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January 29, 2002
A Wreck among the ruins (Gail)

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Gail at Quéribus: Hanging onto a rusted metal ring at 2100 feet

What am I doing? Why am I here? I am going to die!

These are the thoughts that kept going through my head as I drove the road up to the ruins of the Castle of Quéribus. I kept a sharp eye on the road and a tight grip on the steering wheel all the while shuddering at the thought of climbing up to the rocky ruin that loomed in the distance.

In his tour book Rick Steves gives a splendid description of the place including the climb up to the top and the view of the snowy Pyrenees Mountains in the distance. I really wanted to see these sights and while they were visible from the parking lot I did not want to look like the big chicken I am. Plus I have an overwhelming fear that the boys will launch themselves off the edge if I am not there to continually remind them to be safe, don't climb, don't run, etc. They seem to have no inborn fear of falling, which drives me crazy as they leap about.

So up I trudged with the guys trying to convince myself that this time would be different, I would not dissolve into a puddle of fear. The climb up was nowhere near as steep as I had feared and we got to the tower fairly quickly. While still on "lower" ground I admired the view of Peyrepertuse Castle and the Pyrenees off in the distance and called up all my courage to make the climb up the tower steps to the top. This tower sits right on the edge of a rock outcropping with sheer drops on three sides, the steps sit on one of these sides with precious little to keep you from falling and bouncing down the mountainside to your death. Pushing all (well almost all) of these types of thoughts aside, I grabbed the rope handrail and up I went. The handrail ended at the worst possible spot for me, at a curve with more steps going up. While I struggled on toward the top, Russell and the boys had gone ahead past me and were enjoying the views. The walkways were all on the edge with just a short wall between me and death (or at the very least major injury) and I found myself leaning into the rock face hanging on. I had to stop and sit in a "safe" alcove. Joss came back down to check on me, then he went bounding back up. I was less than halfway there.

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At Quéribus: struggling toward the top

With encouragement from Russell I got up to the next level but had to leave when I saw the boys sitting on walls (true they were inside walls, but still I couldn't handle it). The picnickers sitting on the outside top wall caused me so much anxiety I couldn't look at them. Remember we are at about 2100 feet, with sheer drop-offs and no safety rails. Trying to make my own way down I reached a spot where I could not go any further. I sat there hanging onto a rusted metal ring I found embedded in the rock wall trying hard not to notice the sheer drop-off on my immediate left. I had to wait for Russell (my knight in shining armor) to rescue me. Clinging to his arm, hiding my face in his back and crying pretty much the whole way down the tower I managed to make it to the "lower" ground of the path. For me it is harder to descend than ascend.

The most amazing thing about this is that immediately afterwards we went off to Peyrepertuse, another high stronghold across the valley. Again I drove, praying that a rabbit or something would not jump out and cause me to jerk the wheel to the right, sending us plunging to a fiery death at the bottom of the mountain. Russell's comment to that was "just think left". Big help. At one point there was loose rock on the road that caused the car to fishtail a bit. I think I stopped breathing at this point.

The climb to Peyrepertuse was steep but beautiful through a thick forest, cool and green. I didn't know until later that it was also right along, yep you guessed it, the edge. As usual, Joss had sprinted ahead and we had to get him to slow down enough where we could be certain he had not fallen over the side. He was not pleased with the constraints. At one point in the narrow pathway he leaped past Cameron right along the outside edge of a steep drop-off. He was greatly offended when I told him to never do that again.

Arriving at the castle ruins I was struck by the incredible beauty of the place. I came around the first corner to the most beautiful garden-like setting I have ever seen. Nature has taken back over this site and where once there were bare steps and walkways there are now small trees, bushes and grasses covering them. For a while I could forget where I was. These ruins are long and narrow and you can wander inside the walls, never seeing the height you are at. Inside these walls is by far my most favorite place in all of France.

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Gail's favorite place in all of France

But if you stay inside you never see the beauty that man and nature have created here. Venturing outside the walls I was reminded just how high we were. It was hard to miss. Joss went venturing off on his own again. I spotted him far up the stairs to the second, higher castle. In a major bout of motherly panic I told him to sit and not move. I don't think he even realized the sheer drop-off and the fact that the only thing protecting him was a rope handrail, but I did. I caught up with him, and managed to get just past him in order to get a photo of him on his perch. That took all my courage and I quickly (and wisely) realized that there was no way I would ever get up the rest of the stairs to the top of the second castle.

While Russell took the boys to the top I waited below in the open courtyard of the lower castle. By keeping the big rocks and bushes between the edge and me I managed to get myself brave enough to take some pictures. It was so hard to resist the beauty of this place. I could see the top of the higher tower and waited anxiously for just Russell's head to appear. I did not want to see the boys.

While I waited and paced I had a brief but meaningful conversation with a non-English speaking French woman who was waiting for her friends to come down. She was not scared just tired. I explained that my husband and sons were up there but that I was certain that if I went up, the walls would give way and I would plunge to my death. What I actually said in French was "Je suis certaine je vais tomber." Not perfect French but she understood. When the group of teenage boys who had walked up just after my guys climbed up on the wall and sat with their legs dangling over we agreed they were nuts and must think they are immortal (an apt description for most teens I guess).

Finally Russell's head appeared like a little dot on the horizon. After he was no longer visible I heard loud and clear Russell calling out "JOSS!" which sent all my worst fears alight. I imagined the worst and waited, pacing and worrying until finally the three of them appeared back on the steps. Russell assured me that I had made the right choice to not go with them as the drops were very steep. He told me that Joss had "disappeared" momentarily and was found up on a rock outcropping. The kid has no fear.

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The top of Peyrepertuse castle (if Gail were here, you can bet that the boys wouldn't be)

As we drove away from these ruins we came around the backside of the mountain. That is when I got the full impact of how steep the edges are. Where I had thought I was nice and safe taking my photos was just steps away from a 2000 foot drop. My feet cringe and my stomach drops at the thought. That night I had a very hard time falling asleep. Every time I closed my eyes I could see the edges, cliffs and drop-offs. You know those dreams of falling people sometimes have? These ruins were the stuff those dreams are made of. My nightmare.

All that said the trip was not a wasted one, as I was able to admire the views all around at both sites. It is just mind boggling that someone would have a castle built in these places. How did they do it? Who were the people who lived here? Were they soldiers only or families with children? The day we visited the sky was blue and the weather warm. On a gray winter day it must have been horrible to be up there: lonely, cold and forbidding.

These castle were just two of a series of strongholds set up to defend the Languedoc region from Spain. With the help of sympathetic lords they became the last refuge for the followers of the Cathare religion when the Catholic Church set out on a series of Crusades to wipe them out. I could only imagine what it must have been like to be part of the siege army. How must the defenders and the religious "heretics" have felt as they sat out the siege, knowing their fate? At other castles, Cathare holdouts had been burned at the stake. At one other site 150 people walked into the fires rather than give up their beliefs. At yet another Simon de Montfort cut off the ears, lips, noses and gouged out the eyes of over one hundred randomly selected Cathare men in an attempt to get the Lord of the castle to give them all up. He refused. It is appalling the atrocities that have been done in the name of God and for political gain.

As with the swing bridge in New Zealand I can say I made it through this adventure. I am proud of myself and I hope Russell and the boys are too. Maybe I am a big chicken but I am a brave big chicken. That is what this trip is about, doing things we never thought we would, pushing our limits. I just hope I don't have to do this type of thing again for a while.


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