Through the land of the Cathars

© T. Joly
Running mostly through the Ariège department, the GR 107 hiking path leads to historical places reminding the tragic fate of the Cathars. It also goes through the Pyrenees high mountains unveiling breathtaking sceneries and providing the opportunity to spot wild animals.

[ Practical ]

Getting there
- By road
770 km from Paris on autoroutes A6b, A10, A71, A20, A61 and A66 till Pamiers, then on N20 till Foix.
Porté Puymorens is 70 km further on N20.
- By train
TGV from Paris Montparnasse to Toulouse, then TER train TER to Foix. The journey takes from 7 to 8 hours.
Night train Lunéa from Paris Austerlitz to Foix. Duration of the journey : 8 hours.
TER train from Foix to Porté Puymorens. The journey takes 1 hour 30 minutes.
- The Topo Guide « Sur les traces des Cathares. Le Chemin des Bonshommes » from the Fédération Française de Randonnée has a list of accommodations.
- Editor’s pick
Gîte d’Etape de Roquefixade
Gîte d’Etape de Montségur
Gîte d’Etape de Camurac
Gîte d’Etape de Comus
Le Relais Montagnard à Orlu
Gîte d’Etape de Mérens
Refuge des Bésines
- All lodgings catering for hikers offer half board accommodation and most of them also offer lunch boxes on request.
- There are restaurants in Foix, Montferrier, Montségur, Orlu, Mérens and Porté Puymorens.
Food supply
Some villages have food stores and bakeries but opening hours are limited. Check beforehand.
- Topo Guide « Sur les traces des Cathares. Le Chemin des Bonshommes ».
- The Chemin des Bonshommes website
- Ariège Tourist Office
Tel : 0561023070
More than 800 years ago, the Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées regions were devastated during the crusade against the Albigensians. Also known as the Cathars or Cathari, those Christians advocated for a return to the Christ simplicity and rejected the pomp and the protocol of the Catholic Church. In South Western France this doctrine seduced powerful nobles like the count of Toulouse as well as a high percentage of the population, perhaps as many as two million people by the 12th century.

Foix © T.Joly
 The path of the Good Men
Scared by the scale and the success of the movement, the Church of Rome declared them heretics and launched a crusade against them in 1209. Enticed by the prospect of building up easily huge estates, many knights from the North of France participated in (joined it). However, it took them twenty years of bloody fighting to control the region and to get the submission of the Count of Toulouse. But the Cathar movement withstood and escaped the Inquisition for several more years. Referring to themselves as Bons Hommes (Good Men), the Cathars indeed took refuge in castles perched on impossibly craggy and steep outcrops, in the depths of the Pyrenean mountains and forests or even in Spain. To find the traces of this movement that has profoundly marked the history of the region, hikers can follow for a day or a week the GR 107 hiking path, called Chemin des Bonshommes.
It starts in Foix, the prefecture of the Ariège department that is situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Arget and the Ariège.

Roquefixade © T.Joly
 Refuge for the Cathars
Topped by a powerful medieval castle and keeping old houses, it’s an enjoyable town and its visit makes a good warming up to the walkers as the GR begins with a steep and strenuous ascent more than one hour long. Then it becomes easier with a hilly way overlooking typical mountainous agricultural landscapes. It leads to the charming village of Roquefixade. Destroyed by the crusaders, it has been rebuilt in the shape of a bastide and lies at the feet of the ruins of a castle once in the hands of the Cathars. From there, in the distance one catches sight of the castle of Montségur, a mythic place of the history of the Cathars because it was their last stronghold. It was seized only in 1244 after a nine months siege and more than 200 heretics were burnt to stake afterwards.
But it requests another five hours walk to get there. A journey that is mostly made through forests, on a path becoming very muddy when it rains.

Montségur © T.Joly
 Ruins of Montségur
On the way, the village of Montferrier is a perfect place for lunch as it offers both old houses and a nice setting by a river. Once at the Séguéla pass, at the altitude of 1 026 m, the ruins of Montségur appear perched on the top of a breathtaking rocky peak. Getting there with a heavy backpack is not easy because the path is very steep but one is rewarded with a beautiful panoramic view over the region. It’s easy to understand why it took so much time to the assailants, especially since the thickness of the wall is impressive. Inside, it’s not uncommon to see Cathars admirers absorbed in private prayers, chanting psalms or conducting ceremonies. Particularly in the morning, late afternoon or on the day of the summer solstice, when the sunbeams light the main room of the castle. Below, the village is also worth a visit. Rebuilt after the crusade, it has a lot of charm with its narrow streets lined with old houses, and there is an very interesting museum about Catharism.

