Oh, and don’t forget to ask Pierre and Sophie about their ghost and some sticky moments with the Black Prince!
* Times as announced by Revel tourist office. Montgey is situated 50km to the east of Toulouse and 10km north-west of Revel.
Most Saturday mornings, I go to the market in Revel, a royal bastide founded in 1342. This is one of the busiest weekly events in the Lauragais, and it is the main reason the town has spent over a decade in the Michelin guide to ‘Les 100 Plus Beaux Détours de France’. But few visitors, be they tourists or locals, know that this popular market was stolen from the neighbouring town of Sorèze 440 years ago during the Wars of Religion. Before that, Revel held its market on a Thursday in accordance with its founding charter.
The calvary in Soual honours the memory of Charles d’Alric, lord of Farinières, who was assassinated nearby in 1575. His death, and the death of his son three weeks later, are typical examples of just how personal this conflict often was, particularly in my part of south-west France. Elsewhere in the kingdom there were major battles – Jarnac, Moncontour and Coutras for example – but the area to the west of Toulouse suffered an endless succession of skirmishes and sieges which were never decisive and always bloody. There was no frontline, no geographic logic to which town, village or château was Catholic and which was Protestant.
Charles d’Alric and his family were Catholics, and their home was the Château de Farinières on the road between the Protestant strongholds of Puylaurens and Castres. The Protestants of Puylaurens knew that every Saturday Charles d’Alric was in the habit of making the journey from Labruguière, where he was governor, to Soual, where he kept a mistress. On Sunday morning, 25 December 1575, they lay in ambush in a ruined mill on the outskirts of Soual and waited for him to emerge after his Christmas Eve of pleasure. Before long, Charles d’Alric rode out of town through a gate near the calvary-memorial accompanied by the governor of Soual and three soldiers who were armed only with swords. Under cover of thick fog, the assassins took the Catholic party by surprise and brought Alric to the ground with a pistol shot. He rose to his knees, and with sword in hand he defended himself courageously until one of the attackers ran him through with a Protestant blade. The governor of Soual and the escort were taken prisoner.
A few months ago, I took a walk in the forests of the Montagne Noire, south-west France. I waded rivers and fought dense vegetation in a bid to became one of the first people since the 12th century to visit the remains of a lost castrum – or fortified village. I say ‘lost’ because, until a year ago, it was unknown to archaeologists and historians. Although more research needs to be done, this citadel was probably called Mont-Revel, and it is mentioned in only one surviving contemporary source – an act authorising its construction signed in 1174.
More recently, several new theories were put forward to explain the origin of Revel’s name, and this re-opened the question of where exactly Mont-Revel may have stood, if it had ever been built at all. In the act of August 1174, Roger Trencavel, viscount of Carcassonne, gave a hill to his vassals Isarn Jourdain and Bertrand de Saissac where they were to build a château. Trencavel’s objective was almost certainly to strengthen his defences against the counts of Toulouse with whom he and his family were at war for much of the 12th century in a conflict called la Grande Guerre Méridionale, a war which at times involved the kings of Aragon, England and France. But there is no mention of Mont-Revel in contemporary accounts of the Albigensian Crusade which started 35 years later. In contrast, there are frequent references to the Saissac family’s principal château at Saissac. Perhaps Isarn Jourdain and Bertrand had lacked the time or money to build their new castrum.
In 2018, a friend of mine, Jean-Paul Calvet, heard about some intriguing ruins hidden in the forest between Saissac and a village called Verdun-en-Lauragais where the Saissac family had built a castrum in 1152. I bumped into Jean-Paul shortly after he had made his first exploratory visit. We stood on a street corner in Revel and his eyes sparkled with excitement. He was sure he had found Mont-Revel – the ruins seemed to be the right age and the location was so logical. When I told him I would love to go there because it might be interesting for my next book, he promised to give me a private tour when he had time. But Monsieur Calvet is president of the Revel history society and a keen archaeologist. He never has time, particularly while he is in the midst of writing a five-volume history of the royal bastide of Revel.
