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Conquered by a castle

[Illustration by Marina Brown]


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 18, 2000

The vacationing family renting a hilltop castle in southeastern France didn't expect to learn that simple village life can be royal fun.

If she had traveled to the southwest quarter of France, in the region called Tarn, she might have spotted it. It is where the Pyrenees to the south have backed up the land onto swells of green and brown, punctuated by granite outcrops.

Arriving on the road from Toulouse in the early morning, when clouds circle the base of the rocky mount upon which Puycelsi sits, that 12th century village appears suspended.

The road winds up the mountain and through ancient, gated walls. In this mostly agricultural region, there are no signs of tourism now -- only a small square, with a flower-arbored cafe overlooking the ramparts.

My husband and I had arranged with the Canadian owner of a maison de siegneur (lord's house) for a month's rental. The price was right, and because we had three young children, it seemed like the perfect answer to a European vacation.

Our new "home" was three stories of gray stone with gothic arched windows and granite window seats. A massive fireplace graced every room, a wide, curving, stone stairway, and a rear garden dripping with forsythia.

It took only hours before the children had discovered that the front door led to freedom and friends. Playing cache-cache (hide-and-go-seek) throughout the entire village, or laughing with new friends in pidgin French and pidgin English, made them tired but happy travelers.

Puycelsi and its neighbors, once-forgotten hilltop villages of the French countryside, have become attractive to city dwellers. Whole villages that lay crumbling into mortar and weeds two decades ago are being bought up and restored with elegance -- and an eye toward the luxury that some European and North American tourists can demand. Swimming pools occasionally sit behind parapets and satellite dishes peek from behind crenelations, statues and gargoyles.

Puycelsi sits 15 miles northeast of Albi, site of a magnificent cathedral and, in the 12th century, a hotbed of the Cathar heresy. This offshoot of Christianity, which extended over much of the Languedoc region in southeastern France, was stubbornly resistant to the Crusades that the pope had commissioned for its destruction. And as one of the seven bastides, or fortified villages, which circled and protected the rich farmland of the Garonne valley from feudal vicissitudes, Puycelsi soon took its place as a haven for Cathar heretics fleeing the pope's wrath.

Puycelsi has about 200 well-heeled inhabitants in the summer, and just 47 in the bleak winters, a sleepy village of grain merchants and shepherds. But in the 12th century when the population was near 1,000, this was one of the most prosperous of the bastides.

Locals can point to the well where, legend has it, 200 heretics were hurled to their death. Inside the stables of the stone houses aligned along the eastern rampart, granite slabs are lifted still to show carved steps into the mountain that the Cathars used as escape routes during periods of Crusader siege.

Mere summer newcomers, we quickly became aware of others' centuries and of others' lives daily, as we blended more into the ebb and flow of the village.

Within the village each morning, standing on the polished cobbles beside the women with their wicker baskets crooked against their chests, we awaited what the meat and bread trucks would bring up to the square. Cooking and eating became aesthetic, preparation communal; and as our French loosened up into the form the villagers could understand, we found ourselves invited for cassoulets of beans and sausage, and deep red wines. Even our children wanted to know when we were having escargot again.

Just outside the massive arch of the city's gate, where bobbing fields of wild flowers and the green of the valley tinted the clouds a curious gold, I heard shouting one day from the base of the mountain. Perhaps an archaeologist's dig had come up with something big?

For in this region, not far from the famed caves at Lascaux, prehistoric mankind had found the land rich in bison and antelope -- and in the minerals with which to paint these tales for posterity. However, today the shouts were not from the archaeologists but from the village children collecting fossils. That evening, the scraping tool and the bone fragments that our children proudly passed around the dinner table reminded us that there are other ways to excite youngsters than with Nintendos.

Something about the closed nature of our village made us all want to leave our other lives at its gates and to surrender to the slowed clock that seemed to tick within.

From time to time, we picnicked, boated, rode horses -- all within an easy morning's drive. We had seen the marvelous Rodin bronzes at Albi, and we cautiously spelunked into prehistoric caves. But like the provincials we had fast become, we were delighted to get back home, to the village.

For most of us, there comes a time around the end of every vacation when an internal voice asks: "Has it been worth it? The expense? The rigors of traveling? The value of the experience?"

mapAnd on a silky night when the children had regrouped after dinner and were squealing with joy as they watched plump garden snails cross the square in a mock competition, I heard that little voice.

A dog had barked near the church. Soon the bats would fly out of their caves for their nightly feast. Beyond the square, the clunk of balls used in the game of petanque was mingled with exclamations of camaraderie, and my Merlot tasted dusky and sweet.

My youngest child came to curl up against me in the dark, and I looked down at her staring into the starry night. "I think I saw a ghost in the house today," I confided. "What do you think of that?"

She sat up and looked at me with sad eyes and nodded. "He has been lonely for a long time, Mom. But I'm teaching him to play Go Fish."

With that, she nestled back down and closed her eyes. I sat looking in the garden for a long time. The village, with our lovely castle in the clouds, was settling down for sleep. Quietly, I heard that little voice again begin to pose the question: "Was the trip worth the . . ."

But I interrupted, laughing out loud: "Don't even ask!"

-- Marina Brown lives in Treasure Island.

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