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Published: July 18th 2018
Me and Zeus having one of those days
The usual fear and loathing
Trouble began when the flight from San Francisco to Manchester was over an hour late taking off. I arrived at the gate for my connecting flight to Toulouse just as the door to the plane closed. Realizing I would not be able to find another flight out of Manchester that night, I bought a business class ticket to London where the connections to Toulouse would be more plentiful.
A travel tip: fly business class, bring a canteen. I was at a bar in the British Air Business Lounge at Heathrow (one of the perks of flying business class) waiting for a bartender to appear, when a woman stepped behind the bar and filled a canteen with Tanqueray. She looked at me staring at her with my mouth agape. "For the flight," she explained, then pulled out another empty canteen. At that moment I realized that I was standing before a self-service bar and that if I had brought enough canteens I could've recouped some of the financial losses I'd suffered so far on this trip.
History podcasts, that's how I survive my commute. About a year ago
One of the most magnificent castles in France.
I discovered Sharyn Eastaugh, a musical Aussie accent podcasting from Tasmania (http://crusadespod.com/
). Her voice was like a Siren song to me. As I listened to her 107 episodes about the Middle Eastern crusades I fantasized about walking through the gate of the white picket fence that I imagined surrounding her lonely, thatched-roof cottage at the end of the world and saying, "I'm here to rescue you." I wasn't sure what I would be rescuing her from, but when Acre fell, ending the crusades, she was as reluctant to say goodbye to me as I was to her, so she launched an 80-episode podcast on the early 13th Century Crusade against the Cathars.
I knew about the Albigensian Crusade, as it is also known, through Grail lore. The myth is that the Holy Grail, the vessel that held the blood of Christ, was actually a person, a descendant of Jesus, hence a descendant of King David, hence the rightful ruler of Jerusalem and rightful head of the Church. Naturally, this would not be good news for the Pope, so the Grail had to be kept under wraps, protected by the Templars and hidden away in Southern France until the
Chateau Peyrepertuse I
At first glance, many of the castles looked like natural rock outcroppings.
time was right for Dan Brown to rip the lid off of the whole thing by writing the Da Vinci Code
. The people in the region who were in on the secret worshipped the Grail and became known as Cathars. The Pope wasn't having any of this so he ordered up a crusade that effectively wiped them out.
But as I learned from Sharyn, the truth is that the crusade against the Cathars was more of a pretext for the kings of Aragon and France to fight for control over Occitania, as Southern France was then called. The crusade was as much about culture as land. Occitanians spoke their own language, Languedoc, which literally translates to the Language of Yes, they drank loads of wine, bathed in warm mineral waters that sprung out of the Pyrenees, enjoyed the beaches and sunny weather, loved troubadours, had no kings, and were mellow about their friends and neighbors who followed the weird Cathar faith. (Cathars believed that the world was created by Satan-- for how could God create anything that contained evil-- and therefore everything in the world, including sex and the Catholic Church, was evil.)
It follows that the Cathars
Chateau Peyrepertuse II
Looking down from the tower over the castle and the valley beyond.
were anti-materialistic, so all that remains of their legacy is a string of ruined castles marking the battle lines between France and Aragon. Carcassonne, one of the most spectacular castles in all of France, was the headquarters of the story's villain, Simon de Monfort. He and his crusader army caused trouble for the story's lovable, rebellious, but somewhat cowardly hero, Count Raymond VI of Toulouse. The final act of the story was the capture of the remote mountain stronghold, Chateau Montsegur, where the last Cathars were given a choice—convert to Catholicism or dive into a pit of flames. The Crusaders were horrified as over 200 Cathars, some children as young as six, happily chose the flames. Today a monument marks the spot where the Cathars burned. (This is also the spot where tourists make their final decision—climb to the top of Montsegur, or chill out in a nearby village cafe.)
Carcassonne is spectacular. For eight Euros one can walk along the seemingly endless ramparts, looking out over roofscapes and farmlands. The maze of narrow streets below the walls are crowded with souvenir shops selling rubber swords and shields, but it's easy to picture these same streets 800 years ago,
Memorial marking the spot where the Cathars leaped into flames rather than convert.
muddy and crowded with ragged women slopping pigs.
For less Disneyesque castles one has to drive into the French countryside, through endless vineyards and picturesque villages, to the beginnings of the Eastern Pyrenees, where mountain ranges become the ramparts protecting the valleys behind them. It took some practice before my eyes could see that some of the spectacular rocky outcroppings on top of the mountains weren't made by nature, but were the ruins of once-fabulous castles. Almost immediately the question shifted from how these fortresses were conquered to how they were built in the first place. Each step on the long hike to the top of Chateau Queribus, to take one example, brought complaints from every part of my body—lungs, muscles, feet. I pretended to stop and admire the view, but it was an excuse to catch my breath and wipe the sweat off of my face. I couldn't imagine medieval hod carriers running up and down these trails with loads of giant stones. The beauty of the finished result, the intricate details that survived centuries beyond the barrages of catapult shot, made me question the idea that the Middle Age was a backward time where forlorn people sat
The Round Table at Puivert.
in damp rooms waiting for TV to be invented. I worried that future archaeologists might sift through the ruins of our strip malls and golden arches and wonder, what the hell happened to these people?
