In our series of guest blog posts where guidebook authors and writers reveal some of their favourite places to explore, Charles Davis explores the historic Cathar Way. You can also read Charles' earlier post on hiking in La Palma, Canaries.
Walking a long distance path, one takes a step back in time to an age when pilgrims, pedlars, and packmen took to the road with trepidation, when walking was an audacious adventure rather than a healthy hobby, when progress was more often measured in leagues and miles than moral and technological achievement, and when the hardships of travel conferred on casual roadside encounters and staging post gatherings a convivial sense of common purpose and shared experience.
Nowhere, with the possible exception of the Camino de Santiago, is this more marked than on the Sentier Cathare or Cathar Way, a 250 kilometre trail crossing the Languedoc region of southern France from the foothills of the Pyrenees to the shores of the Mediterranean. The risks and rigours of venturing abroad have dwindled, but the pleasures of the path remain the same.
Threading its way through dramatic gorges carved out by tumbling mountain torrents and traversing a patchwork of oak mantled hills, Alpine pastures, dense pine forests, lush meadows, rocky plateaux, and regimented vineland, the Sentier Cathare stitches together drovers' trails, logging tracks, smugglers' paths, and winding country lanes to link some of the principal sites associated with the dissident Christian movement from which it takes its name.
Above all, we visit a succession of castles, each perched more improbably than the last on craggy peaks, castles that often only had a tenuous link with the Cathars themselves, but whose evocative ruins have proved so compelling that they have conspired with history to create a kind of Cathar industry. The more profane aspects of this development would very probably have appalled the ascetic men and women whose tragic fate inspired it, but the whole phenomenon has proved so rich in historical fact and fiction that, seven hundred years after their demise, the Cathar story still appeals to disparate imaginations, moving the romantic as much as the mercenary, the spiritual as much as the fantastical, and stimulating our collective appetite for quests, mysteries and quixotic exploits.
This is a protean path, offering something for everybody, from the lover of wild places to the aficionado of old stones, from the hearty athlete looking for a challenge to the New Age mystic seeking enlightenment, but whatever your motive for embarking on such an adventure, walking the Sentier Cathare is a hugely rewarding experience, in the course of which petty cares slip away, replaced by a headful of mountains, meetings, and vistas, and walking becomes a way of being, so that come the end there is every chance that you will want only one thing, to turn round and do it all over again.
However, not everyone will want to embark on a long distance adventure, so as well as the standard linear route, we also feature ten circular walks exploring some of the most dramatic, recondite and beautiful sites on and around the Sentier Cathare, taking in out-of-the-way ruins, dizzying eyries, dramatic rockscapes, stunning waterfalls, picturesque paths, wonderful woodland, an illicit saltworks, and a natural maze that will delight children of all ages.
These walks, which range from virtually effortless strolls to gruelling high mountain hikes, have been worked out with a view to giving visitors travelling by car an overview of everything the Sentier Cathare has to offer, plus a bit more besides. Nonetheless, many of them could be incorporated into the linear hike, either as a supplement to individual stages, or as a basis for extra days overnighting in one of the many superb Gîtes d'Étapes that punctuate the route.
All the itineraries are available on ViewRanger, while for those who want a few more words to enhance the walking experience, there are PDF and Kindle versions featuring conventional walk descriptions, background essays, and detailed information about getting there, getting back, getting about, and getting a bed. Whatever version you opt for though, I can guarantee that this is one of those walking experiences that will stay with you for a very long time indeed.