The village of Minerve is a peaceful and enchanting place and it’s clear for all to see why it’s one of the ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France’. 2000 years ago the Romans settled in Languedoc and perhaps the name of this miniscule village stems back to those times. Certainly the village is ancient and in the days of the Cathar crusade would have been known by its Occitan name Menèrba, named after the Roman goddess of wisdom.
It’s possible to approach the village from 3 directions and each gives a unique vista. If coming from the direction of the village of Cessaras you will have a superb view of the ‘Petite Causse’, the name given to stretches of limestone land which in Languedoc is smothered with wild herbs and other Mediterranean plants such as cistus, pine and Juniper. The collective name for these scented plants is ‘garrigue’. The Petit Causse is an ancient land with evidence of mankind from previous millennia. Millions of years ago turbulent river waters sliced a deep gorge across the causse but now the gentle River Cesse trickles lazily going underground during the summer months. Each spring I like to walk these hills and take the now familiar path that crosses the causse and each step I take along the limestone path releases intoxicating aromas of wild thyme warmed by the sunshine. At this time of year the herbs are flowering and are also joined by pretty wild flowers and birdsong is the only sound I hear apart from the crunch of my boots.
If you approach Minerve from the villages of Aigne or Aigues Vives you will pass another pretty village, La Caunette. It sits above the River Cesse on your right hand side and is well worth exploring. Just after the village keep your eyes open to the right and you will spot what I call my ‘Indiana Bridge’, a narrow footbridge that crosses a small chasm, it’s part of another walk I like to do. After a few bends in the road look out for a pull-in on your right, it’s a wonderful place to take your fist glimpse of Minerve. From here you can clearly see the topography and understand why the Lord of Minerve decided to build his castle and village here more than 800 years ago.
Those were violent times and villages needed to be fortified to provide protection for the Lord and his people. As you look at the village you will see a deep gorge on the right hand side and to the left of the village is an arched bridge that crosses another river. Minerve is built on the limestone rock in the centre formed by the swirling water of the rivers which meet at the foot of the village and flow on under one name, La Cesses. Not only did the village have these natural fortifications but the Lord of Minerve ordered a double curtain wall to be built around the whole thing. The arched bridge is only about 100 years old, back in the Middle Ages the village was accessed across a drawbridge positioned on the north side. They must have felt very safe tucked inside, that is until 1209 when Simon de Montfort came calling.
During the Albigensian crusade Cathars took refuge in places where sympathisers would help them hide. Some moved to other territories and others put their trust in the minor nobility and took refuge in their castles that dotted the countryside, one such place was Minerve. In 1209 a small group of Cathars fled following the siege of Béziers and were welcomed by William Lord of Minerve who let them shelter in the village. The following year Simon de Montfort surrounded the village and had 3 catapults erected and sent a steady barrage of missiles into and at the village. Over the days that followed gaping holes began to appear in the walls. He erected a huge trebuchet called La Malvoisine – ‘Bad Neighbour’. The trebuchet was capable of hurling huge boulders which were aimed at the covered staircase that gave access to the only well in the village. The people of Minerve knew that if the well went, then so too did all hope of withstanding the siege.
Towards the end of July 2010 William knew he had to surrender. After much haggling he agreed to give his lands and castle to Simon de Montfort in return for the safety of his people. But Simon de Montfort insisted that the Cathars must shun their faith, that was the only way they would be allowed to live. They refused with one saying ‘neither death nor life can tear us from the faith to which we are joined’. 140 Cathars are said to have jumped joyfully into the flames.
Today people come to learn about the Cathar crusade and visit the village which still remembers them. People also come to explore this ancient and beautiful place set in one of the most peaceful areas of Languedoc. Unless you are a local you cannot drive into the village but there is a car park up above the village with an easy walk down the hill into the village with a great view of the gorge along the way. Once inside you will pass all that remains of the Lord Williams castle and a short while later arrive at the steps to the church where outside you will find the stone dove carved to remember the Cathars that lost their lives that day.
Minerve is tiny. There are only 2 main streets with narrow lanes leading off them which mainly lead downhill to the now almost dry river that surrounds the village. In the summer months there is never any water flowing which leads you to believe that the river has completely dried up but in fact it will resurface when heavy rains fall in winter months and early spring. As you head down towards the river you might spot signs that point you in the direction of the ‘ponts’ and you will be forgiven for thinking there are bridges down there. In fact the signs are directing you to the underground tunnels gouged out by the river.
For me Minervois wines are some of the most elegant of the Languedoc and some of my favourites are grown close to Minerve and in 1999 they earned the title ‘cru’. A group of wine makers tending this land and making superb red wines had a belief that their wines had a personality not displayed in other Minervois wines and they wanted this to be acclaimed and brought to the attention of wine lovers. They drew up the rules for their ‘cru’ and over some years demonstrated to the authorities that the wines grown here had a unique character regardless of who made it. And so the first Languedoc cru was born and named Minervois-La Livinière.
I fell in love with Minerve and the Minervois when I first visited this place in 1990 and when I returned here in 2009 to begin my wine tour business the first tour I created included everything I have written about here. If you would like to see this incredible landscape, learn some of the history and taste Minervois wines and food then book your places on our Minerve & the Minervois Vineyard Tour or our Saint-Chinian & Minerve Tour and let is take you to this magical place.