Castles in the Air

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Castles in the Air
The village of Cordes-sur-Ciel, rises 100 meters above the Cérou river valley, in the northwest corner of the Tarn department, 80 kilometers northeast of Toulouse. The two steep, natural limestone cliffs of the Puech de Mordagne peak, upon which Cordes rests, were the perfect building blocks for the first bastide (fortified village), built by Raymond VII, the Count of Toulouse, in 1222, to protect his northern territories. Many of its first settlers were Cathars, and though Raymond VII was not a Cathar, he tolerated their religious practices, giving them freedom from being vassals of his court in exchange for reaping the rewards of their industry. The Cathars were a peaceful Christian religious sect that was adverse to the exploitive wealth of the Catholic church hierarchy – they, therefore, didn’t recognize priesthood.  They wouldn’t kill unless in self defense, believed in the equality of the sexes and held steadfast to the idea of reincarnation, an anathema to church doctrine.  After their popularity grew to what the Catholic church feared were alarming rates, they were literally erased from face of the earth by the first Albigensian Crusade. In the first half of the 13th century, Cordes resident population was over 5,000.  The hilltop village was extremely prosperous, harvesting its wealth from the wool, cloth and leather trades. Unfortunately, the plague, The Black Death pandemic, arrived in 1348 killing a quarter of its population. The Hundred Years War from 1337 to 1453 also took its toll on the village.  Cordes recovered in the second half of the 15th century with the advent of the pastel industry.  Pastel comes from a plant called woad and is the source of indigo, a strong, natural blue dye.  For many years the dyeing industry was the mainstay of Cordes wealth until the widespread use of synthetic indigo led to its eventual demise. The village fortunes, once again, declined in the 16th century during the Wars of Religion. And the completion of the Canal du Midi in 1681, which linked the Mediterranean to the Atlantic as the main trade route of the south, by passed Cordes altogether.  By the time of the French Revolution,  the population had withered to just under 2,500. In 1870, mechanical embroidery looms brought prosperity back to Cordes, by producing the embroidered crocodile logo for Lacoste fashions. During the 1940’s Cordes became an artistic center.  Most famously, the artist Yves Brayer, known for his landscape paintings of Provence and the writer Albert Camus lived in Cordes and inspired the creation of the Cordes Academy of Art. Unfortunately, I misjudged the time it would take to reach Cordes, after stopping first in Albi, known for having the largest brick cathedral in the world, Sainte-Cecile, and as the birthplace of Toulouse Lautrec. Albi’s Palais de la Berbie has the largest collection of Lautrec’s work in the world.  Next, I drove to another fortified hilltop village, Puycelci, one of the more picturesque Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, finally reaching Cordes an hour before the winter sun set.  I had just enough time to walk around the village after parking my car as close to one of the fortified entrance gates as possible.  During the summer months there is a tram that will take you from the bottom of the village to the top.  I will certainly return during the long summer days for a guided tour of Cordes incredibly well preserved 13th & 14th century gothic houses and hôtel paticuliers. Cordes-sur-Ciel is 24 km from Gaillac, a village known for their excellent AOC wines, 25 km from Albi and 80 km from Toulouse.
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Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group food & wine adventures into Gascony, the Pays Basque and Provence. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and is a contributor to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.