‘Where is it?’ I asked him. ‘I’ll go there by myself.’
‘It’s difficult to find because there are no paths and the forest is dense, but if you can reach the confluence of the river Lampy and a stream called des Roques, the castrum lies between them a little way upstream.’
My first attempt at the end of 2018 ended in failure. I tried approaching the site from the north and ended up stuck in a rocky ravine choked with impenetrable vegetation. I found the ruins of a large dwelling – maybe a mill, but certainly not a fortified village. Towards the end of winter, I tried again, hoping to find an easier passage now that the undergrowth had died back. This time I decided to start from the south and follow the left bank of the Lampy, something that proved easier said than done. Bramble thickets, dense holly, fallen trees, rocky banks and endless side tributaries made a journey of less than two kilometres feel more like a week-long expedition in the jungle. At one point I decided it would be easier to cross the river, and I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my trousers and waded knee-deep through the icy torrent, but the right bank proved to be just as challenging. I began to understand why Mont-Revel had kept its secret for so long.
Eventually, I reached the confluence and crossed the Lampy for a second time. I skirted a cliff and began to climb a steep slope. Before long I stood on a line of fallen stones, covered in a thick coat of bright green moss. I paused and looked around me. Could this be part of the castrum’s defences? From Jean-Paul’s description, I was expecting something grander.
I pushed on, irritated by the army of saplings and fallen branches that scratched my skin and tried to trip me up. And then I stopped in amazement. A vision appeared through the bare trees, a wide expanse of pale-yellow stone gleaming in the winter sun. I picked my way across treacherous rubble-strewn ground and completed a circuit of the only surviving section of massive medieval ramparts. I don’t know its original height, but the wall towered above my head, a solid 1.2 metres thick (four feet), built to resist the attacks of men and the ravages of tim.
This windy promontory is an unforgettable place which you need to visit, or at least know about, if you have any interest in the Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade.
The Mémorial Cathare was created in 2011 to mark the 800th anniversary of a mass burning carried out here by Simon de Montfort and the Bishop of Toulouse. It’s an hour’s bike ride from my home and I have been here a dozen times without meeting a living soul. But instead of tranquillity, I am always filled with a sense of desolation. How can I admire the splendour of the Pyrenees and the Montagne Noire without reflecting on the brutalities committed by both sides during the crusade? The memorial also tests your knowledge of this tragic period of French history.
The centrepiece of the memorial is a thick sheet of iron plate mounted vertically on a block of stone. Shapes have been cut out from the iron to create an image of a heretic being burned at the stake, based on an engraving from the mid-thirteenth century.
Saint-Ferréol is a ten-minute drive from my home in the Lauragais, and with temperatures forecast to top 40 degrees Celsius this afternoon, I’ll be going there for a swim as soon as I finish writing this post. Thomas Jefferson, in contrast, was more interested in the engineering aspects of Saint-Ferréol because it is, in fact, a reservoir, not a lake.
It seems that during his travels, he acquired a taste for the wines of my area. When he died in 1826, his cellar inventory recorded the presence of 49 bottles of Blanquette de Limoux, a tipple which promotes itself as the oldest sparkling wine in the world. There’s a claim I shall enjoy investigating another time! Perhaps I’ll start my research by opening a bottle this afternoon after my swim in the lake - or reservoir - of Saint-Ferréol.
Finally, here’s a picture of the reservoir when it was drained in 2017. After 350 years of service, the dam walls needed some repair work!
This morning I visited the historic site of Roquefort (no connection with the cheese!) while on a run with my wife in our local mountains. The earliest written reference to this fortified village dates from 1035, and for the next couple of centuries it was the home of the Roquefort family.
And Bruno showed us his field of pastel, or woad, and demonstrated his ancient dyeing skills.