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Château de Peyrepertuse, Languedoc-Roussillon

 Château de Peyrepertuse

Peyrepertuse is stunning; to look at from ground level, and to be in to look down from. It's partly built on and partly excavated from, a long, narrow outcrop of rock at the end of a line of hills, 2,600 feet up. To look at it from a distance it's almost impossible to tell what's castle and what's rock, together they make an impregnable fortress. Peyrepertuse was attacked from time to time during the medieval religious wars that raged across southern France, but was never seriously threatened because of the sheer impossibility of getting a force of any size up here. The route up is too steep and narrow and the castle walls sit right on the edge of the cliff.

Lord William of Peyrepertuse did eventually submit to the demands of the French King, Louis IX, in 1240, after long negotiations, and Peyrepertuse became one of the most important fortresses in defending France's border with Aragon. Louis came to see the castle for himself; he ordered that it be repaired and another fortress built on the site, at a higher level. The additional fortress is the San Jordi Keep, approached up the St Louis Steps (named for the King). Peyrepertuse was garrisoned until the French Revolution, when it was abandoned and left to the eagles and the weather.

 St Louis Steps, Château de Peyrepertuse

Many people who brave the hike up to the castle chicken out at climbing up to the San Jordi Keep. The rock is limestone and contains a lot of quartz; over the centuries the 60 steps, which are about 6ft wide, have become very slippery, and broken in places, plus the authorities discourage people from climbing them when it's windy. I've arrowed the steps in the second photograph.

Two loosely slung chains, on each side of the steps, are provided for support, but you're left in no doubt that this place is dangerous. Two-thirds of the way up, the steps turn left around the little rock bluff above the arrow, and get steeper as you approach the entrance. Once you're up here you're feeling really proud of yourself that you've managed it, and you can relax and enjoy the views. Eagles often perch on the tower above the visitors, a reminder that this place is theirs, not yours.

This is when you get the real shock: climbing down the steps is harder than climbing up them, especially the section from the castle. You're hanging onto that loose, slightly rusty chain, and you look up; what you see is a few slippery steps, the hillside far across the valley, and all the rest is just fresh air. Pause for thought. You get down eventually, the walls of the castle enclose you and you're breathing again.

Peyrepertuse is big, buy a guide before you go so you can identify all the different places inside the castle; in holiday season the little kiosk in the car park often runs out of guides. The hike up to the castle from the car park takes about half an hour, you need safe, supportive footwear for it.

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