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Carcassonne 7 June 2016

1275 : 1228

We headed out across the lovely, verdant, rolling hills (below) north and east of Mirepoix for the ancient city (and modern tourist attraction) of Carcassonne. We knew what we were getting into: this is France's second most popular destination outside of Paris (#1 is Mont St Michel – easier to get to.) Our strategy was to go on the least busy day of the week (more about visiting strategy later) get there early, and single-mindedly suck the juice out in as un-touristy a way as we could. Worked like a charm. We parked in Lot Zero, a couple of hundred meters from the gate, where we were met by the spirit of Carcassonne (at right).

Carcassonne has been on my personal bucket list for decades. Less so as I drew closer and, curiously, now that I've been, back to more so. Misleading press surrounds La Cité like mouches sur merde (look it up!) starting clear back in Franco-Roman times, when the original walls were built ...that is, assuming they were original. Like the Chateau de Foix, it's impossible to know what was here before the "original" walls of this far-flung outpost of the Roman Empire were thrown up. But just to start our story somewhere, let's say the first walls were Gallo-Roman thrown up about 2100 BCE to protect Franco-Roman commerce from the swarms of Celts, Goth, Astrogoths, Visigoths, and, one has to assume, Invisi-goths, that then roamed the area looking for trouble. Anyway, that's their story and they're sticking to it. The name of the city probably is Celtic, and may be two millennia old, but there was some Roman named Carsaco and a little metathesis involved. 

Built on top of a promontory (like Foix) beside a river, the Aude, the original walls were probably proof against the military technology of the time, and so the inhabitants were able to enjoy a pretty nice life, full of story, song, and philospophy. The walls, song, dance, and philosophy all improved with time and peaceful living. When the Romans left, the Visigoths took over, and Carcassonne's "modern" story begins in 1067 with Raimond-Bernard Trencavel, viscount of Albi and Nimes, married the lovely Ermengard, sister of the last Visigothic Count of Carcassonne. According to one legend, that's Ermengard to the right.

1276 : 1215
<p>The countryside between Mirepoix and Carcassonne</p>

The countryside between Mirepoix and Carcassonne

1286 : 1139

We parked on the side of La Cité away from the new city, and after paying our respects to the lady (and noting that this is a UNESCO World Heritage site) we entered through the Narbonne Gate, over the drawbridge, and past the first gatehouse. This gatehouse was set up with two portcullises, murder holes, wings from which arrows and boiling oil could be sent to repel invaders ... all for show and never tested, let it be noted. Preparing for yesterday's disasters (or making a great if silly show) appears to be a constant in public safety thinking.  

I think it's safe to say that the pleasures and kindnesses that this lovely land seems to impart are far more present and compelling than the northern world's visions of trebuchets and Inquisitions. Meet "the Smiling Virgin," a local product.

<p>The Narbonne Gate</p>

The Narbonne Gate

1277 : 1211

Having arrived, we wanted to walk the ramparts before the tourist hordes arrived. While I was innocently reading the signs and taking pictures, Rochelle stalked me and took this picture.

But back to the Trencavels. At first, they were thick as thieves with the Catholic hierarchy; Pope Urban II personally blessed the cornerstone of their cathedral. But philosophy was on the rise, and along came the idea that one god might not be enough, but that two gods explained a lot, like good and evil. This notion, called Catharism, originated with Byzantine Greeks, but found favor with the simple, happy people here in the Languedoc, who tried to live good lives and shun bad actions. Naturally, this caused the Roman Catholic hierarchy severe indigestion, because it cut so deeply into their sale of indulgences and undercut their franchise on anointing priests.

1278 : 1196

By 1209, the Pope would have no more of it, and decreed a Crusade, the Albigensian, against Catharism. What was really happening: the northern French were envious of the Occitans, and seized on this excuse to move them out of their comfortable lives. So they launched a bad actor named Simon de Montfort (that's him at left) and all the might he could gather (and while the southerners were perfecting their poetry and singing, the northerners had been sharpening their war-making.) "Go get 'em, no holds barred ...and you get to keep what you take," said the king.

1279 : 1187
<p>Cathars expelled in their skivvies</p>

Cathars expelled in their skivvies

With the blessing of the Bishop of Beziérs, who said "Kill them all; let God decide who's good and who's bad," Simon got started in Beziérs, and killed about 6,000 people before he and his troops figured out that killing everyone and burning their towns interfered with the crusaders' Christian Duty to rape and plunder.

