Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Minerve, Cathar Village in the Languedoc

Minerve Museum

The village of Minerve perches on a high ridge in the wild landscape of the Causses, in the Languedoc-Rousillon region of Southwestern France.   No cars are allowed, so visitors park outside the village and walk across the bridge above the River Cesse. Water flows in the river only in winter. The rest of the year, it’s a dry, rocky ravine.
Minerve, with its cobblestone lanes and flowery window boxes, is charming now, but it has a bloody history.  In 1210, when it was a Cathars stronghold, the dreaded Simon de Montfort pitched battle against the town, and he and his troops and their catapults won. When Minerve finally surrendered, the Cathars still would not give in, and so 140 of them were burned on the village square. Legend says they leaped into the fire, singing.
Today, Minerve is a lot more cheerful. Visitors are welcome to climb the narrow winding streets that lead past shops with pottery, antiques, and wines. This is the place to taste the excellent Minervois wines.  These Languedoc wines, mostly reds, are well-structured, becoming silky with age.  The white wines, also appealing, are dry, and the ros├ęs fruity.

There’s a tourist office that carries maps, guidebooks, cards, and information; a paleontology museum with spearpoints, potshards and 600 million-year-old fossils; and an intriguing museum that shows the history of the area. Its little figurines are set in historic scenes, including the Cathars’ struggle. A good bookstore, Paroli, sells new and used books, has an art gallery, and serves coffee, as well.
Ancient Altar in MinerveThe stone church is closed except for Sundays, but sometimes, if he is not busy, the man who runs the paleontology museum will open it. There is nothing grand or ornate in this simple 11th-century church, but in it stand two Roman altars, one claimed to be the oldest altar in Europe.  It’s a marble rectangle with Latin markings.
Cathar memorialNear the church is a memorial to the Cathars, a dove carved into a standing stone. Another reminder of old battles is the single slim tower at the top of the town. It is all that’s left of early defenses.
Minerve’s best restaurant choice is La Terrasse. On a balmy evening, sitting under trellised vines and a tree strung with lights, eating a fine meal and drinking local wine, the horrific past seems far distant.

For a comfortable, light, airy room, stay at Le Chantovent.
Part of Minerve’s charm lies in the natural surroundings. You can walk from the village down a path to the bottom of the gorge and, when the riverbed is dry, explore the huge tunnels, caverns and natural bridges that the Cesse has carved through limestone.  If the river is running, and deep enough, you might be able to paddle a kayak while gazing at the cliffs and formations around you.
Not far from Minerve are isolated megalithic burial stones, the dolmens of the people who lived here thousands of years ago. They stand in the midst of the garrigue, miles of the tough shrubs and herbs that grow in the region.  The views over this rugged landscape are marvellous.
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