the town was finally over-powered, 140 Cathars who refused to give up their beliefs, took their own lives by jumping into a fire.
The town is stunning to look at – neat buildings built in a quite precarious location – and it’s easy to while away a few hours wandering the tiny, cobble-stoned streets here. The small Musee Hurepel is well worth a visit. Sixteen scenes, complete with intricately made clay figurines, depict the story of the Cathars struggle against the Crusaders. Entry is just €3 per adult and €2 per child and booklets explaining each scene are available in English. A number of other buildings house gift shops, cafes and restaurants.
Below the village itself, you can walk beneath the massive bridge which leads into town, and underneath the ‘natural bridge’, a huge section of rock which forms the top of a cave but is open at both ends.
Just three kilometres from Olonzac is the village of Homps, a popular spot right on the Canal du Midi. The small ‘harbour’ is home to many canal boats which can be hired for trips along the Canal. Two hour cruises are also available (1 April to 31 October) which take guests to Puicheric and back, negotiating a couple of locks along the way. Built in the 1600s, the Canal du Midi was an amazing technical feat at the time, and still retains some of the original mechanical features of the lock system. Lined with 300+ year old trees, the tow paths are great for cycling and walking along.
Between Olonzac and Homps you’ll find Lac Jouarres. A large man-made lake, it covers 100 hectares and is popular for windsurfing, boating, fishing and swimming. In summer, lifeguards are on duty, and a bar and restaurant are open, making it a pleasant spot to cool off on a hot day.
The medieval city of Carcassonne is, understandably, one of the region’s most visited sites receiving over 3 million visitors each year. The ramparts of this restored town were built in the 4th Century with the Chateau added in the 12th Century by Vicomte Trencavel. Today, visitors can only marvel at the craftsmanship of those who built the imposing fortified Cite complete with watch towers and dungeons.
Carcassonne played a major role in the Cathars battle against the Crusaders in the 13th Century, was restored to its former glory in the 19th Century and added to UNESCO’s ‘World Heritage’ list in 1997.
As expected, Carcassonne is quite touristy with many of the shops in the town now selling the usual tourist fare, as well as restaurants, cafes and galleries, but surprisingly, entry to the medieval city is free. Guided tours are available for a charge but just wandering around the old town gives you an idea of what life must have been like in medieval times. Situated on a hillside, the Cite and fortress offers magnificent views to the Pyrenees and the surrounding countryside, making it easy to see why Carcassonne enjoyed the reputation of being an impenetrable fortress.
Next on the Languedoc sightseeing agenda are Mirepoix, Narbonne, Lastours and Lagrasse.