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Mike on his bike: cycling France’s Cathar Castles

When former Finance Director and cyclist Mike Tyler left Explore he didn’t hang up his helmet. He’s steadily ticking off a variety of our cycling tours, and often writes to let us know how he got on. Here he recounts his experience of our Cycling the Cathar Castles trip.
I have cycled with Explore in many parts of the world, but until July I had only once been to France on two wheels (London to Paris). This is amazing when you consider that I live in North East Kent, where I can practically wave at les Français at low tide and smell the freshly baked baguettes wafting over from Calais on a south-easterly wind. I have taken my family to 12 different campsites on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts; I have travelled there on business frequently; I have often popped across on the ferry to replenish the stocks of paté, cheese and… Evian. I love France with its quiet roads, its food, its wine and its un-British quirkiness. (I'm not so keen on its taxes though.) It’s almost three times the size of the UK, and Explore offers loads of cycle trips there.  Not only that but fellow passengers on many of my trips have raved about their French cycling experiences and the Explore superstar tour leader, Andrew. So, I'm not sure why I haven’t thought of booking something before now. 

A friend, with whom I often travel on Explore cycle holidays, decided that this was too much of an interesting itinerary to miss. “It’s in the South of France, so nice and warm, and it includes the foothills of the Pyrenees” he explained, “So not the actual Pyrenees, but we can tell everyone we’re cycling in the Pyrenees.”  Well that last point sold it to me. I was also curious, I had never heard of the Cathars. Who were they?  Another plus is that this trip is point-to-point (my favourite). You cycle from one accommodation to the next; no getting on a bus, just riding from day one to the end.  Furthermore, this was the first departure of a new trip and I always enjoy the adventure of being a pioneer, with the possibility of things going wrong.
And things certainly did go wrong:  I left my phone and all my bank cards in Stansted Airport on day one.  On day two I broke my Go Pro fixing and on day three I dropped and broke my expensive camera.  The tour itself, however, went completely smoothly.  Of course it did; it was operated by super tour leader Andrew. There was a little bit of drizzle on one of the days, but Andrew soon cleared that away.
The tour begins in Carcassonne, probably the most beautiful town in France. Full of tourists but Andrew knows the restaurants that even the French tourists don’t and we had two nights to enjoy them. The first day of cycling is a nice 43km circular tour and begins with a brief section of the Canal du Midi, (where the easy grade Explore Canal du Midi cycling trip ends).  Of course, we’re not here to pootle along pleasant canal paths, so we head for the hills and the village of Lastours, where we leave the bikes and start on a long, steep ascent on foot (yes, on foot!) to our first four Cathar Castles, all perched on precipices way above us. 

It really is unbelievable that they could build such massive structures in such remote and difficult terrain.  Even today this would be a huge feat of engineering and logistics, but these were constructed 800 years ago!  There are quite a few of these castles here in the Languedoc region.  You spot them on rocky skylines as you cycle along the quiet roads. All have been knocked about a fair bit, some, as Andrew informs us, by the local villain, Simon de Montfort. Hang on, is this the same Simon de Montford who is a hero in England, rebelled against Henry III and is known as the father of Parliament?  Thankfully, no. The hammer of the Cathars was his dad. So, I can enjoy my duck gizzard salad (a local speciality) and Languedoc wine back in Carcassonne knowing that the butcher of this town was a different Simon de Montfort.
The next morning, I make a resolution to experience a little less of the local wine. But the fairly gentle 53km ride passes through so many vineyards that the resolve weakens and by the time we arrive at the little hamlet of Sougraigne and the wonderful and unusual auberge, Ecluse au Soleil, I feel it would be churlish to refuse the glass(es) proudly proffered by the landlord.  My room is at the top of the house and has French windows (of course) and a sort of courtyard. Stepping into it you pop your head out of the roof, to look down over the roof tiles onto the church below, a few houses, swifts swooping overhead in pursuit of insects in the setting sun, and all against the constant background chiming of cowbells. 

There’s one long ride of 96km, where we cross over the Corbieres Hills, in the foothills of the Pyrenees and down towards the Mediterranean.  As to be expected, the first part is up, but it’s all a fairly steady and undemanding gradient. The sort where you can keep cycling and talking and looking back at how far you have ascended and keep admiring the magnificent scenery.  The group broke up into subgroups, cycling at their preferred pace.  Near the top are Peyrepertuse and Queribus castles.  These are optional detours off the designated route of around 4km each and not to be undertaken by the fainthearted, for these are challenging climbs.  The gradient on the first got the better of me towards the end and it grieves me to admit that I had to push the bike up the last 80m of ascent.  But wow, was it worth it!  Peyrepertuse is the daddy of all Cathar castles and should not be missed.  At the highest point, a Cathar could have almost seen Simon de Montfort senior pillaging Carcassonne.  Some of the group did not attempt this climb, but instead put their bikes in Andrew’s van and took a ride to the castle gate, hence getting the thrill of the fantastic descent without the pain of the ascent.  I'm really not bitter…
From this point it is down, down, down.  Beautiful sweeping turns, long straights past yet more vineyards, through small towns, mile after mile to Perpignan, and best of all, a following wind! The next two days comprise flat rides out to the Med, to the long sandy beaches of Canet Plage and Argeles and finally Collioure, where every French artist worthy of fame (plus Picasso and the odd Brit) revelled in the light of this seaside town and no doubt the absinthe.  No absinthe for us though, just a rather nice old restaurant and, well as it’s almost the end of this wonderful trip, we may as well order a bottle or two of Languedoc wine.
So who are the Cathars? Well if you want to know that, you will have to do the trip, but I can confirm that they built amazing castles, in the most precipitous situations, and some of them can be accessed without cycling up a steep gradient. This was a truly inspirational and amazing trip, in excellent company, with a super tour leader.  I urge you to do it.

Click here to view the full itenary, trip information and booking avaliability  for the Cycle the Cathar Castles (CPC) trip.  


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