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The land that France forgot

Folded into the Pyrenean foothills, the grape-growing region of the Languedoc is often anachronistically described as one of France’s best-kept secrets. As holidaymakers from Belgium, Germany and England flock to the cities of Toulouse and Carcassonne, spurred by the Dan Brown-inspired conspiracy theories that target southern France, the Languedoc is emerging from its torpor – its historic slumber – embracing the foreign euro and acquiring something of a favourable reputation outside France. Although there are years to go before tourism here reaches the endemic proportions to which it has soared in neighbouring Provence, the infection is slowly spreading.

But there are pockets of resistance to the advance parties of the tourist invasion – places where the locals are not so much bitterly hostile to their European brethren as lazily ambivalent about the contribution they could make to a flagging economy, and where the lack of tourist infrastructure has discouraged any foreign incursions. Quillan, in the beautiful Aude valley, is within striking distance of this country. It is a land that France seems to have well and truly forgotten since the Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed in 1659. Forgotten or, indeed, kept secret.

Ask the residents and they will tell you it is neglect. And when I first came here more than ten years ago I myself was struck by the underpopulation, by the disused factories and the geriatric pace of daily life. To a visitor these might make for the perfect holiday environment, but to a long-term resident they provide evidence of a despised tradition of underinvestment by central government, the consequent exodus of youth and the paucity of work opportunities for those left behind. Quillan itself is described in the Rough Guide as ‘half-heartedly industrialised’ – a label that, from the perspective of an outsider, does a disservice to the town, with its charming riverside cafes and timber-framed homes, but from a resident’s point of view is probably spot on.

More recently, other grievances have been aired. The Languedoc has long prided itself on being one of France’s foremost producers of quality grape, the great world religion of winemaking having taken root here some 200 years ago. For the devout, this – rather than tourism – will prevent it from drifting into an economic backwater. And the physical symbols of this belief are in abundance – the vineyards, rolled out across the valley floors like prayer mats on which the worshipful practise their faith. But overproduction of wine across the entire country has sent prices into a downward spiral and, perhaps owing to its overdependence on the industry, the Languedoc has borne the brunt of this crash. In late April, youths went on the rampage in Narbonne, angered at what they perceived to be a deliberate attempt to cripple their businesses on the part of producers in Bordeaux, who are currently flooding the market with a deluge of cheap, low-grade wine. The explosion of violence was not unprecedented, and although tempers have subsequently returned to simmering point they could easily flare up again.

All of this seemed a world away from the Languedoc we encountered just weeks before the Narbonne riots. I was making a return journey to a place I had first learnt about as a 15-year-old, when my Francophile parents bought a small chalet on a plot of land outside Quillan. The site in which they had invested their money was owned by a Belgian couple whose entrepreneurial flair was – over the next 15 years – to transform a barren hillside into a premier holiday resort replete with indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts, bar, restaurant and enough chalets to constitute a thriving hamlet.

One thing that had changed little over the intervening period was the countryside, and I had to jolt myself to attention on the drive south from Carcassonne airport to avoid being hypnotised by its beauty. The same camel-hump ridges writhed beneath a pallid sky, shaking off their tawny, autumnal coats as bursts of colour strobed the windscreen: a bundle of mint-green firs; patches of bare, copper-coloured rock that grazed the limestone bluffs. As we passed through the village of Alet les Bains, en route to Quillan, the River Aude could be glimpsed thrashing its tail of water against the boulder-strewn banks in a champagne froth.

There were seven of us on this trip – too many for my parents’ modest chalet – and we had rented one of the ‘luxury’ villas at the very summit of the site for our seven-night stay. It afforded quite spectacular views of the low hills that led like worn steps up to the gorge country of Roussillon. After we had stocked up on ample supplies of wine, cheese and bread at the local supermarket, I took one last, lingering look at the scene before dusk. A ragged legion of firs had stormed the base of the nearest hill, thinning on the ascent as it chased motes of granite-grey cloud into night. In this part of the world the landscape often appeared to move faster than the people.

That thought was on my mind the following morning as we drove into town to buy breakfast. I grew to love this morning ritual. Nancy and I would clamber sleepy-eyed into the Renault and hightail the two miles to Quillan. We always went to the same boulangerie and our order never changed: four croissants, three pains aux chocolat and two baguettes that pulsed with heat and crackled like autumn leaves in the hand. The trip back to the chalet was even quicker. Like paramedics transporting a vital organ, we risked life and limb to get our wares under the knife before they turned cold and lifeless.

