The Cathar Trail of southern France is basically centered on a series of ruined castles. The castles themselves were not built by the Cathars but were occupied by them for a time during the Albigensian Crusades. Perhaps the most famous of the castles is Peyrepetuse which is shown here. No, really it is. It looks like part of the ridgeline that it is built on and into. The town in the foreground below the castle is Duilhac.
From the parking area which is about two-thirds of the way up the mountain the castle is slightly more obvious. You can also hike up from Duilhac but it is literally a goat path straight up the mountainside.
The walls of the fortress are intact. Most of the interior rooms have collapsed although a few sections still remain. Admission to the castle involves a hike up the remainder of the ridge to the ruins. Once inside visitors are pretty much free to wander anywhere.
There are spectacular views from the parapets. Most of what can be seen are high parallel ridges. To the south we could see the snow-capped Pyrenees in the distance. Inevitably, one of the first thoughts a visitor is likely to have is how unassailable this place would've been. It was never captured in battle.
Sooner or later the visitor will then inevitably come to wondering; why would you want to conquer it? It has limited fresh water resources and no arable land. While occupied it was mostly used as a garrison or elaborate watch tower. You certainly wouldn't want to lock yourself in to withstand a protracted siege.
The highest part of the fortress is the most impressive. Not just for the views like the one in the previous picture but also the vertiginous St. Louis staircase (Louis IX had it built). The summit is the chapel of San Jordi. Substantial portions of the stairs are original. The valley below is actually on the north side of Peyrepetuse, so the town visible here is Rouffiac-des-Corbieres.
On the hill in the distance is what appears to be a stair-step rock formation. That is actually the next closest of the Cathar fortresses - Queribus. It is about 8 km (5 miles) away.
Queribus is a vertical fortress. The entrance is at the lowest end and it basically runs in a straight line up to the central tower. Just to the south of these two fortresses is the Maury wine region which is a prosperous area best known for sweet white dessert wines. The third fortress we visited is just west of there at Puilaurens.
Not part of the Cathar history or the official trail, this is the ruined castle at Usson-les-Bains. Since we were headed for Andorra we took the small road through the Gorges de St-George which is quite spectacular. There isn't a whole lot to stop and do in the gorge other than a couple of caves. The scenery on the drive though is definitely worth it.