Vicious blasts from the Autan wind roared down the Black Mountains, screaming across vast plains to Carcassone. Soldiers positioned high on crenellated battlements, shivering, drew in their cloaks, but they were no match for the penetrating icy gusts. Dear God, it was cold. Their jobs to defend the mighty Carcassonne from Catholic attackers was merciless. Life as a Cathar in the Middle Ages was tough. At least that’s how I imagined it must have been.
Happily, a visit last week from my friend, Trish, coincided with sunny skies. A history lover like me, I had the ideal treat in store. A trip to Carcassonne. Any old excuse really – it is one of my favourite historical sites.
It takes about two hours to reach the cité, long enough for me to get annoyingly excited. Trish probably found this bemusing, but then she had never been. She continued to humour me until I finally popped.
“Right, we’re very close now. When we get to the top of this hill look left. Try to close your eyes until we get there.”
“If I do that, Beth, I won’t know when to open them.”
“Good point. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you. Hang on.”
“Okay, although I don’t know why you’re… Wow! It’s amazing.”
Too late, Trish had experienced her first sighting.
A Disneyworld of fairy turrets interlaced with perfect walls glittered in the spring sun – a hilltop jewel crowning the luscious Aude plain below. The meandering river close-by shimmered too as it flowed lazily around part of the fortification. This place is mesmerising.
We parked in a designated zone and climbed steep steps to the entrance. As Trish and her new hip would soon find out, there are lots of steps involved in a visit to Carcassonne. We approached the imposing entrance with its mighty drawbridge, stopping every now and again, trying to absorb the sheer scale of our surroundings. On one of the pillars, there is a stone replica of Lady Carcas. Her story, based on legend, tells how the city came to get its name. Here’s my take on it.
A long, long time ago during the eighth century, there was a Saracen princess named Lady Carcas. A feisty lady, she ruled the Knights of the cité Carcas after her husband died during the wars between Christians and Muslims. Charlemagne, King of the Franks and top victor, arrived with his army, hell-bent on reconquering the city for the Franks. But it wasn’t easy.
Carcas was besieged for years. The inhabitants struggled on, but by the sixth year, food and water were running out. The population began to starve. Lady Carcas, never one to give up on her people, ordered an inventory to be made of all remaining reserves. It didn’t take long.
The villagers brought her a few scraps together with a pig and a sack of wheat. It was the beast that gave her a cunning idea. Much to their surprise, Lady Carcas commanded that the pig be fed as much wheat as it could eat. Had she gone mad? They would soon find out.
The now corpulent animal was duly produced for inspection. Lady Carcas declared it ready for action. A group of soldiers grabbed the porker and hurled it at the attackers from the highest tower of the city walls. Unfortunate for the pig, but it impressed Charlemagne and his troops no end.
Believing the city had enough food to the point of wasting fat farm stock, Charlemagne lifted the siege. Overjoyed by the success of her plan, Lady Carcas had all the bells rung in the city. One of Charlemagne’s men exclaimed, “Carcas sonne!” (“Carcas sounds!”) And this is allegedly how the name of the city was born.
Luckily we had chosen a quiet day to visit this most remarkable of landmarks. It allowed me to take a nauseating number of photos and for us both to amble around, reflecting on life as it might have been here during the Middle Ages.
We pottered along narrow cobbled streets. The same ones used by folks so many centuries ago. Were they crowded, smelly? Was petty crime rife here? Were there beggars and starving dogs looking for scraps? Did the bubonic plague touch the populace? Or was it clean, civilised and well-ordered? We suspected there were probably elements of each.
We passed several shops. I guessed many were housed in restored buildings using original medieval timbers, many of which were visible. This place was mind-blowing.
Did we want to buy a sword or a shield? A selection of herbal remedies, perhaps? Tempting, but no, not today thank you. On the other hand, all this gawping was working up an appetite. Distracted by whiffs of freshly baked cookies we followed our noses into a shop close-by.
The store walls were bursting with sweetmeats. Brightly coloured lollipops, fudge, chocolate, there were shelves of them. And then there were the biscuits, loads dominated the centre. A costumed lady approached with a box of goodies and coyly asked if we would like a sample. Absolutely definitely, yes, please! Feeling a tad guilty, we left the shop with an excellent selection of the larger types, convincing ourselves they would be needed later on. And they were.
Coffee was next before we explored the château and ramparts. Having been before I knew what to expect. Trish confirmed her new hip was in tip-top condition and ready for action, she’s a good sport, my pal.
Our tour began with a short film about the fortification’s history, one that extends over 2,500 years. The Romans first occupied its hilltop until the demise of the Western Roman Empire. After that, the city was held by the Visigoths, Saracens and Franks in turn.
The Trencavels, one of the most powerful Cathar families in the south of France between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, were once notable custodians of Carcassonne. During this period Pope Innocent III launched the crusade against the Cathar heretics. A political consequence of the Crusades 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. Battles and great fires ravaged the cité, causing devastation to its people and buildings. Over the following years, it gradually fell into ruins, perpetually bombarded and slowly neglected.
