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Day 14: Land of the Cathars & Feeling Unwelcome in Minerve - 27 May

“Vous etes en pays Cathar.”, the sign said as we entered the Languedoc region of Southern France yesterday. The history of the Cathars has always fascinated me and I had a yearning to learn what we could about their history in the little time that we had in the Languedoc area. Our first stop would be the Four Chateaux de Lastours. But first, a short history lessons on the Cathars.

Catharism, which derived from the Greek word meaning “pure”, was a name given to a Christian religious movement that appeared in the Languedoc region of France and other parts of Europe in the 11th century; it flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries. Based on the principle of the total separation of Good and Evil, of the spiritual from the material, it was an austere religion that placed little importance on earthly possessions and acquisitions. Its followers were comprised of ordinary believers and those that chose to live lives of exemplary purity called the “Perfecti.” Their beliefs contrasted sharply with the opulence, venality and laxity of the Catholic Church, and so the Cathars were persecuted by Church authorities. The movement was extinguished in the early decades of the thirteenth century, when the Cathars were massacred under the Inquisition and the religion totally wiped out.

The Four Chateaux de Lastours:
The Chateaux de Lastours, or the so-called Cathar castles, are located on a rocky spur above the village of Lastours, isolated by the deep valleys of the Orbeil and Gresilhou rivers. Together they make up an exceptional archeological site and historical architectural ensemble: Castles Cabaret, Tour Regine, Surdespine, and Quertinheaux, and a medieval village called Le Castrum de Cabaret. On the way up to the castles, you will come across 2 natural caves which some members of the Cathars were said to have sought refuge in, and the remains of an ancient church La Vielha Gleisa. You can easily walk from one castle to the other once you get to the top.

The climb to the castles from the ticket office is a steep one, as the castles sit perched at the top of a rocky spur. It was also an extremely hot day. Thankfully, we had decent walking shoes and a bottle of water between us. Well worth the trouble, the view from the top will take your breath away.

We decided to head for the town of Minerve for lunch as there wasn’t much happening in Lastours. A picturesque village 25 kilometers north-west of Narbonne that is classed as one of the most beautiful villages of France, we thought Minerve would give us far more interesting options for lunch. We would soon find out how wrong we were!

The drive from Lastours to Minerve was between 30 - 45 minutes long. Hot and hungry, we couldn’t wait to rest up over a good meal and cold drink. Navigating some narrow, hairpin on a road that was carved into the mountain, Minerve suddenly materialized before our eyes like a vision. Perched on a naturally defended rocky peninsula, it sits high above a canyon in the barren Languedoc landscape, above the gorge carved by the River Cesse before disappearing underground in a natural tunnel. It was in Minerve in the 13th century that a group of Cathars found refuge, having escaped from Beziers which was under attack in the Albigensian crusade. After 6 weeks of siege by the brutal Simon de Montfort, the village eventually gave in and 140 Cathars were burned at the stake.

Fast forward to 28 May 2012, here were 2 travelers from Sydney, Australia who wanted nothing more than a bite to eat at 2:15 in the afternoon, refuge from the heat, and a cool drink. But finding a way into the town of Minerve was proving complicated. While cars were not allowed into the fortified town, there wasn’t a public car park in sight where we could safely leave our car. Driving around in circles, Peter took us down a steep one-way street in frustration and took his lead from where the locals had parked their vehicles.

Walking up a dirt track to the medieval village, we spotted a little restaurant with outdoor tables and a lovely view that served up pizzas and pastas. After walking in, we signaled our arrival to the waitress, asking her which tables were available for us to sit on. She impatiently waved us to 2 tables in the sun. Signaling our preference for the ones in the shade, she insisted that we sit on the tables that she indicated. Our only other option was right by a table filled with smokers and their screaming kids. Getting the message that we weren’t exactly welcome, we walked out and headed down the road to the next place. A cute and quaint little place that looked more promising, we sat down, after which an exhausted but more gracious waitress placed two menus on our table.

I told Peter as we sat down,“I don’t want anything too heavy to eat. Maybe we can share a green salad and then have a pasta for a main.” “Good idea.”, he said.

And so we picked a salad and tagliatelli dish each from the menu.

“Pas de pates!”, the waitress said. What? No Pasta? What about the wood fired pizza?

“Pas de pizza, pas de Pates, pas de salade.”, she insisted.

“Well, what CAN we order?”, we asked in our broken French.

It looked like our only option was the “Plate du Jour”, which was a pork with a heavy sauce. Apart from the fact that Peter does not enjoy pork, I was not going to be railroaded into eating something I didn’t want. And so we thanked the waitress, stood up, and left.

It was Sunday, and by this time 2:30 in the afternoon. Our stomachs were rumbling by this stage. Surely something MUST be open! We then spotted a restaurant that looked a little more “fine dining” than the first 2 places that we tried, which was reflected in their menu and prices by the front door. “Let’s try this place. At least we’ll get looked after here.” Peter said.

No sooner had we walked through the front door, looking for a staff member to seat us down, when a harried waitress came charging towards us, waving her arms obnoxiously, saying “Non! C’est finis! La cuisine est fermez!”

What the...? But it was only 2:30 in the afternoon!! How can a restaurant that serves lunch close their kitchen at 2:30??!!

“Now I know what the Cathars must have felt like! Let’s get out of this town.”, I told Peter.

As we got into our car, we were faced with a dilemma. Being a Sunday, if a world heritage site like Minerve, which catered to tourists, couldn't help us with a decent meal, what hope did even smaller towns have? At this stage, we were happy to settle for a baguette and ham, if we could find one.

Going from Minerve towards Carcassonne, we drove through a tiny little village called Cesseras. I abruptly told Peter to stop as I spotted a small bar-cafe called Le Cave Basse that seemed to be open. Parking our car on the roadside by the cafe, we got down and walked over; we saw 2 guys drinking by the bar and one guy sitting at a table in the outside terrace, cafe one hand, cigarette on the other, and reading a paper. It was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. Uh oh, this didn’t look promising.

“C’est peaux manger ici?”, we asked the young waiter. The charming man could have knocked us over with a feather when he said yes, that we could still order a meal. It turned out that the guy sitting outside with a coffee and a paper was the chef. What even better was that, although the other dishes on the menu had run out, he said that he could cook us a steak with potatoes and a salad. Eureka!!

Sitting down under shady tree, listening to the water trickling from the fountain, Peter brought me a beer, which we enjoyed in tranquility while we awaited our steak. One of the guys at the bar couldn’t help overhearing our broken French with the waiter and figured that we might have been English. When we explained that we were from Australia, he told us that he was Irish but had been living in France for 20-odd years. His company, and the waiter’s gracious manner, was a refreshing change from the hostility we had previously received at Minerve. When our steaks finally arrived and we sliced into them, we saw that they had been beautifully cooked - lovely and pink on the inside and so juicy - and the salad and potatoes were wonderful. Our meal, which tasted like Ambrosia to us, ended up costing 31,10 Euros including the beers. The experience, however, was priceless.

Bar La Cave Basse, Place de la Republique, 34210 Cesseras.

Posted by Victoria Ugarte on 27th May, 2012 | Trackbacks
Categories: France

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