Saturday 1 October 2016

A Magical French City

It was a boiling hot afternoon, one I’ll never forget.

We’d spent the morning viewing a property in the Midi Pyrenees which had turned out to be a complete disaster. Jack, my husband, was in a foul mood, and had been lecturing me for over an hour about my inability to properly read the estate agent’s blurb. I’ll admit to a spot of speed-reading on occasions, but in my defence, I do think I’d got the section in question right. I’d assumed that when the description stated the house was situated on a pleasant incline that probably meant – a bit of a slope – and so it would be fine. As it turned out, nothing could have been further from the truth.

Our ascent to the buildings had been via a partially-collapsed set of hair pin bends, which afforded marvellous views of the valley floor – hundreds of metres below. What lay between us and certain death was a crumbling one-track road which had obviously been built a very long time ago for a horse and small cart. But somehow we survived.

Onwards and upwards we drove, passing a Peugeot 307 neatly parked upside down in a tree, and arrived to find the house hanging on a near-vertical mountain slope by what was left of its foundations. Our tour of the property didn’t improve thereafter.

Some three hours later we had gingerly retraced our steps, and were back on safe ground, driving along the autoroute A61 towards Provence for our overnight stop. Jack had finally fizzled out and was muttering sweet oaths to himself, so I retired to the comfort-blanket of my trusty guide book. It wasn’t long before I found a fascinating snippet of information. I looked up to impart my latest gem when something caught my eye. I simply couldn’t believe what I was looking at.

“Jack, Jack, look at that!” I gasped, stabbing the passenger window excitedly.

“I can’t I’m trying to pass this tin can on wheels, what’s wrong anyway?”

I’d read about this place before but never seen it. The scene that gradually unfolded was more evocative and majestic than anything I could have possibly imagined.

Silhouetted against the azure sky on a hill above the river Aude was a seemingly endless number of towers interspersed with rows of pristine ramparts. The sun’s rays dashed and danced in a dazzling display as they reflected off each slate tile on the conical turrets. It looked too perfect to be true, like a scene from a fairy tale. This was Carcassonne, Europe’s largest fortified medieval town and today a worthy UNESCO site.

I was instantly seized by a need to visit. Jack had grunted his acknowledgement of the settlement so I took my chance.

“Isn’t it fantastic?

“Yes, it is spectacular, but there’s no need to smash the window in your enthusiasm to show it to me.”

“Look, we’re making great time, how about popping in for an hour or so? It’s obviously only a couple of kilometres away.”

“No, sorry, never been interested in joining the tourist brigade and anyway we’ve still got a long way to go. I don’t want to end up getting to our hotel in the middle of the night thank you.”

And that was that. I reluctantly drank in the final glimpses of this extraordinary place as it quickly disappeared from view. One thing was certain; I was determined to visit Carcassonne as soon as I could. And I did, but some years later.

My sister and her friend came to visit and asked if we could have a day out somewhere. Result, I thought, I knew just the place they’d love. We left Jack in splendid isolation and journeyed towards our destination in weather that was every bit as beautiful as it had been that first day I saw it. 

After an easy, chatter-filled journey which was liberally punctuated by ‘Wows!’ as we rounded the final corner on the auto route, we parked up and collectively gasped. One of the things that is impossible to appreciate from two or so kilometres away is the size of it. It’s huge!

We approached the imposing entrance with its mighty drawbridge, stopping every now and again to take snaps and try to absorb the sheer scale of our surroundings. One of the pillars supported a large bust. Having learned about this already I told the girls that it was a replica of Lady Carcas, and what a lady she was. Her time was in the 8th century, during the wars between Christians and Muslims in the southwest of Europe. At the time, Carcassonne was under Saracen rule and Charlemagne's army was at the gates to reconquer the city for the Franks. Carcas, a Saracen princess, ruled the Knights of the City after the death of her husband. 

The city was besieged for years and by the sixth year, food and water were running out. Lady Carcas made an inventory of all remaining reserves. The villagers brought her very little other than a pig and a sack of wheat. Using her womanly wiles, she decided to feed the wheat to the pig and then throw it from the highest tower of the city walls. Unfortunate for the pig, but it did impress Charlemagne no end.

Charlemagne lifted the siege, believing that the city had enough food to the point of wasting pigs fed with wheat. Overjoyed by the success of her plan, Lady Carcas decided to sound all the bells in the city. One of Charlemagne's men then exclaimed, “Carcas sonne!” (“Carcas sounds.”) Hence the name of the city.

Filled with knowledge of the early legend we ambled across the drawbridge and found ourselves in a completely different world. It wasn't at all what I had expected. An ancient cobble-stoned street was lined either side with old buildings. I couldn’t date them accurately, but they looked medieval. The ground floors were mostly shops, and open for business. Tourist gifts, chic clothes, jewellery, leather goods, sweet fancies even, there was a seemingly infinite variety of goods for sale.