In 1844, the French state commissioned the architect, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc (who sadly died before he was able to see the fruits of his work), to restore the cité. 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 thirteenth century with its featured pointed slate roofs. It was this we had come to see.
Still inside, and expertly by-passing the gift shop, we admired fragments of Romanesque frescoes, fine remnants of the distant past. The restored colours were vibrant, gorgeous. There were Gothic masonry treasures, grumpy gargoyles, a magnificent water urn and the original stone bust of Lady Carcas. These ancient rooms housed some of the cité’s archaeological collections, sadly we only had time to glimpse. Many more visits would be needed to do this place justice.
Back out and we explored the footprint of another section housing wooden hoardings high above on one side. The overhanging wooden ramparts were attached to the upper walls of the fortress. Now restored, some would have provided protection to defenders on the walls, allowing them to shoot arrows or drop projectiles on attackers beneath.
Others provided protection to the Trencavel family members against inclement weather. Looking around, we could see where the upper floors would have been in this immense building. The outlines of fireplaces, windows and doors told those stories.
Thank goodness for handrails. Hanging on for support, we clambered up the steep inner rampart steps (en route deciding historical records were wrong as medieval soldiers must have had exceedingly long legs), each was bevelled with action and age. Momentarily sheltered by the crenellated rampart wall, we poked our heads through to enjoy views towards the Black Mountains. Blimey, it was fresh! Despite it being a beautiful sunny day, the Autan was blowing at a stiff rate of knots. For special reasons, this famed wind deserves some explanation.
According to Lanuguedoc-france info., the Autan comes in two varieties: L’Autan blanc (white) and L’Autan noir (black). L’Autan blanc is a wind of good weather, (very) fresh in winter, warm in summer. The Autan noir is warm, bringing heavy rain of short duration.
Some days before it blows, calmness descends, characterised by crystal clear air. When this happens, farmers mournfully predict that l’Autan wants to blow. The noise of this hot, dry wind causes insomnia. Also known as the Vent des Fous (the wind of the mad), it can blow for days on end, allegedly driving people as mad as the Mistral wind. For these reasons, some call it the devil’s wind and the wind of death.
Interestingly, the thirteenth century Song of the Crusade against the Cathars describes a gale of Autan on Sunday 1st July 1218 that coincided with the last attack by Crusaders against Toulouse. During this brutal period, its nicknames could not have been apter.
Nippy but keen, we continued enthusiastically, emotionally blown away by what we were seeing. Up and down knee-high stone steps we went.
Sometimes eye-level with vast slated turrets and barbicans, all designed to prevent attack by siege engines. We loitered beneath conical roofs, avoided murder holes, passed crenels made for defenders to unleash their weapons of war, eyed arrow slits in walls.
We paused every now and again to feast our eyes on the interior. Like roofs? If so, you’d love Carcassonne. Sloped, rounded, damaged and always tiled, they form a higgledy-piggledy morass protected by the mighty defensive walls.
“Hang on a minute,” said Trish, “that looks like someone’s home.”
She was right.
Trish had spotted a back garden. Mark you, not a normal one. This was decorated by Roman statues, possibly authentic ones. Amazingly the cité has 50 residences. While it can’t be easy living in the second most popular tourist centre in France, I couldn’t help thinking about how exciting it must be to experience life inside these walls.
Back down we went passing a dishevelled area which looked excitingly undiscovered. Who knows what riches might be hidden below that turf?
We strolled along more cobbled streets warmed by the afternoon sun and nicely protected from that pesky wind. We passed divine looking restaurants, tempting shops and headed towards the gothic church. I was dying for Trish to see this.
In 1898, Pope Leo XIII upgraded it to a Basilica. The sense of serenity is extraordinary in this place.
Silently, we studied the exquisite stained glass windows, they’re some of the oldest in the south of France, the graceful vaulted arches, and the breath-taking simplicity of the ceiling design.
Candles flickered along the sides, highlighting the pulpit, the cylindrical pillars with sculptured capitals and the magnificent organ pipes. What a treat to spend time here.
Breathing a contented sigh of resignation we reluctantly left. We paused to feel jealous about folks lucky enough to holiday at the hotel next door, promising ourselves we would stay there one day and book tickets for one of the famed Carcassonne festivals.
Time was against us now, and we still had one more section to explore. This meant that late lunch turned into another biscuit from our goodie bag washed down with a fat ice-cream. Not a day for dieters but it was a welcome combo.
Our amble back to the car was via the outer ramparts. Once again we gasped in wonder at the enormity of this place. We craned our necks at the turrets high above.
We chuckled at the birds flying overhead. Those colour coded pigeons had found a safe home.
Three kilometres of ramparts, two fortresses (during its history), four gates and 52 towers – we had only scratched the surface. No wonder this great city was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997.
And did my friend, Trish, enjoy herself?
“Can we come here next time I visit, please?” she pleaded.