Duilhac, Ffrance - Today I am at tempting to scale two of southern France's most spectacular castles: Peyrepertuse and her nearby sister, Quéribus, which in 1244 AD was the last conquered of the Cathar strongholds. Once the separate nation of Occitania, the French département of Languedoc is dotted with ruins of medieval strongholds along what's now called the Cathar Trail.
The Cathars - which means pure ones - were heretics, or freethinkers, disgusted with the corruption and cynicism of the established medieval church. Believing salvation lay in abandoning worldly pleasures, they renounced all wealth and priestly hierarchies and embraced a belief in reincarnation.
Thanks in part to the rugged Corbières, Languedoc's branch of the Pyrénées mountains, the Cathars stood firm against both the intolerant Catholic Church and France's rapacious king. Their vertiginous fortresses repelled invasion for well over a century.
As the French Résistance and recent separatist movements have shown, dissent has always flourished here as robustly as the grapes that have made Languedoc's wines famous.
The Cathars managed to withstand the savagery of the Inquisition and the onslaught of France's armies until the Albigensian massacre of 1209. Over 20,000 people in the Occitan city of Béziers - Cathar and Catholic alike - were slaughtered under orders from the Abbot of Citeaux, who said, "Kill them all. God will know his own."
For the next 120 years, Cathar cities were systematically besieged and taken, their people tortured and killed, many burned at the stake. By 1328, the Cathars were annihilated. No wonder the Corbières still brood with anger and foreboding.
During my hair-raising ascent to Peyrepertuse by cab, the castle is hard to make out, appearing to grow out of the limestone cliff. Suddenly, it looms like a ship stranded on a bone-white reef.
The walk from the ticket booth to the summit is slippery, with loose rubble and rock marbled from centuries of climbers. But the view to the tiny village of Duilhac below and eastward to lofty Quéribus is exhilarating. On all sides, the majestic Corbières perch gauntly like the crows they're named for. Peering over the edge, I feel queasy to the soles of my feet.
If the climb up Peyrepertuse was nerve-racking, the descent from the parking lot into Duilhac is downright foolhardy. Pedestrians should ignore the ticket vendor's advice; do not take the "randonnée" from the parking lot. If this is a hiking path, it's suitable only for the "salamandres," the tiny, nimble lizards that are Languedoc's resident dragons. Instead, take a white-knuckle cab ride from Peyrepertuse to Quéribus, looming tall and Gothic nearby.
On the randonnée, I soon discover that the safest method of descent is to bear-walk backwards on all fours. The narrow path is strewn with treacherous rubble and surrounded by holly, thorns and thistles - every plant in this sere landscape is equipped with its own medieval weaponry.
I'm grateful, however, for the barbs and prickles pincushioning my hands. These are minor nuisances compared to a broken limb.
Intent on self-preservation, I clamber clumsily downward, my legs clenching in anticipation of the rubble giving way beneath me. Oblivious to floating butterflies and scurrying lizards, I ponder how anyone could possibly take this castle by stealth.
Suddenly, near the base of the slope, the inevitable happens. I slither and stumble on the treacherous stones, twisting my left knee. Roaring in pain and frustration, I realize that the last two-thirds of my trip to France will be spent hobbling: "Fuck, fuck, fuck."
My bellows of rage and vexation mean nothing to the Corbières - they've heard the screams of burning heretics. I feel the land's malice in the bright September haze and, vanquished, limp down the rest of the slope to the highway.
Turning, I take a final splendid photo of Peyrepertuse jutting balefully out of the bone-white cliff like teeth in a human jawbone. The fortress leers in grim satisfaction. Another invader ignominiously defeated.