Châteaux de Lastours
You see the castles as soon as the narrow canyon road turns the last corner to enter Lastours: they tower above the little town from the heights above the River Orbiel, their shattered walls crooked and gaping in the morning light. Plan to arrive early at Lastours, especially on weekends, to have some time before the tour busses arrive. The entrance to the site houses a small gallery of artifacts recovered from the castles, the ruined villages below and the nearby area, but save these until later and climb the steep stairs up to the terraced ledges where houses and a church once stood. From here, you can begin to comprehend the heights these castles command. The path continues through a natural cave, where in 1961 explorers discovered the grave of a young Bronze-Age girl who had been buried with art from Egypt and Mycean Greece. These hills, guarding one of the major passages from north of the Black Mountain to the southern plains, have been inhabited for a long time.
Three of the castles at Lastours, Cabaret on the far left as you look up from the trail, Quertinheux on its own rock outcrop to the far right, and walled Surdespine in the middle, stood here, possibly just as watchtowers, at the beginning of the Albigensian Crusade of Pope Innocent III and the Northern French against Languedoc. They and the fortified iron-mining village of Cabaret, located just below the existing Cabaret castle, were the domain of Pierre-Roger Cabaret, an ally of the Trencavels of Carcassonne and protector of the area Cathars. Cabaret resisted two crusader attacks, during one of which the crusader commander Simon de Montfort sent 100 captives from nearby Bram, blinded and chained together, to remind the defenders of his ferocious cruelty toward captured civilians. The castles were surrendered to the King Louis IX of France (St. Louis) after the Treaty of Paris ended the second Albigensian Crusade in 1229. The town of Cabaret was destroyed, but the ridgetop towers were rebuilt, and a fourth tower, Tour Régine, was added by the king.
It is difficult to imagine, on a sunny day with a light breeze and wildflowers blooming everywhere, the hardships and horrors the defenders of this place must have endured. Climbing up to Cabaret, think of the labor of transporting stones to this site, or bringing up firewood. Peer out of the narrow arrow slits, noting how each has been placed to cover a specific spot on the approaching trail. Imagine spending a day crouched at that slit, waiting.
On days when this place was not at war, however, it must have been beautiful. Flowers do grow everywhere. The river sparkles in the valley below. Hawks soar on the sudden updrafts. For picnics, we climb to Surdespine, the highest of the castles, previously called "Fleur d'Espine" (Flower of the Ridge). It is the least military-feeling of the castles, having large windows and no obvious arrow slits. In the spring, the space within the walls is covered with poppies. Sharing our wine, we can imagine that we are doing what people have done on this spot for millenia.
Gouffre Géant de Cabrespine
On our first visit to the Gouffre Géant, we followed a small sign pointing up the River Clamoux canyon from Villeneuve not knowing what to expect, not even knowing what a "gouffre" was. It was almost the lunch closing time when we reached the nondescript entrance building, but the friendly guy at the counter let us in anyway. He led us down a stone corridor, opened a steel door, and there we stood, utterly astonished. Standing in the Gouffre Géant de Cabrespine is standing inside a huge crystal geode. No photograph we've seen even begins to do this place justice - you just have to go there.
A gouffre is a chasm, and this is a big one, big enough to fit the Eiffel Tower inside, standing up. Water pours in from one side, right above your head as you walk along a passageway cut into the rock, 200m above the floor. When it reaches the bottom, this spring water joins an underground river that flows all the way to the River Orbiel at Lastours, the distance you just drove to get to the Gouffre Géant. Legend has it that the underground stream was discovered when a duck disappeared from the River Clamoux, and reappeared out of nowhere on the Orbiel. If you're fit, not the least bit claustrophobic, and don't mind going down and then back up 200m of vertical ladders, you can sign up for a "safari" along the accessible parts of the stream with a team of local spelunkers.
A visit to the Gouffre Géant powerfully clears the head. This place is old, millions of years old, its beauty carved inch by inch by running water, hollowing out the earth and then filling it, drip by drip, with crystalline shapes too diverse and bizarre to be imagined. You cannot visit this place and ever trust the earth to be solid, or boring, beneath your feet again.
Some Wine and then Lunch
The round tower of the Château de Chanoines greets you as you enter Villeneuve from the Canyon of the Clamoux. Just before the tower, the Château de Chanoines tasting room offers a robust red Minervois, an award winning late-harvest dessert wine and, if you are lucky, local truffles. You'll usually need to ring the bell by the door to alert Madame or Monsieur that you would like to try their wine. What better way to prepare yourself for a good country lunch?
For lunch itself, we like the Auberge de Clamoux, a small inn that serves a fine three-course weekday menu at 13€. Go ahead and try the salad with gesiers (duck gizzards, a regional favorite) or sample the offering of charcouterie (hams, sausages, etc). The main course is generally meat, duck or salmon, and the desserts are impressive. One lunch time here, the main dining room had been converted to a huge table seating several dozen French men and women in their 70s and 80s, plowing through huge platters of food and liters and liters of wine. Every meal in France is a celebration. Count on at least an hour and a half.
Dolmen du Palet de Roland
The 10th-century Song of Roland tells how Charlemagne's nephew and champion Roland died heroically fighting the Saracens in Spain, and how his fiancé Aude's heart was broken on hearing the grim news. So it is only right that this dolmen, carefully placed to look out over the valley of the River Aude, should in local lore be Roland's grave.
Neolithic dolmens, stone burial chambers covered by slabs of rock and then encased in an artificial hillock, dot the countryside of Languedoc. They attest to a robust and fairly settled population some 5,000 years ago, who both cared enough for their dead and had the engineering skill and leisure time to build elaborate and very labor-intensive final resting places for them. They also display a strong aesthetic sense: not only have pottery and other goods often been found in dolmens, every one that we have come upon is placed and oriented to offer a fine panoramic view not only to the deceased occupant, but to anyone who visits the site.
Across the road from the Dolmen du Palet de Roland is another hilltop dolmen, together with the ruins of a 17th-century lime kiln (for cooking local limestone to make mortar) and the ruins of several stone buildings. Before World War I and the 20th-century migration to cities, this area had a much larger rural population. The slopes of the Black Mountain are covered with dry-stone walls and planting terrases, shepherds' barns, shelters and cottages, and occasional clusters of ruins that may have been family holdings or small villages.
Château Villerambert Julien
Wind your day down with a visit to lovely Château Villerambert Julien with its medieval cellars, Renaissance main house, and restored private chapel where the Julien family presents their exquisite wines to guests. This has been a wine estate since Roman times; artifacts from the Villa Ramberti that once occupied this site have been discovered in the nearby fields. Madame Julien speaks English, and will explain each wine offered to you, from the soil and cultivation to aging and how long it can or should be kept before being opened.
We like the fresh, dry white Minervois from Château Villerambert Julien and the "Opera" red Minervois, named in honor of
the red marble in the Villerambert vinyards, the same marble used for in the Paris Opera. But our favorite is the Château
Villerambert Julien red Minervois, a stately wine to serve to guests, or to make even a simple lunch a special occasion.