After the flight across the Atlantic, a trip I can’t take without thinking of the intrepid adventurers who once crossed that vast stretch of water in wooden vessels no larger than a Mack truck, I found myself on a connecting flight from Paris to Toulouse, a still empty notepad on my lap. At 7 AM France time I finally wrote through the blear of jet lag: “I expected to have more thoughts along the way, but none written down. Mostly in and out of a ragged sleep; the trip seemed to go fast enough. I have to smile: For someone who hadn’t ventured out of North America until the age of 50, I now take these intercontinental trips as routine.”
Toulouse lies on the banks of the River Garonne in southern France, 366 miles from Paris and half-way between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. An hour after takeoff, we began our descent into that city. My face was pressed to the window, drinking in the bird’s eye view available only from a plane. I’d pored over maps of the region for years and I searched for landmarks to orient myself. I felt the excitement: the map was transforming into the territory. A river glinted in the morning sun. A thick white fog filled one of its gorges; for a moment I mistook it for snow. As we lowered, it cleared some. Farms patched the hilly terrain. Wide open country, not a town in sight at that point, many streams and ponds. Still no sign of the Pyrenees to the south, too dark with clouds. (On a clearer day I guessed I’d have seen the mountains in the distance, like landing in Denver).
We touched down at 8:30 AM, and it was instantly pink, as advertised. The city is called La Ville Rose; pink brick buildings made from the colored earth found near the Garonne are everywhere. That hue and the style of architecture reminded me of Tucson, although Toulouse boasted more green in lawns and foliage.
That first long day after trans-Atlantic travel is tricky. There is the constant urge to curl up and nap for “just an hour” countered with a dread of waking at 2 AM in a strange place and a body clock at painful odds with local time for days to come. I usually allow myself a cat-nap with a loud alarm set out of reach, knowing I could be in Heaven itself when it goes off, but it’ll feel like hell. Still, I get up, make the most of the remainder of my landing day, and then turn in as close to the local bedtime as I can get.
Now the chef-lieu (capital) of the Midi-Pyrénées region and the fifth-largest city in France, Toulouse is a base of the European aerospace industry. Its world renowned university, founded in 1229, is one of the oldest in Europe with more than 97,000 students. Before the Napoleonic reorganization, it was the capital of the semi-independent province of Languedoc, an area even today in a reluctant relationship with the rest of France. At the end of the 5th century, the Visigoth kingdom of Toulouse extended from the Loire Valley in the north to the Strait of Gibraltar in the south, and from the Rhone River in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west, a vast nation covering much of what is France and Spain today.
The Languedoc was forcibly annexed by the French during the bloody Cathar conflict in the thirteenth century, and Toulouse, its capital, was center stage as that tragedy played out.
Gamely, I set out on a walking tour of the city’s historical center the afternoon of my arrival. The first and most stirring stop was Saint-Sernin Basilica, the largest Romanesque church in Europe, an important station for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela and a pilgrimage location in its own right. It is reported that in 1218 the stone that killed Simon de Montfort, the French commander and arch-persecutor of the Cathars, while he was besieging Toulouse, was thrown from the roof of this cathedral.
It became immediately evident that I had landed, as if I’d time-traveled, in the midst of the places and characters of the era I had come to study vis-á-vis The Perfect, and that three weeks would be precious little time to absorb even a fraction of the information and experience available.
The next day was reserved for renting a car, assaying my ability to drive in France without a GPS and getting together with a pair of old friends in Saint Antonin Del Val, a town positioned at the northernmost reach of Cathar country with its own medieval trappings well preserved. A fortuitous starting point from which I headed directly south, destination Albi.
The Cathar religion (a version of Christianity considered heretical by the then dominant Catholic Church) is also called Albigensianism, and the war against them declared by Pope Innocent III in 1208 and lasting for forty years is known as the Albigensian Crusade. This label stems from the belief, later found erroneous, that the sect was either founded in the city of Albi or its followers were concentrated there. In fact, Albi is well north of true Cathar country, and it developed into a political and religious center only after the Catholic victory over them. Bishop Bernard de Castanet, in the late 13th century, completed work on the Palais de la Berbie, a bishops’ palace with the look of a fortress, and started building of the cathedral of Sainte-Cécile, also fortress-like, in 1282. Albi is the also the birthplace of the famous artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec with a museum dedicated to him part of the central complex, which also contains the palace and cathedral. For the newcomer getting a first glimpse of the grander edifices of medieval France, Albi is impressive, Cathar, Catholic or whatever their origin.
Nevertheless, tempting as it was to deviate in any number of fascinating directions, I reminded myself that the direction of my quest lay south in true Cathar country, and so I drove on after only the morning in Albi.