When you’re approaching the Pyrenees mountains from the French side, you will see a castle from far away. It stands out proud on a mountain top. The walls of the citadel seem to merge into steep rocky slopes, dozens of metres high. The road leading up to the castle gets more and more narrow. The last stretch is nothing but a trail littered with cobble-stones. The citadel has been deserted for centuries. Wind blows through the wide-open windows, the staircases are tumbledown and bushes are growing in the towers. The view takes your breath away: for miles and miles you can see the Pyrenees in one direction and the plains in the other. 
 In this castle – called Montségur – terrible massacres took place in the thirteenth century. Montségur was an important stronghold for the Cathars.  Cathars were faithful people from the South of France. They called themselves "Friends of God”, Cathars being a swearword. The Cathars’ ideal  was a simple and humble life in order to get closer to God. They felt that everything that you could see was the work of the Devil. God had only made the spiritual, things you could not see, like your thoughts. The Pope and all the rest of the Catholic church thought ideas like these were wrong and dangerous and set out to force the Cathars to give up their faith. From the early  thirteenth century, thousands of Cathars were apprehended, tortured and finally, if they refused to give up their faith, burned alive.           
The Cathars withdrew further and further from the cities where they had lived before, high into the mountains and their high and inaccessible strongholds. Of these, Montségur  was the most important. The last of the Cathars lived here for ten years. During that time, the fortress was fortified and strengthened. It seemed an impregnable stronghold.  In 1243 however, soldiers of the King managed, after a year-long siege, to penetrate the fortress. The Cathars had to renounce their faith, but most of them refused to do so. At the foot of the mountain a massive pyre was built by the King’s soldiers. The Cathars left their castle one by one, walked down the mountain and marched straight into the fire.  They would rather be burned alive than converted.
Montségur is a fortified castle. This kind of castle was built from the eleventh century onwards. (Before that, castles were made out of wood; nothing is left of those.) Usually they were positioned in high places, enabling you to spot any enemies approaching at an early stage. The walls were high and thick and there was often a moat around the castle. In the courtyard was a big donjon, usually square in shape. This was guarded by soldiers and it was the home of the Lord of the Castle and his family. If you visit one of these castles now, you may find it a bit grim. Even in high summer temperatures it was quite cool inside. In wintertime, however, even with those big walls,  it must have been bitterly cold. The wind whistling through those small, open windows, as there was no glass in the Middle Ages. And, of course, no electricity either. Light came from a few candles flickering in the wind and full tree trunks would burn in the fireplaces. Most often, the entire family slept together in one big bed, to keep all the warmth they could get. There was also no toilet. At least some of the castles had holes in the outermost walls, where you could stand above or squat down. Nice surprise for anyone who happened to be walking underneath!
Right in the middle of the city of Avignon (Vaucluse) is another kind of fortified castle. It is called "The Palace of the Popes” (Palais des Papes), and it wasn’t meant for noble folks, but for the leader of the Roman Catholic church. Early in the fourteenth century, the Pope moved from Rome – where he didn’t feel safe anymore -  to Avignon. For over seventy years nine Popes lived here, one after the other. The palace was like a military fortress, with high walls with loop-holes and six mighty defence donjons. The popes wanted to impress and show the people how powerful they were. After all, the Pope was God’s sole representative on earth and therefore very important. Within the walls of the papal palace the popes could feel secure and lived in great luxury. You could easily fit four tennis courts in the big hall and the fireplace was the size of a kitchen. Whole cows could be cooked inside it.
They stopped building big, strong castles in the sixteenth century. After that, castles became show-pieces that enabled you to show your great wealth and good taste.  The nobility built castles with beautiful facades and a lot of huge windows, richly decorated rooms and vast, meticulously kept gardens with ponds. These are the castles of the Renaissance. The French adopted this elegant building style from the Italians. You will find a lot of famous castles especially around the river Loire area. King Francois the First had the famous Chambord castle, the biggest of all the Loire-castles, built there in 1519. This castle has 440 rooms, 365 windows and 83 staircases. Understandably, the inhabitants often got lost! You can clearly see the great wealth the king and his following enjoyed, with all those rooms, the beautiful furnishing, soft four-posters and all the ornamental things.One of the staircases is very famous. It is believed that it was designed by Leonardo da Vinci. It is in fact two intertwined staircases, one revolving round the other. Each staircase goes in one direction only, so you never meet people coming the other way.
The most famous castle of the whole of France is Versailles, near Paris. It started as a mere hunting-lodge. King Louis the Thirteenth had it built with the purpose of staying there overnight after hunting in the forests around the capital. After the King died his son, Louis the Fourteenth, did not visit the place very often. One day in 1661, King Louis was invited to the castle of one of his ministers, a certain Fouquet. This Fouquet was extremely rich and had an extraordinary big castle built for himself, Vaux-le-Vicomte in Maincy (Seine-et-Marne). He proudly showed his property to the king, who became furious when he saw that one of his ministers, one of his subjects, had a castle that was grander than any of his own. Noticing how enraged his king was, Fouquet offered Louis his castle for free, but that infuriated the king even more . As if he could not afford a castle like that himself ! He had Fouquet imprisoned and ordered Fouquet’s architects to build him a castle like that, but much bigger and nicer.            
The construction of Versailles took almost forty years. In 1685 thirty-six thousand people were working on the chateau at the same time. Louis the Thirteenth started to live in it permanently in 1682. Versailles is a gigantic marble palace. Just the front of it is nearly six hundred metres wide. Most famous of all is the Mirror Room: seventy metres long, its seventeen enormous windows are reflected in seventeen mirrors of the same size. At night they mirror the hundreds of candles in the chandeliers. Around the castle there are vast gardens with hundreds of fountains.            
Apart from King Louis, over a thousand courtiers and four thousand members of the royal household lived on the estate. The more important a courtier, the closer his quarters were to the king. If a courtier fell from grace or died, another courtier then moved into his room, taking his place closer to the king. A third courtier then moved into the room of the second and so followed many other removals, everyone shifting one place up the order.
In those days, mention was sometimes made of the "Perfume of Versailles”. This was the stench of urine and old sweat, mixed with the smell of very strong perfumes. No one took showers at the time, neither were there flushing toilets to be found. They often just relieved themselves in some corner under the stairs!   There are still thousands of castles in France, but nobody lives in most of them anymore. After the French Revolution most castles were deserted by their owners. Occasionally a castle was pillaged or even destroyed. The stones or bricks were used to build ordinary houses. Almost all castles have been turned into museums or the state of France has exclusive use of them. The castle of Rambouillet (Yvelines), for instance, serves as summer residence for the president of the Republic. If the president is not on holiday there, the castle is opened as a museum. Sometimes important meetings with other heads of state are held there. The same happens with smaller castles; only some of the time are they inhabited by their owners. Then part of the castle may become a museum, or the biggest rooms are rented out for parties or meetings. The maintenance of these castles and keeping the rooms nice and warm costs a lot of money.
© pauline michgelsen (original text) / arthur wijling (translation)