Driving along I didn’t notice anything unusual. The French farmland continued to flow, interrupted only sporadically by a farmhouse, gas station or tractor. I was in rural France, there was no doubt about it but I didn’t expect there to be moments of travel magic, not until I looked up and saw looming high above me a city on a hill, the ancient fortified town of Cordes-sur-Ciel, not far from Albi.
Originally built in the 1220s as a way to consolidate people caught up in the anti-Cathar crusades, the city has managed to survive fairly intact over the centuries, providing a rare look into daily life in the Dark Ages. I love history and for some reason the Cathar movement, and resulting backlash, has always interested me. The Cathars were a Christian sect whose members preached a return to a simpler form of the religion. Of course any movement that advocated taking power away from the Pope was seen as a threat, and so a Crusade was launched against them. Fighting waged throughout Southwestern France in the 13th century, but centered on the town of Albi, which is only 16 miles away from Cordes. But it’s not the Cathar history lessons that attract people to this town today, it’s to live the ethereal experience of walking through a town quite literally above the clouds.
Since it is a medieval town, Cordes isn’t large and today only around 1,000 people call it home. The greatest pleasure of being there isn’t found at a restaurant or museum, it’s just by exploring the ancient town on foot. The steep, cobbly streets and the homes drenched in ivy all look like scenes from a movie instead of a real town. The best part of the experience though are the views unto the valley below; farms and pastures radiant in concentric circles as far as the eye can see.
This is the France I didn’t know, the one as far away emotionally from Paris as one can get. This is also the France that everyone should see, at least once in their life. To bask in the southern sun and absorb the heady scents of lemon, lavender and thyme is not the same as walking through the capital city, oddly and inconceivably enough, I think it might be better.