Saturday, March 8, 2014

Terrifying Trails to the Mountaintop Fortresses of Lastours.

When I first arrived in Carcassonne I was picked up at the station by John, the friendly host of the writers retreat I was going to in the mountains just outside the city. 
As we drove up the mountain with John, he pointed out some hilltop ruins as we went through the village of Lastours.  He told us a little of the history, of how they had been the home of a people called the Cathars and that they had been persecuted in the 12th century.
This really captured my attention.  I loved history and also storytelling.  There was something to learn here.  Once at La Muse Inn John showed me the collection of books about the Cathars that they had in their library.
It was a continuing theme threading through my time at La Muse as Le Cite de Carcassonne was also steeped in the history of the Albegenesian Crusades.
Finally, in my last week at La Muse, the day came when we were off to explore Lastours, and the Quatre Chateaux on the mountaintop.
John drove us to the village at the base of the mountain.  The river runs right through the village set on the valley floor. 
We parked in the centre of the village and then John walked us up the street to the gate at the top of some steps that was the beginning of the path up to the mountaintop.
At the top of the first set of steps there was a terraced area and I walked to the edge to take my first picture looking down on the village of Lastours.                      
Only three of us were making this pilgramage to the top of the hill to see the ruins for ourselves.  We split up and went at our own pace.  It was a cool and windy day with intermiitent rain. 
There was no one else on the mountain, so we felt quite isolated.
I set up the first steps, excited about getting to the top and setting foot in these fortress homes that had seen such history.
As you can see there wasn't much in the way of a barrier between the walker and the drop down the steep embankment. This was a rope stretched between the metal posts set into the hillside.
At the turn in one of the hairpin bends I stopped to take another shot of the village from this higher perspective.
Then I turned and carried on climbing.  The start of the journey was not such hard work, and the steps were shallow and gradually took us higher. I could just see the tops of the chateaux peeking out at me.
The first place we came to was quite low down on the slope, the ruins of an old church.  There were really just the foundations and a few walls remaining. The illustration on the sign gives a great impression of how the steep mountain was the perfect place to build these fortresses, as they really were difficult for any enemy to attack. It also states that the church was built in the style common at the end of the 11th century.
These are the remains of the church that survives today.
My eyes turned upwards towards the towers rearing into the sky.
The trail began to change and became steeper as I embarked on the climb up to the top. I began to really see how high I was going.  The trail was narrow and the wind increased, whipping the rain into my face as I tackled the narrow trail.
This part of the path at least had the barrier. Little did I know that soon this would disappear.
I was bouyed forward by the anticipation of reaching the top.
Suddenly I was surprised to see what appreared to be a cave in front of me.  Jenna was ahead of me and just entering it.
This had actually been inhabited by people back in the Bronze Age and much study has been done on this area by archaeologists. I was learning something new at every turn it seemed.  
I stood inside this cave and attempted to imagine families living here during this time period.  I was surprised at this unexpected discovery. Also it was the entryway to the path up to the fortress on the mountaintop. It had served as another means of protection to the Cathars 
As I looked out the rear opening of the cave I could see the steps that led upwards.
The higher I climbed, it seemed the further away the summit was.

More and more stairs. They were getting steeper.

Here you can see there are no longer safety barriers.  I took pictures looking down to try and show how steep the drop was.  It is disappointing as it is difficult to really convey the depth of the drop in these pictures.
It was great to see the rope fence appear when I started up yet another flight of stairs.  They were getting steeper and also were very uneven, so I was careful to watch my footing.
I kept looking up, the towers seemed out of a fantasy scene to me.

I eventually reached a sign indicating how to get to the first fortress.  However it also appeared there was an old village site in the area.
I looked up at my original destination, but decided I must just check out the village.  It could be really interesting.
Walking down the narrow trail in the direction of the village I passed a massive standing stone.  Also the track grew even narrower.
Looking up I could see how steep the climb was going to be to get to the first tower.
As I looked back in the direction I had come from, I could see how narrow the trail was.  In the distance the view was very magical.
I arrived at the information sign for the village Castral, it was tacked onto a tree.

It seemed interesting, and it was a very old village.
There was a tight curve around the tree and its exposed roots made their way across the narrow path which disappeared around the bend. 
With great trepidation I worked my way around the bend, this was scarier than I had been mentally prepared for.
There was a very steep drop off and I felt intimidated. Once around the bend the path continued on in a harrowing series of bends, as it snaked down the hillside to the village way down below on the valley floor.
I could just make out the outlines of buildings from the ruins of the foundations and some of the walls.  
This was all I needed to see.  There was no way I was attempting to get down there, especially knowing I would have to climb back up.  I felt this picture was enough for me. lol
I scrambled back around the treacherous bend and got back onto the path leading up to the first chateau.
I had to take another picture of this fortress and it really shows how steep the cliff top that it was built on is. How they transported building materials up here is beyond my imagination.
The tall cypress trees make it even more like a storybook setting.
Climbing this pathway I eventually reached the massive walls supporting the fortress.

