Looking for a long distance footpath but can't face the rain on the Pennine Way, the bears on the Appalachian Trail or the pilgrims on the Chemin de St Jacques? There is an alternative, a vision of old stones, red wine and gentle hills, waiting for you in southern France.
The Cathar trail is named after a group of people with a distinctive religion and culture who lived in the area in the medieval period. It winds its way through some of the towns that they inhabited and the famous and spectacular castles where they made their last stand. If you have an active imagination, you can imagine the Cathar leaders fleeing from Catholic persecution along the narrow paths that are taken by the route1. Aside from the mystical/historical side of things, the walk takes a pleasant route with varied views, in an area of France where the food and wine is good, the living is easy and things are not over-commercialised for tourists.
Where is it?
The walk is in the Languedoc area of France. It runs through two Departements - the Ariège and the Aude. The guidebooks will tell you that the walk starts at Port-La-Nouvelle, on the Mediterranean, and finishes in Foix, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. This means that you gently gain altitude. However, in the experience of this researcher, there is something rather satisfying about finishing with your feet in the sea. The signposts are designed so that either way round is possible. There is an option at the mid-point of the route to take a northern or southern variant.
How do I get to the start?
Foix, Quillan in the middle and Port-La-Nouvelle are all on the French rail network. Carcassonne airport services cheap flights and is very handy for Quillan and Port-la-Nouvelle as well as being a very beautiful town in itself and well worth a visit. Foix would take you a bit longer from the airport, but not more than a few hours by train. Toulouse is not too far away from the start and finish of the trail either. Other halts between those towns would be difficult to get to without someone to drop you off by car, although there is often one bus per day and a taxi company2.
How long will it take me?
At least twelve days to do the whole route. Fourteen days would be more comfortable, and allow you to spend more time on cultural activities. Half of the route, from Quillan in either direction, would make for a nice week's walking.
Is it a hard walk?
The height gain is never outrageous, but every day you descend and climb a bit. There are some stages where it would be impossible to stop earlier for the night if you were tired - there is nothing between the villages. The stages nearer the coast, and probably also on the Ariège plains are devoid of shelter from the sun. When it gets hot this is tiring and in addition means you need to carry a lot of water.
If you do the stages as recommended in the major guidebook, you will be averaging about 700m climb and 24km every day. This is achievable, but reasonably strenuous. You may want to build in one or more rest days or shorten the stages where possible, to ensure you have time actually to see the castles and historic towns you are going through. The quality of the path is generally excellent, although it does include a few steep descents. In at least one place they have had a problem with erosion of the path and have had to reroute via the road, which is boring and hard on the feet. One of the advantages of this trail is that it is village to village - if you feel that you are getting worn out, it would never cost you more than about thirty euros in a taxi to miss out a stage.
Do I have to walk?
No, you could ride a horse or a bicycle on variants of the route. Or you could just drive from castle to castle, town to town. You will still have to walk up a hill to get into most of the castles though.
When should I go?
Spring or autumn is an ideal time. Summer is possible but very hot; winter can get quite rugged with snow in places.
What is the accommodation like?
A fair range of options are available, from fairly basic dormitories in municipal facilities, to bed and breakfasts and two-star hotels. The bed and breakfasts are particularly good value as you often eat with your host. Not only is the food often good, but it also gives you a chance to talk to the locals and other visitors. They will also often be able to prepare you a packed lunch for the next day. There are some campsites from time to time, but it doesn't seem that you can do the whole trip in official campsites. Unofficial campsites are highly frowned upon because of the risk of fire.
Some people don't book ahead, and most of the time it would be fine to phone ahead one night at a time. However, if you arrive in peak time, or in a village during its annual festival, you could end up sleeping in a barn.
What can I eat and drink?
The food is a bit of a cross-over between Pyrenean specialities (goats cheese, chunky salads, duck) and more Mediterranean options (fish, lighter salads, olive-based products) as you get nearer the sea. In season, you might be tempted by the delicious figs and other fruit you can see just hanging off the trees.
As for drink - the eastern section of the walk spends quite a bit of time in the vineyards of the Corbières wine-growing area. This is a fruity, full-bodied wine. The Fitou appellation is considered to be the best quality wine in the area.
What is there to see?
Many castles. Some of the most impressive include Montségur, Peyrepetuse and Queribus but there are at least a dozen in varying states of disrepair along the way.
The historic towns of Foix, Durban, Tuchan and Quillan are ideal spots for a rest day if you are walking the whole path. The attractive villages of Bugarach, Cucugnan, Duilhac, and Saint-Julia-de-Bec are worth visiting too. They are all different, and interesting in their own way.
The official route avoids the Gorges of Galamus, as there is no path through them other than the road. Ignore the official route as they are very beautiful and what traffic there is does move very slowly. The distance is the same.
Beautiful scenery, varied ecosystems, some wildlife. This Researcher saw a wild cat and baby wild boar3 on his walk.
Who were the Cathars then?
Complex question, depending on how many conspiracy theories you want to swallow and possibly your own religious beliefs. Essentially, they were dualists, in that they believed that a good God and a bad God existed. For them, just being on earth was hell, so they didn't need another, post-death hell. They were also Gnostics. They didn't have priests as such, but they did make a distinction between simple believers and parfaits, those who adhered to stricter rules on various topics.
This may seem no worse than something that the singer Madonna is likely to try out today, but at the time this kind of deviant theology was seen as a very bad thing. Not only that, but they were becoming seriously powerful in the region, had strong links with the local nobility and were not short of a bob or two. In other words they were prime targets for the church and the French Crown.
Inevitably, this culminated in the Albigensian4 crusade of 1208 to 1244, in which the Cathars and anyone else who got in the way were massacred, the local nobility humbled, and various other reactionary traditions associated with the established church were reinstated. The last remnants were picked off one by one in the castles that you will be walking past, with the last one to fall being the mighty citadel of Montségur. They did not, however, build the castles - they simply occupied them at a point in time.
Much nonsense is talked about the Cathars, their possible treasure and links with the Templars. This surfaced in amusing fashion in the region when the local parish priest in a village called Rennes-le-Chateau came into a lot of money in the early 20th Century, spent some of it and then died leaving the mystery intact. Had he found Templar/Cathar/Alien treasure? Any number of gullible fools make their way to the spot every year, to the extent that the mayor has had to pass a local law forbidding digging for treasure, so that the whole village doesn't fall in on itself5. The trail passes about 10km away from the village, so you could take a rest day and go to see it for yourself.
For a fuller description of the historical and theological issues, try this site about the Cathars.
What kit will I need?
Depends on the season.
- In good weather a lightweight pair of walking boots6 and a pair of sandals for the evening
- A warm fleece or jumper
- The means to carry at least two and-a-half litres of water per person
- A packed lunch per day
- A torch
- The relevant maps
- A compass
- A towel
- A wash kit
Any other tips?
The route goes through several forested areas. In the summer, please make yourself aware of what to do if you see a fire, and be very careful to avoid starting one.
You are unlikely to be bitten by a snake, but you might want to take a basic snakebite kit (along with a standard first-aid kit) as you could easily be several hours from help at times.
Where can I read more?
You could always learn to speak French, which will enable you to read the rather good guidebook Le sentier des Cathars. Even if your language skills are poor and you can only manage a few French phrases, getting hold of it it will be worth the money for the accommodation telephone numbers. Otherwise, the Aude has a reasonable website.