On the path of Cathar shepherds


Yesterday we walked through Montaillou.  It might seem a tiny and unremarkable village now, but it’s the place that’s maybe done most to contribute to our understanding of turn-of-the-14th century village life in the Languedoc when religious strife between the Catholics and the Cathars was at its height.  This is a big subject: it deserves more than passing mention: a future blog maybe.

I’d read le Roy Ladurie’s book on Montaillou more than 30 years ago,and never dreamed that I might one day live in what the tourist offices are pleased to call ‘Cathar Country’.  So it was the shepherds of Montaillou I was thinking of as we began our Sunday walk.  They would come to the annual fair at Laroque d’Olmes, a good 40 km from where they lived.  They would drive their flocks long distances for good pasture, and as national boundaries meant little in these mountain zones, their fellow shepherds whom they met in their travels would sometimes be Spanish.

Blossom and snow

We too were climbing out of Montaillou.  The paths seemed unchanged through the centuries – short springy turf with early spring flowers pushing through. Pale pink and white blossoms busting open.  Narrow streams cutting deep channels through the turf.  Thick forest climbing the slopes.  Patches of snow made the going a bit tough from time to time.  It was warm and sunny, the slopes were steep and sometimes hard-going

Those peaks appear

Then suddenly…suddenly, and so unexpectedly, we reached the top of our first climb.  Around us, to east, south and west were the snow-covered peaks of the Pyrenees, glistening white against the blue sky.  Above us, skylarks called and swooped.  Later, Danielle remarked that she felt as if at that moment she’d received a special gift: that perfect view, the clean clear air, the singing birds which were the only sounds.  She voiced, I think, what we all felt.

A few of those unending peaks
We keep walking
More distant peaks

We hadn’t reached our highest point: we climbed onwards, always with those snow capped mountains at our side.  And then we were on top: handy rocks provided seats and shelves and we unwrapped and shared our lunches, lingering in the sun, drinking in the views for well over an hour.

Picnic spot

The afternoon walk begins

Soon after lunch, we turned our back on the snowy mountains.  As we faced the hotter, drier Pyrénées Orientales, the equally high peaks there weren’t covered in white.  Our path was downwards now, and soon we had to pass the ski station above Camurac.  Built long after those years when snow could be relied upon throughout the winter, it was an area of scalped earth, snow machines and all-but-redundant chair lifts.  My Montaillou shepherds certainly wouldn’t have recognised it.

The walk draws to a close

But then it was forested paths again, open pasture and spring flowers.  We finished the walk passing a collection of horses, Thelwell style ponies, and appropriately for Palm Sunday, a couple of friendly donkeys.  A good day.

Author: margaret21

I'm retired and living in North Yorkshire, where I walk as often as I can, write, volunteer, and travel as often as I can.

5 thoughts on “On the path of Cathar shepherds”

  1. The Yellow Cross by Rene Weiss is a wonderful book to bring life to the people in the Montaillou story…he even explores the area and discovers the route that had been taken in one account. He also speaks of the moving experience of reading and touching an account of their life (testimony) in the BN in Paris…
    I’ve only visited the area (usually a couple weeks vacation every year over a 10 year period) but I still feel so strongly connected–and do so enjoy your writings. Friends had asked me why I kept going to the same place when I could go almost anywhere in Europe–so much more to see. I told them about spending one New Years in Paris and being rather unhappy–would have been willing to abandon the apartment I rented, brave the bad weather–if only there were a direct flight to Carcassonne or an affordable one to Toulouse.
    My last trip (lost my job) I knew I wouldn’t be able to return so revisted so many places and drove around part of France as well (enjoyable, but not the South)…anywhere else I was just another visitor, another tourist–in Aude & Ariege, I felt that I was home. I have friends there still so if I ever hit the lottery I shall tell them to start looking for a house for me–(one must have dreams…).
    I’m glad someone like you does live there, and writes about it…thanks so much for sharing.


    1. Thanks Lynda. Yes, it IS a special place, for very many reasons, so I hope you’ll be able to have the opportunity to come back, and maybe enjoy continuing your explorations for extended periods. Good luck!


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