Continuing my futile quest to remain in Provence during July, I again found myself leaving Provence for the region of Occitanie, the southern most area of France, destination Carcassonne, a fixture on everybody’s prettiest towns in France list. Less than 4 hours and more than 40 Euros in tolls from Lyon, I arrived there in the midst of France’s second heat wave of the summer. Thankfully, both my car and hotel had air conditioning.
Carcassonne is located in the plains beside the river Aude, where the 16th century Canal du Midi links the Mediterranean with the Atlantic. Two hour boat rides on the canal by far more modern vessels are offered starting at 10 Euros. Occitanie has its own language (Occitan), a Romance language closely related to Catalan, and a history replete with attempts by Spain to conquer it, and vice versa. Barcelona is only 300 kilometers away.
It is also the region where grapes have grown forever, or at least since the 5th century BC by the Greeks. Sparkling wine was developed here 150 years before Don Perignon figured it out and it is home to Cassoulet, a dish made with white haricot beans, pork fat and duck in a slow cooker called a cassole. I had one for dinner in Carcassonne; delicious yes, but no one could explain to me how a dish heavy with white beans, which were first brought to Europe in the 15th century from America, became synonymous with France.
Carcassonne is really two cities, the “medieval” city perched on the hill and the modern city (mostly 18th century) below, beside the canal. The medieval city has been around since Neolithic times. The Romans built a fortress on the hill; their walls are still visible. It was captured by the Visigoths in the 5th century, the same Visigoths who also sacked Rome in 410AD.
In the 10th century, Carcassonne became a favourite stopping point for crusaders off to the Holy Land. Also during this period, the count of Trenceval built the chateau that still stands and ruled the area for a while. Early heretics of the Catholic Church, the Cathars, were headquartered in Carcassonne, causing it to become the center of the French Inquisition in the 13th century. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, various armies tried to penetrate the city, but failed due to its constantly updated fortifications.
Finally, Napoleon decommissioned it as a military base and it fell into disrepair, its stones used for buildings in the new Carcassonne below. It was even ordered to be demolished in 1849. An uproar ensued and Eugene Viollet-le-duc, an architect who also installed the recently collapsed spire on Norte Dame in Paris, took up the fight to save the city and renovate it.
The Medieval City:
In 1853, restoration began. Two rows of walls; the interior Roman ones and the exterior medieval ones ring the city, along with 52 towers. Inside, a labyrinth of cobblestone roads and meandering alleyways are flanked by “15th century” houses and shops, their telltale second floors overhanging the streets in order to reduce the tax burden calculated on the ground floor space. A now clean and dry open sewer runs down the street centers, previously used to steer refuse and other undesirable stuff away from the city.
The Trencevals built the cities largest house- the Chateau Comtal – currently a museum with guided tours. A large, decommissioned church, the Basilica of Saint Nazarius and Celsus ,is believed to have been begun in the 6th century, renovated by the Carolingians, blessed with Cathedral status in the 11th century and took its Gothic shape in the 13th century. It, too, was renovated by Mr. Violet-le-duc.
His restoration is not without controversy. Slate tiles dominate the roofs, even though slate is not quarried anywhere in the vicinity. Many of the towers are pointed, another feature not found in medieval architecture. The city does not advertise itself as an authentic reproduction, but as a re-imagined medieval city with a few idiocyncracies. It’s a fair enough description, with the 15th century houses now home mostly to souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels. Fifty residents still inhabit the old town, but with running water, proper sewage and electricity. As an UNESCO heritage site, it has no (visible to me) air conditioning and it is closed to traffic after 9:00AM.
It is also the second most visited monument outside of Paris in France, with Mont. St. Michel in first place. Tons of visitors, mostly French, braved the 40+ degree weather to wander the city during the 3 days I spent there, their kids running around in full length medieval dresses brandishing plastic swords and shields, and everyone drinking from the fountains and wells. Ice-cream was the bestseller.
My walking tour offered by the Tourism Centre was underwhelming, with the guide showing up 20 minutes late, then racing through the old town to ensure she still finished at the specified hour. She spent an inordinate amount of time explaining Cathar religious philosophy and how it differed from that of the Catholic Church. I won’t bore you with the details, a courtesy I wish the guide had also extended. Suffice to say, the Cathars were the main targets of the French Inquisition and were effectively extinguished through conversion, torture and execution. Their lasting legacy is, oddly, their repression by military means, which eventually led to the unification of the Carcassonne region with France rather than Spain.
Carcassonne is striking, from the first view of the ramparts in the distance, to its interior buildings, roads and squares. Yes, it evokes the sense that one is wandering through a medieval city, although the hoards of tourists did much to dampen my enthusiasm for it and I was a tad disappointed to learn much of the renovations dated from the 19th century. But on my final day, I rose at 6:00AM and went into the old city, without the crowds and just meandered about for an hour, trying to take myself back 500 years. Aside from the occasional delivery truck driver, it mostly worked and made it worth the visit.