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SOUTHERN FRANCE

In the Land of Castles

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By M.L. Lyke
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 23, 2008

The castle was small, crumbling, a ruin in every sense. But in the morning hours of an overcast April day in the south of France, it was all ours. The only sound was our own quick breaths as we ascended the footpath to Castle Aguilar. No voices, no ringing cellphones, no beeps of digital cameras. Just two people, off-hours, offseason, off the beaten path in a French fortification almost 1,000 years old.

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Something happens in that hush. The weight of a place takes hold. The imagination takes off. Mine was flying as I rubbed the castle's thick, rough walls, picturing the times they had witnessed -- times of counts and courts, knights and damsels, inquisitors and dungeons, sackings and sieges. Had a wandering troubadour stood at this same spot, singing songs of unrequited love? What lords had sent armies over these walls to vanquish defenders? Had the boots of black-hearted Simon de Montfort, who reportedly stormed Aguilar in 1210, swept across the stones at my very feet?

I peered through the long, skinny archer's slots in Aguilar's semicircular guard towers, down to the rolling green plains patched with old vineyards below us. Wild thyme and rosemary edged into bloom at castle's edge. The stucco walls of the medieval village of Tuchan -- where we had happily dined the night before on robust blood sausage, coq au vin and aged chevre -- glowed rosy in filtered morning sun.

We had road-tripped our way into the heart of France's Languedoc-Roussillon region, the history-rich corner of France that reaches down to the foothills of the Pyrenees and on to the Spanish border. It embraces a pretty countryside called Cathar Country, a land of castles, cassoulet (the signature white-bean stew of southern France) and, once upon a bad time, Catholic Crusaders determined to wipe out "heretic" Cathars.

The Cathars were followers of an anti-materialistic Christian sect that shunned meat and held some radical ideas about the abuse of religious power by the church. They believed evil forces ruled life on Earth, a belief surely reinforced as the zealous Montfort and his Crusaders gouged out their countrymen's eyes, mutilated their bodies, slaughtered their infants and threw their elders on burning pyres.

Intolerance, this Cathar Country will remind you time and again, is a beast of insatiable appetite.

The Local Flavors

We'd scheduled our visit in mid-April, knowing the weather might be chilly, the skies might weep, and tourist events might still be in winter shutdown. It was a good trade-off. No queues, no rush through antiquities, no press of crowd and no tail-riding Renaults on narrow, winding roads.

Renting a car in Marseille, we headed for the country, down roads lined with still-bare plane trees. In Saint-Remy-de-Provence, we stopped at the busy Bistrot des Alpilles for a salad and plat du jour: carefully arranged snails, cod, fresh vegetables with aioli, washed down with hearty Burgundy and finished with a heavenly chocolate mousse. We ate like the locals, slowly savoring the simple fare.

We reached nearby Les Baux an hour and a half before the place shut down. Perfect timing. Parking lots and tourist shops in the old village that cozies up to these stellar ruins were emptying out. The charter buses had taken off. Even offseason, this popular site packs them in.

Like many strategic castles in the south of France, Les Baux, at a distance, is almost indistinguishable from the limestone outcrop it clings to, dipping and diving with the fall and rise of rock. Its walls were quarried from the very stone it sits on. Some were built right into it. It's as cleverly camouflaged as a chameleon in a rain forest and equipped as if for heavy warfare, with life-size working replicas of medieval siege weapons. Most captivating was the storied trebuchet, a Paul Bunyan-scale catapult that, in some locales, flung not only hundred-pound rocks and fire, but also disease-infected corpses over castle walls.

We climbed the highest towers -- watching our step on the slippery stones -- and peered down on Provence's lovely villas, vineyards and orchards, and beyond to the Camargue, the largest river delta in western Europe, formed by two arms of the Rhone River. We crossed into the oozy marshlands the next day.

Heading down the highway, we passed farm stands selling spicy sausages, mustards, globular artichokes and ghostly white asparagus. We rolled past beautiful old farmhouses and wineries with "Entree" signs out front. Their rows of untrained vines rose black and twisted from the rich delta soil. We found the wine they produced drinkable and inexpensive, a bargain $5 or $6 a bottle.


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