Thursday, May 21, 2015


One of our stops on the last leg of our trip was visiting the former site of the Château de Montségur in Montségur, France. The Château de Montségur was a fortress on top of a peak in the Pyrenees mountains that was built in the 13th century, although it is known and believed that people have inhabited that location dating back to the Stone Age. This fortress is widely accepted as the best-known Cathar castles.  It was also the last of the Cathar castles, which fell after a 10 month siege in 1244.  Before its demise, the main fortress, along with a number of other buildings and residences, housed nearly 500 people on the top of the mountain.  

Due to its location, our visit included a significant up-hill hike in order to reach the historical site (which sits nearly 4,000 ft. above sea-level).  All-the-while hiking up the side of the mountain, I kept wondering to myself who would choose to live in a location such as this.  Getting food and water most likely was not an easy task, let alone building a massive, stone stronghold.  Were pulley-systems invented yet? I hope so for their sake.  Nonetheless, the scenery and sites were beautiful! A valid reason for choosing any residence, I suppose. 

Montségur is a name that derives from Latin and Occitan to mean "safe hill." Just as hiking up and down that mountain was likely not a favorite passtime for its residents, surely attackers found it just as unappealing.  After many defenses had been erected at various points around the castle and on the mountain, the fortress was seemingly impregnable, and I'm sure life was as dandy as it could be in a cold, drafty mountain-top castle.   However, in May 1243, Montségur was besieged by Pierre Amiel the Archbishop of Narbonne, and Huges des Arcis, Seneschal of Carcassonne for the King of France. Together they represented the Pope and the French King joining forces to eliminate heretics.  It took them 10 months to successfully overtake the fortress and when they did, they burned around 200 Cathars who would not denounce their faith for the Catholic religion.  It is known that a few of the residents of the fortress escaped down a steep side of the mountain before being burned, taking with them a Cathar "treasure."  The identity of this treasure is unknown, but it is speculated to have possibly been the Holy Grail. 

All in all, I found myself amazed at the whole visit.  I felt like I was back in time while up at the fortress and also down walking around the little town at the base of the mountain.  Where and how people lived had so much purpose back then.  Nowadays, we don't have to think about staying safe by living on a mile-high mountain, just by making sure we lock our dorm room doors.  We all got to see a little taste of what life might have been like back then, and it is quite different from the lives most of us live now. We shop for food instead of growing it, take elevators instead of stairs (or in their case, the side of a mountain), and profess our beliefs freely without fear of being burned at the stake.  It is so interesting to see how life changes and evolves, and traveling to Montségur highlighted this fact for me.  

-- Laura DePenning


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