At the end of the 10th century, the counts of Carcassonne and Cerdagne made an agreement and split the vast territory of Carolingian Razès: the counts of Cerdagne received Donezan, Capcir and a part of Fenolhedés. To make sure that these boundaries were respected, two castles were built facing one another, each on their own rock: Usson, in Donezan and Dournes, in Pays de Sault. In the 12th century, the lords of Usson Castle were royal vassals for the Kings of Aragon. In no way threatened by the Albigensian Crusade, they defended the besieged people of Montségur. They organised raids to bring them aid, and sheltered around thirty Cathar refugees. They believed it was worth the persecution by the Inquisition, which burned two of their members alive. Their belongings went to the counts of Foix, who were uninterested. Everyone forgot about this abandoned region, which was subjected to regular raids by the Spanish. In the 18th century, the castle was fully restored by its new occupant, the Marquise of Bonnac. But along came the Revolution...
The Heritage House
The Heritage House was established in the former stables at the entrance to the castle. It represents the beginning of the visit. Follow the long history of Usson and Donezan, from pre-history to the present day, with over 700m2 of exhibits. This history is told through exhibitions, slide shows, objects from archaeological excavations and a reconstruction of a traditional mountain house.
There is symmetry everywhere
The eighteenth-century castle was built on top of an eleventh-century castle, sometimes causing it to entirely disappear. The most striking feature of the classical style is the use of symmetry. You can see it in the entrance court, in the design of the stables. In the upper hall, three towers, two of which are fake, respond to the overhanging medieval tower to create an overall harmony. The architect has even used an ingenious optical correction for the paving in the upper courtyard to re-establish perspective.
A ventilated room
This large medieval room with a vaulted ceiling is located under the eighteenth-century dining room. Designed to store food provisions, especially grain, it benefitted from an extremely ingenious ventilation system in order to ensure that food remained perfectly preserved.
A hidden door
In the event of a siege, a discreet getaway was essential to get provisions, seek refuge etc. Here, you would need to find the narrow staircase, fitted between the apse of the church and the big vaulted room, completely covered up. Below, a small door led to freedom: a simple ladder to reach the bottom of the ramparts, where you could escape into the valley.
A mysterious church
This church was discovered during to excavations during preservation works on the castle. We wouldn't have known it was there, if it wasn't for illicit excavations, which destroyed all of the archaeological strata. However, the church contains typical elements from early Roman architecture, and remains of a painted coating...
Things to explore
As you walk
The botanical trail
The botanical trail is a 90 minute walk around the castle, on a marked path. You will see the bladder-senna, a shrub whose fruit is shaped like a full bladder used to amuse gallivanting children, or even the laurel-leaf rock rose, with its pretty, creased white flowers. Along the path, you will encounter both common and unusual species, such as the 'Jonc des Pyrénées' - Donezan is the only place where this iconic species of the Eastern Pyrenees can be found.
The barns of Rouze
These traditional houses, some of which date back to the 18th century, are still widespread in Donezan. The houses are narrow, life is organised vertically: the barn at the bottom, then the living room, and finally the hayloft. In Rouze, these typical mountain houses in the 'barn districts' have a particular shape. Backed against the slope, along the former road to Donezan, the houses were designed for convenient hay storage, indispensable for livestock in the winter.
The Vauban Road
1659. The Treaty of the Pyrenees had just ended the war against Spain. Louis XIV asked his minister, Louvois, to strengthen the new borders. Vauban was in charge, and began building the Mont Louis Fort. Local nobles were tasked with clearing and maintaining passageways for the army and cannons. This was how the royal road was created, a major route locally known as the 'Chemin Vauban' (Vauban Road), but its official name is the 'Grand Chemin de Limoux à Mont-Louis'. Until 1890, this was the only link between Cerdagne and the Aude Valley. Along this road, above Rouze, two stone bridges, named the 'Ponts Vauban' (Vauban Bridges) remain. A hiking, mountain bike or riding guide is available from the Tourist Office, which will suggest that you set off 'to explore the 'Chemin des Bonshommes et du Chemin Vauban' .
The Lake of Laurenti
The blue waters of the Lake of Laurenti reflect Roc Blanc, a 2452m-high peak that overlooks the whole of Donezan. It is part of a magnificent 1936m-high mountain ring, which can be accessed by a well-marked hiking trail from the car park and mountain hut in Laurenti. Sturdy footwear is required, but this 3.5 hour walk (total) is nevertheless accessible. In the same area around Mijanès, from the Restanque car park, you can reach the Rabassoles lakes, 1851m high, then the Bleu lake at 1970m high, at the foot of the Tarbesou.
The 'port' or ridge of Pailhères links Ax-les-Thermes to the Gorges of Ariège. 2001m high, this splendid route winds along the border with Spain. It is a place of crossed pathways, pastures and history, with funny 2m-high cairns. They date from the 19th century, and are useful for postmen, who have to cross the ridge in both summer and winter, and many of whom lost their lives. For experienced hikers, a loop starts from the ridge to reach the Pic de Tarbesou, where you can find charming mountains, a black lake and a blue lake tucked away in the rhododendrons, whilst the summit of the Pic de Tarbesou offers a 360° panorama over the Pyrenees at 2346m altitude.
A natural resort
Mijanès-Donezan is a small, family-friendly ski resort close to Mijanès, offering downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoe hiking and more at 1500-2000m altitude, in a peaceful and magnificent environment.
This second castle in Donezan also belonged to the Sault family, controlled by the Kings of Aragon. Overlooking the village, only parts of the main tower remain, but there are still incredible views over the Aude Pyrenees and the Donezan. Querigut - 'Quer Agut' in Occitan, meaning 'pointed rock' - is open to the public (self-guided visit).
According to records kept by the Inquisition, the besieged Cathars at Montségur allegedly managed to smuggle a 'thesaurus', a treasure, out of the castle. Whether it was golden treasure, or paper treasure, it reached Usson Castle, where it mysteriously disappeared. Treasure hunters have been searching for it ever since. Despite plundering and demolishing the castle, they have had no success. However in doing so, they have certainly destroyed many archaeological objects that would have allowed a better understanding of the site.