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A postcard from the Black Mountains of France

Peter Friend
Special to The Black Mountain News

(Editor’s note: Coincidentally, two days after The Black Mountain News’ June 15 story about the Swannanoa in New Zealand, we received an email from Peter Friend asking us if we’d like a story about Montagne Noire, the “Black Mountains” in which he lives in France. “We’ve have been looking for places that share this name around the world,” he said. Here is his story.)

We, and our guests, never tire of gazing out of our windows towards the Montagne Noire, a stunningly beautiful mountain range in southwest France that divides the furthest reaches of the Massif Central from the Carcassonne plains and reaches a peak of 3,970 feet from where, on a clear day, the snow-capped Pyrenees stand like shark’s teeth in the distance.

It was 2005 when we first discovered this beautiful area of France when property hunting to open a luxury B&B. Our journey brought us to Mazamet, a former wool trading town, which nestles at the foot of the Montagne Noire and provides it with a majestic backdrop.

Tapering out at either end from close to the Mediterranean towards the city of Toulouse, the mountain range is forested with a mixture of deciduous trees, more akin to the forests of England with elm, oak, chestnut and ash, as well as typical mountain evergreens of pine and cedar.

Peppered with lakes, medieval villages (some dating to the 5th century) and even vineyards, the Montagne Noire has been a frontier against invasion from Spain, the home to the 12th century Cathar movement, a place of hiding for the French resistance and, now, as a playground for walkers, cyclers, bird watchers and nature lovers.

Just outside of Mazamet, one of the earliest settlements of the mountains is the village of Hautpoul, established in 413 by the Visigoths and later became an important part of the Cathar history until its famous siege in 1212. This stunning village, still inhabited today, clings to the side of the Montagne Noire. One can only begin to imagine how its early settlers physically constructed the homes, churches and defences and lived through harsh winters and stifling summers.

Hautpoul is, indeed, a reminder of years gone by in the region when crusades and religious wars raged on year after year from community to community and the mountains themselves could do nothing to stop the onset of the horrors that beset those who had made it their home.

As the (now modern) road meanders from Hautpoul further up the valley, signposts appear for the Pic du Nore, the highest peak which gives a commanding view back to Mazamet, over the Lac de Montagnes and beyond to the Mediterranean and the Spanish border. The steep climb is frequented by local cyclists, keen to follow in the footsteps of Mazamet’s famous Tour de France son, Laurent Jalabert, for this was his training ground! With an assent of over 2,000 feet from Mazamet, it certainly is a challenging climb (even by car).

As one descends from the Pic du Nore, you first stumble across the picturesque village of Pradelles-Cabardes which was a farming and forestry community. The beautiful bell tower of the 14th century Saint-Jean-Baptiste church stands proud on the skyline. The village itself stands at 2,950 feet altitude, one of the highest communities throughout the Montagne Noire.

From Pradelles, the scenery and terrain change dramatically – the pine forests give way to grazing pastures for sheep and cattle; vineyards of the Cabardes wine region start to appear around at around 1,000 feet and then further still on the ascent, much more arid lands with Mediterranean-style scrub, olives and roads lined with plane trees draw you further towards Carcassonne.

Crossing the world-famous UNESCO-listed Canal du Midi, your journey over the Montagne Noire is complete and you have arrived at the gates of La Cite – Carcassonne’s spectacular medieval walled city.

Just three years prior to the aforementioned siege in Hautpoul, La Cite too was under the dark cloud of the crusade to drive out its Cathar inhabitants. The siege of Carcassonne lasted 14 long days and nights and ended on Aug. 15th, 1209 with the surrender of the city, in fear that their fate would match that of the city of Beziers where its entire population of around 8,000 were killed only days before.

Largely renovated in 1853, La Cite is now France’s second most-visited attraction outside of Paris, and it remains the largest city in Europe with its walls still intact, being classified by UNESCO as World Heritage Site in 1997.

If your travels bring you to Europe, we hope that you may come and discover our “Black Mountains.” Soak up the atmosphere of nearly two millennia of history in this most magical and dramatic corner of France.

Peter Friend, from the United Kingdom, runs La Villa de Mazamet (villademazamet.com), a luxury bed and breakfast inn Mazamet.)