Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com
The conquest of the world’s highest mountain has become humdrum. Everybody’s doing it. Some die while waiting in line to reach the summit and snap their all-important selfie. Me, I set my sights on less lofty peaks. On my summer vacation in southwestern France, I conquered three “perched villages”. Bruniquel perches at an elevation of 820 feet; Puycelsi rests at a less-than-dizzying altitude of 919 feet; and Cordes-sur-Ciel soars above the clouds at a modest 1,050 feet. These heights may seem paltry to the thrill seekers who tackle Everest, but I defy anyone who hasn’t made the trek to Puycelsi on a scorching hot day to sneer at the effort required.
Eight hundred years ago, a heretical Christian sect (the Cathars) built bastides on the tops of steep hills in the Tarn countryside to defend themselves against the Catholic crusaders whose mission it was to exterminate them. I imagine the sight of Bruniquel, looming high above the Aveyron River, gave many a crusader pause. It definitely gave me pause. But fueled by croissants and a pilgrim’s curiosity, I lifted my eyes toward the medieval walls and started to climb.
The narrow trail wasn’t as crowded as the route up Everest, but it had its challenges. My hiking companions and I were forced to dodge runners and mountain bikers plunging downhill as we ascended. We bushwhacked through patches of tall, spiky grass and navigated around a large party of horseback riders struggling to control their skittish steeds. We wended ever upward, huffing and puffing and sweating like the dickens. Did I mention la canticule? France experienced a record-breaking heat wave in June that drove temperatures as high as 115 degrees in places. It wasn’t as daunting as frostbite on Everest, but it hurt.
We persevered until at last we gazed down from the pinnacle to the valley floor where the crusaders’ giant catapults once hurled stones at the besieged castle. After refreshing ourselves with a frisky little rosé, we spent the night in a charming 17th Century hotel, but soon learned that centuries-old buildings don’t come hazard-free. Stumbling to the W.C. in the middle of the night, we bumped our heads on ancient roof beams and banged our knees against an oddly located wooden bathtub. A few lumps and bruises, ce n’est pas grave. The next morning over a plate of warm, buttery croissants, the tribulations of yesterday were forgotten. We filled our water bottles and pressed on toward Puycelsi.
The path followed along a shining river, led through a verdant forest, and skirted sun-dappled fields. The air was perfumed with the scent of wild broom, birds sang, the stone gates of the city gleamed in the distance. With less than a mile left to climb, I collapsed like an oxygen-starved Everest climber, unable to go on. As Dinah Pelerin so often does, I envisioned my obituary: Wussy Crime Writer Couldn’t Take the Heat, Conked Out Short of the Mark. Galvanized by embarrassment, I picked my wussy self up and staggered through the gates victorious.
The coolest place in town was the interior of the church where we noticed an unusual sculpture of a pig. It seems that during one of the town’s many sieges, with food supplies exhausted, somebody came up with the bright idea of running the town’s last pig around and around the ramparts so the enemy watching from below would think there was an abundance of pigs and that continuing the siege would be a waste of time. The trick worked. The enemy withdrew, but the savior of the village ended up as the main course in the celebratory feast. C’est la guerre.
Our overnight accommodation turned out to be a death trap. The chatelaine prohibited shoes in the house and the 18th Century spiral staircase was as slippery as a waterslide in our sock feet. The unlit ladder from the hall into the common room was an invitation to a broken hip for guests of our vintage, and an unseasonable mistral gusted willy-nilly through the house, slamming the massive doors and threatening to squash anyone caught passing through. Toujours les hazards.
We awoke grateful to be alive and forged on toward Cordes-sur-Ciel. Founded in 1222, the village welcomed Cathar refugees fleeing the crusaders and by so doing, incurred the wrath and cruelty of the Papal Inquisition. Today it’s an enclave for artists and a favorite destination of tourists. We arrived footsore and weary, but strode into town with the same sense of triumph Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay must have felt when they topped out on Everest in 1953. In the rarefied air at 29,000 feet, they enjoyed the view for only ten minutes before they had to descend. Modern-day conquerors spend even less time savoring their grand achievement.
I don’t mean to gloat – well, maybe just a little – but my friends and I luxuriated for two glorious days in a chateau perched a measly thousand feet above sea level, embellishing our tales of danger and survival and drinking French wine. Everest Shmeverest.