Lauragais – those murderous Cathars

Château de Montgey in the distance

We are featuring some extracts from Colin Duncan Taylor’s book, Lauragais.

Here is the first one, from Part One – Those Murderous Cathars.

Chapter One – An Air of Malevolence

I drive up a brutal hill and my wheels spin on loose gravel. The sombre mass of the château dominates the ridge above me. I turn right at the abandoned church of Saint-Barthélemy, deconsecrated but not yet deconstructed, and I take a tiny lane that skirts around the hillside. The ridge between the lane and the foot of the château is overgrown, and through the foliage I see broken houses. Their roofs lie fallen and buried in the undergrowth, and I glimpse blue sky through empty windows in a crumbling wall. I imagine a village sacked by the enemy and abandoned by the survivors.

I pass through an open gateway and find myself below a canopy of trees so thick it seems as if dusk has fallen. Massive sections of moss-covered stone wall hide behind thick bushes. I turn a corner and peer at a stone griffin, a proud and courageous beast that seems to warn me to keep my distance. I draw closer and see the griffin has been beheaded. I cannot escape the air of malevolence that surrounds me.

I park on the grass and look up at a blank expanse of grey stone. I already know from a previous visit that this is one of the oldest parts of the medieval defences. The walls are three metres thick, and I trace the outline of a breach made centuries ago by less peaceful visitors and subsequently patched up with considerable care. I make a quick calculation: to create this breach, the attackers would have torn down more than fifty tonnes of stone and mortar.

Château de Montgey

In the twenty-first century, there are easier ways to gain entry to a château, and I walk towards the iron gates in search of a doorbell, but my arrival is announced by two oversized and ferocious-looking dogs. I remove my hand from the gate latch and the dogs lose interest. They amble off and begin to gnaw on bones the size of my knee.

I remind myself that I am not an invader. I have an appointment. Take courage! I turn the handle and the gate swings open silently. I slip inside and keep a wary eye on the dogs. They show no reaction and I tip-toe across a wide terrace towards an inner gateway. In the curtain wall beyond the dogs, the grey roof of a watchtower points at the sky like a raised hand ordering me to halt. Who goes there? I am sure the sentry inside is eyeing me suspiciously and fidgeting with the trigger of his crossbow. I creep into a cavernous passageway and penetrate deeper inside the château’s defences. I could gallop through this gateway on horseback without having to duck.

The inner courtyard is paved with large pebbles tinged with green lichen from the winter rains. In one corner, three metal chairs lounge around a table by a water well. On all four sides of the courtyard massive walls rise to the sky, and somewhere above my head appears a patch of blue. There is no sign of modernity and I feel lost in an unknown age. A stone sundial hangs on the south-facing wall and its traditional inscription reminds me in Latin that every hour wounds and the last one will kill me. How reassuring!

Allo!’ I shout. The echo of my voice dies away and there is total silence. I haven’t been here for a few years and I cannot remember which door I should take. I think I hear a noise behind me and I sidle towards an open archway below the sundial and peer inside. ‘Allo?’ No reply. I turn and cross the courtyard and climb a flight of stone steps towards a more imposing entrance. The door is ajar and I glimpse a staircase, a tapestry and a sense of timelessness. ‘Allo?’ I call for a third time. No audible sound comes from inside, but the silence is not true silence. It is filled with echoes from a past that stretches back so far and so violently, it gives me vertigo.

I stumble back down the steps into the courtyard and call the château’s number on my mobile phone. Through the doorway above me comes the sound of distant ringing, but it is not the irritating synthesised tune of a modern handset. The telephone at the Château de Montgey announces a caller with the resplendent sound of an old-fashioned bell. I wait and listen, and a scene from a black-and-white film flickers in my memory, a scene where a telephone rings hopelessly and incessantly in a desolate house where everyone has been murdered.

Something brushes against my hand and I jump. The larger beast – which I later learn is a Bernese mountain dog – has licked my fingers. The telephone falls silent and I hear a voice in my ear.

‘Pierre Bouyssou à l’appareil.’

‘It’s Colin. I’m in the courtyard with the dogs.’

‘Don’t worry about them, they’re not vicious. Come on in!’

Pierre and Sophie Bouyssou ©Angélique Passebosc – VDML

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Next week we will be continuing with another extract.  If you can’t wait for that, you can buy Colin’s book in print or ebook format from the main online retailers worldwide. It is also on sale in numerous bookshops, tourist offices and museums in Carcassonne, Toulouse and the Lauragais. Visit his website for a full listing of sales outlets.