The town of Mirepoix has the finest main square west of the Rhone. The whole square comprises wooden arches topped by houses in different pastel shades. The houses are all half-timbered and some of their cross beams show carvings of human heads or grotesque animals. The finest examples can be found on the Maisons des Consuls, now a hotel but previously a prison, court house, and town hall. Nearly 150 carved wooden heads can be found on the beams here. Cafes and shops shelter under the cross beams around the whole square allowing people to appreciate the magnificent buildings and lovely gardens whilst drinking a coffee or pastis.
The nearby Cathedral of St Maurice with its elegant spire has the widest nave of any Gothic church in France at 104 feet, which gives the interior a slightly squashed feel given there are no supporting columns. It really does seem a long way from one side to the other. The Cathedral was begun in 1343 and only finished in 1865.
Mirepoix was rebuilt in the 1290s in a different place from the original town which was destroyed by a flood in 1289 when legend has it Puivert Lake emptied. No doubt the local Roman Catholic Church saw this as divine justice due to the town’s association with the many Cathars who stayed in the town at various times in the early 13th Century.
In 1206 the Lord of the Town was a man called Pierre-Roger de Mirepoix, a prominent Cathar. In that year a Cathar council of 600 people asked a man called Raymond de Pareille to rebuild the defences of Montsegur. Even then, the Cathars knew they would have to go to the remotest parts of the Languedoc at some point and it was Pierre-Roger who played a prominent role in the defence of Montsegur in 1243. Luckily, most Cathars had already left for the mountains when the Crusaders laid siege to Mirepoix in 1209. Those who remained died for their beliefs.
This extract is from the book Travels through History : France by Julian Worker