It takes a village
In preparation for the trip, I studied maps, trail guides, history books, and Airbnb listings. I rented a five-bed cottage in the tiny village of Latour, which is about an hour north of the Mediterranean port city of Perpignan and about an hour east of the Spanish border. The owner of the cottage, a British academic named Tina, warned me that only tiny cars could navigate the narrow streets, so I rented something called a Renault Twingo. It reminded me of a tomato on a skateboard.
Village Latour is a maze of narrow roads circling an old church perched on the top of a hill. (Its only attempt at modernity is a series of loudspeakers mounted around the village. When an important event is imminent, music begins blaring from the loudspeakers. A short time later a woman's voice says "'allo, 'allo". She then proceeds to announce the important event such as the Friday farmers' market.) Rows of modest homes
View from the balcony of the street that runs alongside my house
made of mortar and stone line the roads. I tried to make myself smaller by exhaling completely as I threaded the Twingo through impossibly narrow passages. I struggled to maneuver my car into Tina's garage. Soon the entire village came out to advise me. There was lots of gesticulating and shouting in French. ("Imbecile! Imbecile!") Finally, a wiry woman wrenched me out of the car, got in, ground a few gears, and jammed the Twingo into the dungeon-like garage. Sensing my despair and humiliation, Christine and Geoffrey, the British couple across the street, invited me to dinner that night.
Through them I met the rest of the village, an eccentric bunch who reminded me of characters from a Jacques Tati movie: Christian, an elderly gay coiffure who had lived in Latour his entire life; Monica, a diminutive retired policeman from Paris who had been assigned to protect important personalities like the Pope. (When I asked if she had carried a gun, the petit woman rattled off a list of weapons she was qualified to use, including Uzis!) I split a bottle of sangria with the Vicar and his wife. I sipped wine in the cave of the neighborhood winemaker.
My clown car
(There are lots of them.) Geoffrey, a former opera singer turned professional chef, would serenade the neighborhood every morning with "Oh what a beautiful morning," sung in his booming operatic voice. After dinner he would give us singing lessons and lead us in rounds of Frere Jacques. He would eventually give up on us and instead entertain us with selections from the Mikado to the Beatles.
I didn't spend the entire time visiting castles. I spent a day in Collioure, a picturesque seaside village just down the coast from Perpignan. It was made famous by Matisse and other Fauve artists attracted by the brilliant light and colors. I enjoyed oysters and sangria at one of the seaside cafes, had a dip in the Mediterranean, then walked out to a tiny shrine at the end of a lengthy breakwater. While I stood at the shrine a squad of frogmen attacked the beach below. They weren't exactly attacking, in fact, it appeared they were retreating. Some of the frogmen pointed red rifles at me (were they toys?) while others paired up. The couples locked arms facing in opposite directions. The partner facing the beach guarded the retreat with a (toy?)
Many of the retreating couples seemed uncomfortable locking arms.
gun, while the other guided the pair into the deep water. Perhaps this was the French plan for the next time the Germans invaded, I mused, return to the sea. The smoothness of the operation was compromised when some of the frogmen appeared to suffer from attacks of homosexual panic when locking arms with their assigned partners.
Growing up one of my favorite travel writers was Richard Haliburton. He traveled through Europe and Asia as a young man in the 1930s. One story he told was about getting caught in a freak snowstorm while hiking through the Pyrenees. A kindly old man gave him shelter in his modest home. It turned out the old man was the king of Andorra. What? Andorra? A country in Europe I had never heard of? Did it still exist? Indeed it did, so I added it to my list of future destinations, despite Rick Steves dismissing it as a "snooze". It took about three hours of driving through spectacular mountains to reach Andorra. Alas, it was a snooze.
"Impossible! Impossible!" Those were the shouts of the lifeguard who came running after me as I was about to enter the mineral pool at
The road to Andorra
St. Thomas les Bains, a spa in the Pyrenees. He was frantically pointing at my swimming trunks, my normal, regular, nothing-special, American swimming trunks. In front of the other bathers, he took me by the arm and escorted me back to the locker room. There he handed me what I at first thought was an eyepatch but soon realized was a pair of sheer black speedos. When I finally managed to squirm into them I looked like an albino walrus caught in a fish net. I bulged over, under, and through them. Later I noticed a sign saying "For the comfort of others, No shorts!"
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