The village of Alet Les Bains lies in the Aude valley, surrounded by high mountain flanks on either side, about 40 minutes from Carcassone, between Limoux and Quillan, it is a nice place to stop off on the way into the Pyrenees or to dip the toes into the icy waters of the Aude river after a long, hot days walking.
There is a campsite bordering the river, a bar and restaurant opposite the magnificent abbey and a spring where the healing waters are dispensed for travelers and “curists” alike – one spring produces hot thermal water and the other cold spa water.
There are some nice spots with benches in the shade of the plane trees for a picnic too.
The name Alet comes from the Latin, “Electus” or chosen place (although this is often disputed by researchers), named by the Romans who discovered the healing hot waters of the site and who founded a temple to the goddess Diana on the site where the ruins of the abbey stand today.
The Romans found the wooden bridge that crossed the river unsuitable for their needs so they built a stone bridge, which is in ruins today, although the main piers are still in place.
According to a comment by Caesar, the bridge at Aletha was built in 24 hours – the locals being superstitious, knew that this could not have been achieved in a day and apportioned the building of the bridge to evil spirits – hence the name that endures to this day, The Devil’s Bridge (Le pont du diable).
The stone bridge was not built as a service to the villagers, there was a more strategic reason, that of joining the two military roads that passed nearby, in order that a heavily armed army could cross.
With this strategic point built, they then built fortifications to protect the strategic crossing, the spa and the rich Gallo-Roman nobles who lived here.
A Gaulish church was edified on the spot and later succeeded by a convent in the 6th century, which remained a humble place of worship until at least two centuries later when Charlemagne and Bera, the count of the Razès gave their patronage and support that culminated in the building of the abbey dedicated to St Benoît.
Under the reign of Louis-le-Débonnaire, in 813, that the first count of Bera, the count of the Razès and Marquis of Gothie, along with his countesse, Romille and several rich Spanish nobles who sought refuge on the French side of the Pyrenees, transformed the less important abbey into something much more grand.
Pope Urban II came to Alet, to present a relic of the cross of the crucifixion of Jesus to the abbey on 18th June 1196, which made the abbey a site of pilgrimages up to 1318, when it was made a bishopric.
Pope John XXII was aware that this mountainous region was a hotbed of Catharism during the 13th century, especially with the proximity of the Cathare châteaux in the Pyrenees, near to Alet, which prompted him to form a diocese under the control of Alet, encompassing 80 parishes, from St Paul de Fenouillet to Formigguères.
The Huguenots destroyed the cathedral on 6th January 1577, during the religious wars – the Roman building was never rebuilt and the bishops transformed the ancient refectory of the Benedictine monks – which was later seized and destroyed during The Revolution with parts of the choir being sold as national property.
The village is surrounded by the ancient 12th century ramparts of the fortified village contains some really picturesque and narrow medieval streets with half-timbered buildings dating from the 13th, 14th and 15th century – almost as if time has had no hand in the aging of the village.
The abbey is in ruin today and is undergoing work to ensure that it doesn’t crumble to the ground. The best view can be had from the cemetery, next to the 14th century church of St André, containing frescoes from the 14th century, a Virgin Mary sculpted in ivory dating from the 16th century, given by King François 1, a 12th century statue of the Virgin Mary.