It was clear that this was a thriving shopping community, which in some ways was a worry. My heart was intent on striding the ramparts and visualising the torrid history that had taken place over the centuries, but this would have to wait. My sister’s eyes were the size of saucers; she was in a retail paradise. I tried my best to steer her and Jane away from the embroidered cushion shop but, having managed that, I was immediately thwarted by the alluring scents of herbal tea.

“Oh we must go in there!” cried my sister, completely ignoring my pout as she skipped happily towards another tiny outlet.

“Can’t we wait until we’ve walked the ramparts?” I whined.

“No, this won’t take a minute,” was the gay reply as I stared sullenly at the back of her head.

As it happens she was absolutely right. We rounded up Jane, who was taking photographs of a particularly masterful door, and followed our noses into the shop. Our momentary browse amongst the exquisite china and fields of tea was almost immediately interrupted by the proprietor, who gently materialised with a berry tisane for each of us. Feeling slightly guilt-ridden, I politely refused, and in spite of myself became captivated by the rows and rows of herbal brews. They listed the very same ingredients that would have been used by the inhabitants of la cité throughout the centuries. Some alleviated medical ailments, others calmed the spirit, and there was even a bag of assorted leaves that promised to provide an injection of vim and vigour to the weariest soul. I quickly decided that my sister shouldn’t be allowed to try that. If we were going to make it past the next set of shops without having another retail experience I needed her to be focussed and slightly less perky.

Ironically it was I who was the only one to make an instant purchase. We departed with promises to return at the end of the day and buy the three sets of china teaspoons my sister had set her heart on. In order to avoid another shopping diversion I took the lead, and plodded steadfastly towards the rampart entrance.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a cuppa before we start clambering around the ramparts?” said Jane, staring apprehensively skywards to the heights of the towers.

“Yes, that’s a great idea,” trilled Di, “let’s find one in a nice sunny spot.”

Bursting to climb those ancient steps as I was, there was no doubt that Jane had made a very sensible suggestion. The tiny glitch was Di’s caveat of the sunny spot. Yes, it was already turning into a hot day, but with parasols peppering nearly every café frontage there was a risk that my sister might not be able to enjoy a short basting under the rays.

After more trudging we finally found the perfect spot. I popped in to order our croissant and coffee x 3 to find the place empty. Now we were in a fix. I peeked out and scanned our surroundings in the vain hope that I might find a suitable alternative but no; all the others were sensibly shaded. Just as we were about to give up, a man covered in crumbs and with a mouth full of what was presumably his breakfast, rushed into the café. He was the owner.

Monsieur explained that he had been buying bread and asked us what we wanted to eat. I should have realised that this was a bad idea, but it was too late – I’d said it. My request of croissants sent him dashing off again down another cobbled alley in pursuit of a different monsieur who sold just the thing we wanted. Sometime later we were served with cups of excellent coffee and the most heavenly croissants I think we have ever had the pleasure to munch.

Re-energised and finally ready to do battle with the ramparts, we bought our tickets and began our tour. A short film and accompanying leaflet told us that the site had been inhabited since ancient times. Despite the fortification of a Gallo-Roman wall, the city was occupied by the Visigoths, Saracens and Franks in turn.

The Trencavels, one of the most powerful families in the south of France during the 12th century, became custodians. The vassals of the Trencavels and their families mostly belonged to the Cathar Church. This was during the period that Pope Innocent III launched the crusade against the Cathar heretics. A political consequence of the Cathar Crusades of 1209-1229 was the eventual exile of the Trencavel family. 

The besieged Carcassonne surrendered on the 15th August 1209.  In 1226, the Viscount of Carcassonne was attached to the royal estate and became a seneschal, an office equivalent to a steward. The city then took the form of the fortress that can be seen today.

Until the Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed in 1659, Carcassonne defended the border between France and Aragon. Over the following years the mighty cité gradually fell into ruins, perpetually bombarded and slowly neglected. In 1844, the French state commissioned the architect, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, to restore the city. The restoration, which began in 1853, was not completed until 1911 under the direction of his pupil Paul Boeswillwald. The renewal returned the royal city to its original splendour of the late 13th century with its pointed slate roofs.

With a short history lesson under our belts we walked through the chateau that had once been the home of the Trencavel family. The scale of each room was immense. Huge flag-stone floors bore the weight of mighty columns and ancient wooden beams, some of which may have been original, I wasn’t sure. Fireplaces that could act as car ports, doorways made for giants, it was all made to impress and protect this infamous family.

Ambling into an inner courtyard we paused to admire the ancient wood covered walkways high above, before climbing the steep steps to the first line of battlements. Peering between the crenellations we immediately realised why the site had been chosen as a fortification. On one side the town of Carcassonne sprawled about the banks of the Aude. The surrounding countryside seemed to be a limitless expanse of plains dotted with vineyards, farms and a distant backdrop of the Black Mountains. The views appeared to be limitless – this place was situated in an extraordinary position.