When they got to Carcassonne, they'd made a better plan: First they called for a parley, and Count Raymond-Roger de Trencavel and his best men came out. Offered a free pass if they'd leave La Cité and its people to the crusaders, Roger declined, and was immediately taken prisoner against all the rules of chivalry. But all's fair in religious war, right? Simon is the spiritual great grandfather of Donald Trump.

With Roger imprisoned, resistance fizzled, and the crusaders entered the city, famously raping and pillaging to their hearts' content. Let's hear it for religion!

1290 : 1121
<p>the sally port down to the Aude, uncovered ramparts on the west side, the reconstructed hoards and ramparts to the east</p>

the sally port down to the Aude, uncovered ramparts on the west side, the reconstructed hoards and ramparts to the east

1280 : 1179

Funny thing, this reasonably well-known story is not part of the narrative offered the schoolchildren and other visitors to La Cité today. It's glossed over with PR-speak (but it is mentioned that the neighboring count, over in Toulouse, who took the deal, kept his lands and dignities. It is also mentioned that Simon became the next Count of Carcassonne. Spoils of War.) 

When the expense of renovating the old digs became too much for Simon, he gave it to the King of France, who made it his southern outpost and the most important chokepoint on the Spanish border, built more walls, ramparts, and hoardes (the wooden penthouses you see atop the walls a couple of photos up) from which one's soldiers could drop rocks, boiling oil, and shoot arrows at any invaders. 

1281 : 1173
<p>Crêperie Le Blé Noir</p>

Crêperie Le Blé Noir

And that brings us up to the present, or at least to the Age of Enlightenment, when the French realized that Carcassonne was a treasure worth preserving.

So is lunch. We walked out through the Aude Gate, down and across the Vieux Pont into the Ville Basse for a second visit to Christophe's and Nathalie's wonderful Crêperie Le Blé Noir. Here's Nathalie at the Crêpe Stove.

1282 : 1162
<p>Stephen, I drank this beer and...

Stephen, I drank this beer and thought of your Carcassonne ambitions (Christophe bought it for me because I wrote him a nice review): brewed in Brittany with buckwheat (blé noir), it was smooth, delicious, memorable. The salad was fresh local red lettuce and local ham, and my crêpe had ham and mushrooms in it. Damn it! I didn't get a picture of Christophe. This little restaurant is certainly the most amiable place (amongst many!) we've eaten on this trip of good food.

1284 : 1154

Back up the hill...

By the middle of the 19th Century, with the Spanish border far away and militarism achieving new heights of destructiveness, the French Government decreed the place surplus. Large parts of it had already found second lives in the foundations and walls of new buildings in the Ville Basse, the new city across the river. 

<p>Ville Basse from La Cité</p>

Ville Basse from La Cité

1285 : 1146

Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, architect, lover of the Middle Ages, and hero of preservation here and at several other monuments in France, was commissioned to rebuild the old hulk back to its former glory ...but just which glory was that to be? Here's another place where the guidebooks miss the point. This isn't a French Moyen-Age Disneyland theme park (although parts of it look that way.) Eugène decided to take the glory that was Charles IX, the son of Catherine de Medici, and give it his particular spin. After careful mapping of the archaeological evidence, and relying on his knowledge of the times and experience restoring other structures, he defined a program that was not finished in his lifetime, but that gives us the romantic Carcassonne we visited today.

It works for me. We enjoyed exploring the Chateau Comtal (the inner royal habitation; most of the pictures on this page so far come from there) – not quite as thick (in terms of content or focus) as the sweet little castle at Foix, but much more extensive – and wandering the streets within the defensive outer walls.

1288 : 1129

1287 : 1133

From a builder's perspective, the work of the ancient wall-makers, and even of Viollet-le-Duc, is thrilling. As at Foix, the dressed stone is superbly, lastingly laid. Towers are solid at their bases, and at the third story the walls are nearly a meter thick. Sadly, the construction method for floors done with wood doesn't last well, and so everywhere one sees where long-gone floor beams slotted into stone. What a wonder this place must have been in the 16th Century when it was the southern home of Charles IX.