Montaillou © T.Joly
 Narrow gorges
Then the GR 107 goes through a series of forests and peaceful glens and reaches the spectacular Gorges de la Frau, a distortion of the word “effroi” (terror). For centuries the locals indeed feared this 5 km long and sometimes very narrow gorge surrounded by cliffs up to 400 m high where pilgrim hawks nest. It’s hard to believe this ravine was cut by the small stream that one sees here and there but when a thunderstorm breaks it cans turn into a tempestuous torrent.
At the end, it opens onto a rugged and austere plateau where a few farmers still spend a great deal of efforts in cultivating fields scattered with rocks. In some villages, like Camurac, the only ski resort of the Aude department, the sights of numerous large sized troughs reminds that cattle breeding was in the past the main activity there. In this area difficult to reach, the Catharist faith lasted long after the fall of Montségur as the history of Montaillou - a small village huddled at the feet of the ruins of a medieval castle - testifies it. In 1308 the Inquisition came there to carry out an investigation and arrested all the inhabitants !!!

© T.Joly
 Long climb
Then begins a long climb till the Balaguès pass at the altitude of 1669 m and, bit by bit, the forest gives space to brooms, pastures and moors. From the crests one gets a nice view over the Pyrenees and the Dent d’Orlu, a peak so called because it looks like a teeth. Then the GR plunges towards the valley passing by Sorgeat and Ascou, two picturesque villages hung on the mountain flanks that keep traditional stone houses. At last one get to Orgeix, located near the Oriège river, not to be confounded with the Ariège. Ramblers have then three possibilities. Keep on the direct way. Make a little detour requiring a 30 mn walk to go to Ax-les-Thermes, a spa resort renowned for its sulfurous hot waters. Or spend a day in Orlu to discover the National Reserve bearing the same name.
The entrance is 6 km away from the village, 3 km further than the Maison des Loups, a wildlife park installed in the forest that presents those animals in half free conditions.

En Beys refuge © T.Joly
 Marmots and isards
The most popular hike is to climb up to the En Beys refuge at the altitude of 1970 m. A three hours walk that allows to catch a glimpse of the high mountains of Ariège, their fauna and their flora. The waymarked path first follows a wild river fed by eternal snow and lakes that create the beautiful En Gaudu valley where it is common to spot marmots and isards, a Pyrenean species of chamois. Then the twisting sentry goes up on the mountain flanks and the altitude rises beeches are replaced with fir trees, rhododendrons, numerous species of flowers and moors. If you are lucky you might see grouses, royal eagles, vultures and lammergeyers. Offering reasonably priced sandwiches and dishes, the En Beys refuge stands in a magnificent setting overlooking a blue lake. It’s great to have lunch there while enjoying the scenery.

Mérens horses © T.Joly
 Mérens horses
It’s also possible to sleep there to have more time to explore the surroundings. There are indeed about 30 lakes within a 4 km radius, the nearest of which being only five minutes away by foot.
Back to Orlu, the people doing the GR 107 must get over the Joux pass, at the altitude of 1 702 m. However this ascent is relatively easy because it is mostly done through hoods protecting from the sun and the heat. Afterwards, the path follows the crests from where one gets nice views over the Pyrenees and in this area it’s common to encounter Mérens horses. Black colored, rustic, tough and not prone to height fear, they have been used for centuries by the highlanders of Ariège and are now one of the symbols of this department. One or two bears reintroduced in the Pyrenees sometimes also wander around this area, but don’t worry they avoid humans and are very rarely spotted. A bit further, one gets to the village of Mérens.

© T.Joly
 Hot springs
Built around the ruins of a Romanesque church, the upper part is nicer than the lower one that stretches along the railway and the N 20, a busy road leading to Andorra. Don’t miss the sulfurous hot spring hidden in the mountain that flows in small natural pools. It’s only a few minutes away by foot, in the middle of the woods, and it’s a real treat after a day walking. Hikers have then the choice between two options. Either they keep on going on the GR 107 that follows the Ariège valley and gets over the Puymorens pass, the trail used by the Bonshommes. Or they take a much more demanding but much more scenic variant through high mountains.
From Merens, at 1060 m of altitude, it is first a long and continuous climb till the Porteille des Bésines at 2333 m of altitude.

© T.Joly
 Superb lake
Most of the time the path follows a stream and it passes by a gorgeous lake. However the walk is not too strenuous and from the top, there is a breathtaking view over the mountains. Then, one gets through wild, rugged and rocky landscapes where fishing enthusiasts camp near small lakes to catch trout and salmons. That’s in this extraordinary setting that stands the Refuge des Bésines where one spends the night. The following day is equally spectacular. First, one must get over the 2 470 m high Coll de Coma d’Anyell pass, the culminating point of the hike. It is a relatively tough climbing along beautiful lakes and through a mass of fallen rocks. The continuation is much easier. The GR goes down towards a large artificial lake crossing grassy mountain slopes where is possible to spot isards and marmots even if it’s not a National Park.

© T.Joly
 Wild river
Around the lake the scenery becomes more diverse. Fir trees grows between huge rocks and along wild rivers sometimes reminding of the scenery of the great American National park like Yosemite. From the dam creating this lake it’s only a long downhill walk till Porte Puymorens to catch up with the main branch of the GR 107. It’s also where you will find a train station to go back to Paris or to Foix. But the GR goes further, first to Andorra, then to Spain. That’s the way the Cathars took to escape the Inquisition and the French resistance used during the Second World War. So if you feel to hike a bit more there is still plenty to do.

April 23, 2012
Thierry Joly