The East end of the Pyrenees mountains sits in the French province of Languedoc-Rousillon. This region is a part of Catalonia in fact. Catalonia was once an independent state but later was conquered and divided between Spain and France. The Spanish part is still called Catalonia (with Barcelona as a capital). Both in France and Spain the Catalans still honor their native language and Catalan standard. We decided to travel there mainly because of what we have read about Canigou mountain and about Cathars.
The Canigou is the highest summit in the East Pyrenees. Due to its sharp flanks and its location close to the coast, until the 18th century the Canigou was believed to be the highest mountain in the Pyrenees. This mountain has symbolical significance for Catalan nationalist groups. On its summit there is a cross that is often decorated with the Catalan flag. Every year on the 23d June, the night before St. John’s day there is a ceremony called Flama del Canigó (Canigou Flame), where a fire is lit at the mountaintop. People keep a vigil during the night and take torches lit on that fire in a spectacular torch relay to light bonfires somewhere else. Some estimates conclude that about 30,000 bonfires are lit in this way all over Catalonia on that night. One could add to that that the tradition was started in the fifties of the last century by the local rugby fan group celebrating the victory of their beloved team.
Catharism is a Christian religious sect that started on 11th century and flourished in 12th and 13th century. The Catholic Church regarded the sect as dangerously heretical. Faced with the rapid spread of the movement across the Languedoc region, the Church first sought peaceful attempts at conversion, undertaken by Dominicans. After the failure of those the Church called for a crusade, which was carried out by knights from France and Germany and was known as the Albigensian Crusade. The Crusade, and the inquisition which followed it, entirely eradicated the Cathars.
To defend themselves the Cathars have built a number of strongholds – mainly near the mountain summits. Nowadays the strongholds are of great interest for the tourists.