Even now, there is plenty to be learned from looking at the over-building techniques, like the roof timbers in this tower (left.) These towers are round on the outside, square on the side within the chateau, round being better at repelling stones thrown by trebuchets. The slate roofs needed to be fire-resistant, because flaming arrows were standard. The wooden hoardes (“penthouses” above) could be covered with animal skins soaked in water to repel the arrows, too. 

During Viollet-le-Duc's work, and work continued by his successors, many bits of lovely detailing and art were uncovered and are displayed in the Comtal. The Smiling Virgin is one such example, as are the graceful columns and entertaining heads below. And those round balls? To give you a sense of scale, the floor tiles are 4 inches on a side: those watermelon-sized globes are what one throws 200 meters or more with one's trebuchet.

1292 : 1106

During one of the final stages of removing the dross from the walls of a barrel-vaulted room that may have been the Trencavel dining room, a glorious blue vault was discovered, and, barely salvageable on the walls below, a marvelous paint-on-dry-plaster (thus not very permanent) painting of the Franks beating up on the Saracens. I liked this horse in particular: he spoke to me. He told me he disapproved of warfare.


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Here we may have my last commentary (this trip) on the difference between Spanish and French hair. ( my first comment ) While walking the ramparts, we were passed, first by three purposeful young women of indeterminate nationality (although their luxuriant hair should have been a clue) and then, a few heartbeats later, by three volubly Spanish swains, racing to catch up. When they did, on this one particularly windy bit of rampart, the ladies obligingly posed, their glorious hair dancing in the wind.

Spain is an hour by autoroute south of here, and Carcassonne is presented to visitors in three languages, French (of course), English, and Spanish.

1291 : 1118

Walking the ramparts is a singular experience, wherever you do it. You're above the world below, and mostly looking into back yards. Here's one in Carcassonne. Many of yards  are the quiet back gardens of hotels, B&Bs, and restaurants. Carcassonne is almost, but not quite, completely devoted to serving visitors (like Carmel and Mendocino.) But here (at left) is an exception. The gentleman came out and tended his little garden while we walked past. One wonders how it feels to be in one's private space yet overlooked by hundreds of gawkers a day. We wondered this, too, when we visited Conwy, in northern Wales, another town with an encircling rampart.

By this time of day, Rochelle's and my ability to winnow the novelty and beauty from the overwhelming burden of touristic hype was staggering. We knew we had one more thing to see: the one-time Cathedral. (Since the 1850s, Carcassonne's Cathedral has been in the Ville Basse.) I hope you'll pardon me for skipping around now. It's getting late.

1293 : 1104

We made it to the one-time cathedral, and were grateful to be able to sit quietly in the pews and admire the stained glass. One panel in particular attracted my attention. These are supposedly "textbooks in a time before printing," and therefore the teaching aides used by the priests to preserve history. (Elsewhere in the castle, the preservation of history was accomplished with song and story.) I can't be sure what this all means, because the writing is too small to be read from the floor, even by an eagle eye like me. I often rely on my camera to help me see what I can't see with my naked eyes, and even there I can't make out much. That's Adam and Eve at the bottom, I'm thinking; she's eating a red apple but Adam's apple is white? Is this a biblical geneology, the old testament's begats? 


Before I leave, a thought: Sometimes in a place like this, there's enough history to justify staying overnight, or for a few nights, to soak up the feelings. Siena is a place like that: too often daytrippers from Florence completely miss the true sense of a vibrant City that hunkers down during the onslaught, then reclaims its spirit when the day-trippers leave. 

1294 : 1100

To us, Carcassonne didn't feel that richly endowed with residents. The ratio of historic resonance to tourist hype is low. Aside from the Chateau Comtal and the incomplete walk around the wall-top, there isn't much to study or experience. A fakey torture museum. Lots and lots and lots of shops selling overpriced trinkets mostly from Taiwan (I'm guessing; I didn't look.) Lots of candy, ice cream, and cookie stores. Few live here that don't serve visitors. And the visitors, after giving the Chateau a brief visit, wander aimlessly through the streets looking for the romance they were promised but that is hidden under the veneer of commercialism. Are we the Invisgoths?

As we discovered while desperately seeking a toillette, the Ville Basse is a much richer place in terms of the lives of the people.

For us, deciding to manage Carcassonne as a day trip from a less tourist-infested, more authentic base, was a good call. It felt good to be leaving the urban scene, even the one on the hilltop, and driving back across the insanely verdant fields to quiet little Mirepoix and home.

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