In September 2015 I was lucky enough to spend an entire month in France, and one of the many amazing places I visited was Lastours, in the country’s south-west Languedoc region. There is incredible history around this area, which was the home of the Cathars, a fascinating religious sect set apart from Catholicism because of a belief in the equality of men and women, along with other progressive views.
Lastours is both a small village with a few shops (including a delicious bakery) and the site of an important historic monument. One hot and sunny September afternoon I spent a couple of hours climbing like a mountain goat up and around the old ruined castles that date back to the 11th century.
I hauled myself up the uneven rock steps and walked through the cave where they discovered the remains of the “Princess Cathar” around 50 years ago. I wended my way up and around the ruins of the old castles and towers as the ghosts of those who had once lived here brushed against my skin. Looking through the openings down onto the surrounding countryside, as guards would have done more than 900 years ago, I sensed what it would have been like to be watching and waiting for the next band of invaders coming to destroy the lives of those sheltering within the cold stone walls. Those stones were indeed cold: even on a hot 30 degree Celsius day (86 Farenheit), touching the stones chilled me to my bones. Despite their romance and grandeur, in winter those castles would have been a nightmare of damp and misery.
Coming from Australia, where there are no buildings more than a couple of hundred years old, seeing the tall stone towers framed between the thin, dark, poplar trees appeared to me as something straight from a fairytale. I wandered up the rocky paths between the ruins and the wonder and terror of the European fairytales that I’d grown up with came alive for me in a way they never had before. In Australia, much of our history is in our landscapes. It must be searched for because it’s not always obvious. There are certainly no fortresses or castles. But at Lastours the ruined stone walls transported me back in time.
Tragedy happened in this place, and the terror that rained down upon the Cathars and those living within the fortress is beyond comprehension. As I walked, the evil of those times was still palpable. It informed my writing at the time, and now when I look back on the images I took, more stories come to me. It is a place where, even under sunny, blue skies, the darkest of fairytales loom.