For the next hour or so we forged along stone walkways that were bevelled with age. We paused at each tower, taking a moment to read a snippet of information, admire an arrow slit or shudder at a murder hole. 

Our next discovery was an equally remarkable one. Climbing a knee-high steep set of steps, we stopped to look inwards. Directly below us was a rather wonderful garden. Filled with statues and urns which could easily have come from Rome, we realised that we were looking at a private residence. How strange!

As we continued higher and higher, Di stopped to draw our attention to a particularly fine view of something. Gesticulating for us to join her I was stopped in my tracks by the sound of a loud groan. Poor Jane was pinned to the wall and hanging onto the iron guide rail for grim death. She’d turned awfully pale. 

It turns out that Jane does not like heights at all and the thought of cooing appreciatively at a dot in the far distance below was way beyond her comfort-level. Since she had already been a complete Trojan to cope as far as she had we decided we’d seen enough ramparts, and in Jane’s case, to last her a lifetime.

We repaired back to ground level and paused to admire the beautifully designed potager in what appeared to be the base of the old moat. This veggie garden would have made most apothecaries proud. 

We continued, exploring more ancient streets, each filled with restaurants, shops or residences, there were even one or two hotels. The atmosphere was alive with the hustle of easy living and exuded French finesse.

Our rambles had been hungry work so we decided to have a spot of lunch. Now this was tricky. Three women with different tastes in food and apparently endless options from which to make a choice – nightmare! Some restaurants were judged too expensive, others rejected because nobody could understand the menu and one or two were out of the question because they were tucked away in the shadow of a towering rampart. We eventually made a decision and headed for a table positioned in dappled shade.

The choice of a salad ought to be a simple one but my sister decided to practice her French on the waiter and discuss the subtleties of each component. This would have been perfectly fine had he been French, but the fact that he was a Romanian gentleman proved to be a sticking point. Sadly, his repeated explanation was completely lost on her and she struggled on regardless. Realising that we were British, he neatly solved the matter by turning the menu over and prodding the English translation. One sister slightly mollified, but an excellent meal enjoyed by all.

Next on our list of places to visit was the church. We strolled down a wider street, pausing once again to admire the extraordinary architecture. We passed another hotel and made a pledge to stay one day and attend one of the spectacular shows they put on each year - it seemed an obvious thing to do. We pressed on and entered a haven of peace and tranquillity.

The interior of the church was every bit as splendid as we’d hoped it would be. The sun, still strong, shone through the stained glass windows, reflecting a kaleidoscope of colours. They bathed the pews and warmed the stone floor, creating a wonderfully tranquil ambience. As we sat for a moment to appreciate this timeless beauty, a quartet of Russian liturgical choristers came in and inspired us with an impromptu performance. It was spellbindingly moving.

Reluctantly, we left the serene peace of the church. Time was getting on now and we still wanted to explore one or two sections of the surrounding wall at ground level. We tracked off to the walk that took us between the two sets of ramparts. 

Craning our necks at the turrets that towered above on either side and mighty walls that protected this ancient city, made us realise why this fortification had been virtually impregnable for so long – we felt like ants.

There was so much more we wanted to see, to experience, but our time was up. We returned to the car and just as I was negotiating a safe passage to the auto route link road, my nerves were shattered by a horrific shriek from my right.

“Stop the car!” screeched my sister.

“I can’t, there’s a stream of traffic behind us, what on earth’s the problem?” I shouted back.

“Doesn’t matter about the traffic, just stop right now!

As pure luck would have it, we had just passed a layby. Still tutting grumpily about my hysterical sister, I began to reverse the car gently to a safe spot, waving cheerily to the passing motorists who were decidedly unimpressed. Then the penny dropped – on no! She’d obviously remembered the china spoons and wanted to go back and buy them. Grim-faced, I turned on her, ready for a sisterly fight, but she’d caught me by surprise yet again.

“Would you just look at that?” she cried dreamily, whipping out her camera.

And there it was, a panorama filled with that same grandeur I had seen the very first time we passed Carcassonne, only this time it was much closer. The irony of it all, what a perfect place to stop!

We had loved every moment of our visit to this wonderful city, and were all determined to go back one day soon. One thing’s for sure, it’ll still be there in our lifetimes.  


  1. Thanks so much for the great tour! Glad you finally got there!

  2. So glad you enjoyed it, Nancy, and yes - I was SO happy to visit after all that time. :)

  3. How fascinating. What a wonderful place. I've traced my genealogy back to Charlemagne! How exciting is that? I'd love to visit someday.

    1. Oh Janice, that is truly incredible, what a fascinating genealogical journey you must have had! You'd definitely love Carcassonne, it's an amazing place. :)