What I loved even more than the food was the spectacle of Quillan waking to a typical Spring morning, briefly registering the usual absence of activity and then settling into a protracted snooze that would last until the evening. The shopkeepers and market traders had a virtual monopoly on any traces of youth and dynamism, but they catered principally to a crowd whose zimmerframe philosophy could sap the energy of even the most zestful businessman. As immovable as roadside bollards, these black-bereted guardians of the past dotted the town centre, sometimes inexplicably alone but more often clustered conspiratorially, their heads swivelling like rusted gun turrets as they locked us in their clouded sights. For them, the presence of strangers was about as exciting as it got.

Neighbouring Esperaza, then, provided something of a contrast – at least on Sunday mornings when the farmers’ market occupied the town square and townsfolk of all ages emerged temporarily from their hibernation. On the day of our visit a young flamenco guitarist sporting a mop of dreadlocks had set up on the edge of the square, and at times his music seemed to echo to the rhythms of buying and selling, his fingers tripping hesitantly over a scale as prices were tentatively discussed and then cascading down the strings in rasgueado patterns that roared like white water, goading the vendors into a fervour of haggling. There were other tourists here too, drooling over the selections of fine cheeses, the hung sausages glistening in their skin stockings and the mosaic displays of olives glazed in oil.

We could have dallied in Esperaza all day, but I pressed the others to leave and come with me to Puilaurens, the site of one of the four major Cathar castles to be found in the Languedoc. Puilaurens was deep within gorge country, buried in a labyrinth of chasms that split the earth open like a charred log, and the road from Esperaza wound like Theseus’ thread through this limestone maze, beneath paunches of rock that sagged dangerously over the bonnets of passing cars and across knotted ridges that veined the ancient valleys. When we eventually espied the castle a gauze of mist plastered the scars and fissures of the land over which it presided, perched on its pinnacle of rock like a preacher on his pulpit.

Although once a major stronghold, Puilaurens is almost unheard of outside this region, toasted by the historians and enthusiasts less frequently than the totemic Montsegur. Nevertheless, its presence in the hills that stretch towards the coastal plains of Perpignan is a perpetual reminder to the local inhabitants of an especially ugly episode in their country’s long and eventful history. Catharism developed in the late eleventh century in response to the despotism of the Catholic church. It espoused a dualist vision of the world that was to influence much later writers and thinkers, including Rene Descartes. According to the Cathar parfait – the esteemed priestly order – the material world had been created by a malevolent God and should be renounced at all costs. Followers were encouraged to abstain from ‘pleasures of the flesh’, such as sex, alcohol and eating to excess, and to dedicate themselves to more spiritual pursuits. When close to death they would take the consolamentum, a type of divine blessing that conferred on them the status of parfait and permitted them entry into heaven. Despite the popularity of the alternative religion among all social classes, the ruling family of St Gilles, which controlled most of the Languedoc in the early twelfth century, remained reluctantly Catholic, albeit with strong sympathies for their Cathar subjects that led Pope Innocent III to suspect they were actually closet Cathars themselves. The church was not about to accept the threat posed by this rival, heretical doctrine, and in 1208 Innocent proclaimed a crusade against Catharism that saw the region descend into bloodshed and anarchy for the next 50 years. The diehard parfait and their fanatical defenders retreated to the mountain fortresses of Montsegur, Perypertuse, Puilaurens and Queribus – Cathar islands in a sea of Catholicism – and when Montsegur finally fell to the crusaders in 1244 the ‘aberration’ had been all but wiped away.

The weather had not improved by the time we arrived. Rippling fingers of fog caressed the keep, lending it a fairytale, dreamlike aspect, as if buoyed on roiling waves of cloud that broke with the force of a child’s sleep-calmed breath. Ranged along the ramparts, we vanished in puffs of mist that tumbled from the turrets and rubbed out the coloured world. In this theatre of dim silence, it was not hard to picture the starved remnants of the Cathar faith huddled in its mass tomb to be, waiting for the killer blow.

We made one final excursion that day – to the secluded and mysterious Ermitage de St Antoine in the Gorge de Galamus, a plunging limestone gullet choked with strands of thistle. As we braved the rough-hewn steps that stumbled down, I could hear the gargle of the Aude squeezed into a dribbling brook far below. Ahead, the gorge walls funnelled into a tight corridor that buckled like the liftshaft in a collapsing tower, sometimes no thicker than a man’s arm. The hermitage hung from the outside, its pastel hues barely discernible in the gloom: a faded watercolour in a dusty hall. And wrapped in these folds of earth, hidden from the wider world, it seemed to symbolise the forgotten parts of the Languedoc itself. Parts that might just remain secret for a few years more.

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