As I stood at the base of these enormous structures I was in awe of their size.
After seeing the first ruin, I climbed down to the main trail and came to the sign with information about how the main chateau was laid out.

This ruin had much more evidence that it was a dwelling.

The views from this height were stunning. I couldn't imagine people actually living up here.
I went through this door, curious to see what was inside.
There were windows and indications of where the ceilings and floors had been positioned.

After leaving this chateau I had to once again go down to the main path and then climb up a particularly steep incline to the third tower. Once again I was enchanted by the distant tower.

I looked down as I neared the top. 

It was such a steep drop down.
I was on all fours as I completed the last stage of the climb, it was so steep.  I stood when I reached the level clearing on the top and then froze.  It seemed that there was only a few feet of level ground in front of me and then it just dropped off into nothingness. It was a very long and narrow summit. I was overtaken by a panic attack.  This had never happened to me in my life, as far as I can recall.  I sat down on the nearest rock and I was wondering how I would make it down the mountain.  I was completely alone and knew I had to do it.  I couldn't even stand up to take a picture of the tower that was perhaps thrity feet away, along the narrow escarpment. 
I took my picture from the seated position.
I talked to myself and made myself take deep breaths.  I prayed to my angels to please support me and give me the courage to turn around and get myself off that narrow clifftop. 
I have never had a fear of heights.  It didn't even cross my mind as I began my climb.  Whether it was the suddenness of finding myself standing on this exposed mountaintop, where it seemed I could be blown off at any moment, I dont know.  All I know is I was shaken to discover that these feelings even existed inside me.  Being face to face with your vulnerability and how small we are in this vast universe was something that I will carry in my conscousness forever. Also the fact that I prevailed and moved through the fear was a huge lesson for me. 
I managed to collect myself and get another few pictures, but it was with grit and determination.  All I wanted to do was leave that place and feel safe again.

Being as bloody minded and stubborn as I am, I was determined not to let this episode stop me from visiting the final, and in my eyes, the most beautiful of the four chateaux.
I was not disappointed.
From this fortress I could look back at the other three I had just visited and capture them in one shot.
Looking at the exposed trail I realized it is not surprising I felt a little uncertain and fearful. :-)
This last tower had some great views out of its windows.  You could imagine how they stood at them to spot potential approaches by the enemy.
And here are the narrow windows built into the thick walls.
Inside the tower you could see the gaps where the joists had once held up floors.
This shot shows the roof of the tower and a window placed high up on its wall.

Once again there was a panoramic view over the valleys and mountains.
I started the downward journey and felt happy to be getting to safer terrain.
I was grateful for the opportunity  to have made the trek to the top, and looked up at these chateaux with a new respect.  Being practical, I had to think of how difficult it must have been.  Just transporting the food and water requirements for the daily survival of the residents seemed such a massive undertaking. Who made that treacherous trip up and down the mountain, transporting the food.  There was no space for growing vegtables on the cliff tops.  The logistics of life there seemed a nightmare.
Going down the final steps I couldn't help but contemplate how sad it was that people lived in such danger and fear that they had to builld these amazing fortresses to defend themselves and their religious beliefs. 
As I neared the bottom the sky became blue.  The castles grew smaller as I neared the town of Lastours.

I was still shaken from my panic attack and perhaps even in a state of shock as I walked up the road to meet the others from La Muse.
I took some pictures of the cosy homes tucked into the hillside.
I noticed a lone cross silhouetted on the nearby cliff.
Bridget kindly took a picture of me, the valiant survivor.  That's a smile fo relief on my face I think.
As we pulled out of Lastours, I got another shot of the town, with the chateaux in the distance.

This chimney is from the wool cleaning works that functioned many years ago.  They used to clean wool for much of Europe, even Ireland at one time, according to John.
As we drove home we passed this windmill.
And once again through the now familiar villages..
I was very happy to arrive safely back at La Muse Inn. It was a day I will never forget for so many reasons. It held expectation, surprises and physical, mental and emotional challenges. It was also exhilarating and terrifying. There were moments of stillness and contemplation as well of times of uncertainty and fear. A real journey to the mountaintop in so many ways. 
In two days I would be off to Italy, that my friends is another story