Touring the South of France on a BMW R1200GS

Heretics in the wine country


Montsegur, a towering promontory in the foothills of the Pyrenees, comes into view at the exit of a sweeping turn in the road. The ruins at the very top are barely visible, but gradually take form as I get closer. From below, it is easy to see why this fortress kept an army of crusaders at bay: a solitary trail - narrow, steep and rocky - winds upward to the summit. A half hour after leaving my riding gear on the BMW 1200GS and out of breath from the climb, I reach the entrance of the castle, which now looms large against the sky.

Inside, a semi-circle of visitors is listening with rapt attention to a lone voice. The guide's sonorous French and waving hands tell the story of the Cathars, a heretical Christian community that had taken refuge here in the middle of the thirteenth century. Montsegur was the last major symbol of Cathar resistance to fall to the armies of the Pope and the King of France. After a 10-month siege, the parties negotiated a surrender that gave free passage to the defending knights. But the Cathars had to make a choice - renounce their beliefs or death. Some 30 recanted but more than 200 were burned alive at the base of Montsegur on March 16, 1244.

Touring the South of France

The beauty of the surrounding countryside belies its gruesome medieval history. Languedoc - the land of the Cathars - offers rolling hills, deep gorges, olive groves, vineyards, and great food. September is the best time to visit as the summer heat is past and the grape harvest adds an enticing fragrance to the land. (Forty percent of France's entire wine production comes from this region.) Moreover, a glance at the squiggly lines on a road map is enough to tell you that Languedoc is a wonderful place to ride a motorcycle. All the above were excellent reasons for a ride south through the Massif Central into Languedoc, where I spent a week enjoying the roads with a new R1200 GS and visiting the awe-inspiring traces of this strange but admirable people who had the bad luck to live in the middle ages.  

My luck was much better. I was joined by three French motorcyclists, brothers Pierre and Guy and their friend Robert who had decided to take their holidays with me. We'd outlined the trip by e-mail and then met in Strasbourg in early September. This arrangement not only gave me good company, it provided an introduction to another not-quite-medieval culture -- Pierre and Robert are die-hard Harley-Davidson fans, members of the Alsace Chapter of the Harley Owners Group and ride large, as in really large, baggers. Strange bedfellows for someone riding a GS - but why not?

Touring the South of France

The limestone layers of the Massif Central, the vast and wild region north of Languedoc, rose up from the sea floor 120 million years ago. The Ardeche River cut downward through these layers over time to form the Gorges de l'Ardeche, a deep canyon snaking thorough the countryside. A well-paved, winding two-lane road runs along the ridge, with numerous pullouts offering spectacular views of the river below. The Massif Central has several major gorges and we sought them all out. Some, like the Gorges du Tarn, have a road lower down in the ravine, cut into the canyon walls with only a two-foot high stone "guard rail" to mark the edge of the narrow roadway. Not a place to lose concentration, as going over the edge would be fatal.

My 2010 GS was more than a match for any of the riding conditions we encountered on the narrow and, at times, rough roads in the Massif Central. Equipped with the premium package - Electronic Suspension Adjustment, on-board computer, heated grips, hand guards and ABS - and the GS's marvelous suspension, bumps and pot-holes just didn't matter. 

With one exception, all our riding was on pavement and didn't really push the GS in the manner that BMW's marketing department or Ewan McGregor of “Long Way Round” would have us imagine. Still, when I took the GS to the rocky bank of the river Tarn (okay, just for a photo op) it was clear with the GS I could go where my friends would never take their road-only bikes. The real question for this ride, was whether the GS was as good a tourer as Pierre's luxurious bagger.

Small country roads brought us south from Massif Central into Languedoc, from the wild and primitive to the settled and civilized. The last stretch of route D907, a smooth two-lane road descending from the 1000-meter high Massif, served up broad sweeping curves and expansive views of the vineyards of Languedoc as the sun was disappearing below the horizon. Moments like this, in fine weather riding a motorcycle that handles like a dream, make indelible impressions on the senses, which can't be captured with a camera. We headed for Babio, a tiny village near the Cathar town of Minerve where mutual friends operate a small winery. With Babio as base for our day-rides, we were ready to explore the region.

Touring the South of France

Carcassone - the crown jewel of medieval southern France - is the fortified city whose towers and crenellated walls inspired the castle in Disney's "Sleeping Beauty." The enormous ramparts of Carcassone and the old city were rebuilt in the 19th century and are more extensive now than they were in the summer of 1209 when the crusader army attacked, but they still put that battle into perspective. Once the outer wall was breached and the invaders occupied the large grassy area that now surrounds the inner rampart, the inhabitants lost access to their water supply and had to surrender.

Beziers, to the east of Carcassone, had encountered a fate much worse only the week before. Asked what should be done with the population after the city was taken, the Papal Legate, Arnaud Amaury, uttered that infamous command, "Kill them all. God will know his own." And that's what happened to Bezier's 20,000 men, women and children. It was the worst massacre of the Albigensian Crusade.

Only 20 km from Carcassone, LasTours was more successful in withstanding a frontal assault. Today, four separate small citadels all within about a hundred yards of each other, survive high on a ridge. The defenders of LasTours in 1210 were faced with perhaps the most gruesome sight of the crusade. In an attempt to break their will, crusader leader Simon du Montfort marched a line of 100 people - led by a man with one eye - to LasTours. All had had their noses, ears and lips cut off and, with the exception of the first in line, both eyes gouged out. They came from the town of Bram, which had initially resisted du Montfort's army. Simon du Montfort and Arnaud Amaury top the list of notorious villains in 13th century history.

Touring the South of France

Many Cathars lived in and around the city of Albi, from which comes the name "Albigensian" crusade. Like Carcassone, it is also a United Nations Heritage Site. Although the distance from Babio to Albi was only 115 km, it took us over two hours to get there as we chose the smaller roads. After a tour of the magnificent brick cathedral and a walk around the old town, we rode onward to the medieval town of Cordes Sur-Ciel, 25 km beyond Albi. Riding the switchbacks up the hill was a breeze on the GS, and finding a place to park the bikes outside the town walls was no problem. On foot was the only way to explore the town, where artists' galleries, cafes, craft and souvenir shops tastefully blend into a medieval atmosphere.

Touring the South of France

A casual glance at the GS's instrument panel that afternoon indicated I'd traveled over 3,000 miles since I'd picked up the bike from BMW in Munich. By now it fit me like a comfortable shoe. I wasn't thinking about its performance characteristics in the same way that would a journalist at a press intro, who has only two days to "get it all down." I'd learned what 110 horsepower could do when passing a long line of cars, how the brakes would haul down that speed when tucking back into the right lane, and what the suspension would absorb when it was necessary to jump a curb in town. My 6' 8" frame loved the stock seat set on its highest position and didn't mind those ten-hour days on the German, French and Swiss autobahns. The tank bag up front, the hard boxes on the back and a soft-bag over them gave me all the carrying capacity I needed. In short, I had a touring bike that was the equal, or better, of the Milwaukee Iron riding with me, and yet weighed in at 500 pounds instead of 800. To each his own, of course, but I couldn't have been happier.

Touring the South of France

Returning to Babio each evening, often after dark, we would tell our friends what we'd seen and then spread out the map to plan the next day. Looking back at our trip, we had chosen an about equal mix of time in the saddle on exhilarating roads and off-bike activities that sampled the local culture and history. The landscape, modern charm and medieval history of the Languedoc, not to mention the pleasure of riding the GS, inspired this blend and made it so enjoyable.

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