CARCASSONNE, SEPTEMBER 2023
Imagine a medieval castle on a bluff with high stone ramparts over a mile long, peppered with towers equipped with formidable defences. Imagine a space perhaps twenty yards wide and then another mile or more of ramparts peppered with more towers and more defences around the first ring. Imagine that inside this fortress is an entire medieval city, with streets and squares, a palace and a cathedral. This… is Carcassonne.
Or rather it is the Cité, for across the River Aude is another Carcassonne – the Bastide. The history of the settlement is complex, going back to Roman times, and its strategic position at the edge of the disputed lands east of the Pyrenees meant that for centuries it was at the front line of several turbulent campaigns.
Early in the 13th century the Pope invoked a crusade against the occupants of the Cité for not being Catholic enough, and those who survived were turfed out to fend as best they could. Once things had settled down and Carcassonne was definitely part of France, King Louis IX permitted the construction of a new town on the opposite bank of the Aude. This is the Bastide.
Designed like a mini-Manhattan, this small town was set out in a grid plan within a hexagonal run of high protective walls, only small sections of which remain. Surrounded today by spreading suburbs, it has a few attractions of its own, and is where most tourists stay.
Talking of tourists, the alarm went off at 2.45 on Monday morning and two hours later Manchester Terminal 3 welcomed us for our direct flight to Carcassonne. We were travelling on Ryanair. In my view, Ryanair’s problem is that people mistake it for being ‘Irish’ whereas it is in fact Irish. So, if it was ‘Irish’ you would expect the way it approached things to have the easy-going air of a pub in Galway.
In fact it is Irish (that is, based in a modern highly-organised country, like Switzerland but flatter). This means you get lots of clear instructions about what the deal is and what to do, and everything goes smoothly so long as you follow them (and French air traffic controllers don’t walk out). This attention to detail culminated in a midnight email explaining we needed to be fully prepared to get on the plane at the back in the morning and not the front.
The flight down over France was pleasant enough, although Ryanair’s policy to have the emergency escape information printed on the back of the seat in front of you is always a little disconcerting. The 737 descended over Languedoc and turned for a stunning final approach passing close to the Cité, meeting the tarmac just a couple of miles from the Bastide.
Given this proximity, it was a short bus ride into the Bastide from the airport (perhaps ‘aerodrome’ would be a more accurate description, ‘cos it ain’t very big). Set down opposite the pleasant-looking SNCF station, we walked through narrow streets to find Les Chambres de Magnolia nearby, booked for us by Trailfinders.
It was a lovely old house with a door against the street and a shaded garden at the back. Our room on the first floor was cool and spacious, with a small terrace. The young couple who ran it served breakfast every morning with a varying selection of home-made jams, pastries and cakes. A great start to the day.
Getting to the Cité was accomplished by walking through the Bastide and over the 14th century Pont Vieux, climbing up through the streets below the ramparts, and entering through a huge stone gate.
Immediately inside runs a narrow street graced on each side with all the kinds of shops you would expect at any major international tourist trap. Alongside plenty of trinkets and fluffy toys you could buy more locally-targeted wares – such as plastic knight’s chain-mail suits, helmets and shields. More worryingly, you could choose from a fine selection of fearsome knives, right the way up to some pretty serious-looking swords. Here and there the streets gave on to pleasant squares that could have been dropped in from Paris – people sipping drinks at tables under sunshades.
We were keen to get a more historical perspective on this extraordinary place, and for a few Euros you can pay for a self-guided tour round the palace and about a quarter of the ramparts. The Cité fell into disrepair and ruin over the centuries as its military importance declined, so that by the middle of the 19th century – when it was occupied by the French army – it was practically falling down.
Plans were made to at least arrest further disintegration, but then along came a young architect called Eugène Viollet-le-Duc who proposed nothing less than a comprehensive restoration to get it back to how it was in the Middle Ages, and be ready to host millions of tourists a century later (not sure about that last bit). He must have had great powers of persuasion because he secured the cooperation of the army in doing a lot of the work, which ultimately took over forty years.
The tour involves a great deal of clambering up and down vertiginous flights of stone steps, through narrow doorways and along suspended wooden passageways, but is definitely worth the cash – especially if you are fascinated by medieval defensive technology. Outside, views from the ramparts look across the Bastide and out to the olive groves and vineyards of the surrounding countryside.
As for the Bastide itself, to be honest there’s not a huge amount to do, except flaneur about the little streets. The main drag from the station down to a gateway at the southern end has been pedestrianised and is dotted with shops that offer more arty and fashionable stuff than those in the Cité. It is interesting to wander down some of the other streets where there are lots of old houses, and it soon becomes obvious that Carcassonne is not as prosperous as you might at first think.
The Bastide has a few curiosities though. In one corner is a strange park that is based on the Stations of the Cross. A gravel path curls up through bushes and palms to a Calvary where the figures are attached to crosses of welded steel beams and the railings are made from the reinforcing rods inserted into pre-stressed concrete. Hard to tell whether all this had a hidden meaning or the budget was tight.
Square Gambetta is a pleasant park which was laid out partly as a memorial to the heroes of the Resistance and partly to cover a new underground car park. This was a good place to sit and enjoy a baguette, some brie and a few tomatoes at lunchtime. And also notice old men deep in conversation. Generally in threes, commonly in twos, and occasionally in ones.
Nearby was one of a number of modern free public toilets which are decidedly swish. When the green button is lit you can press it and a metal door opens to let you into a fairly large room with all the facilities you’d expect, except that they are dripping wet. The metal door locks behind you, and when you are finished you press an orange button and hope you will be let out. As you walk away there is the sound of large amounts of water being sloshed about, cleaning it for the next customer. This process is so thorough that when I wanted to use one, I was hanging around for a good five minutes after the last user appeared, before the green light illuminated. But a great improvement on the stinking, fly-infested pissoirs that were such a trade mark of the France of my youth.
The art gallery opposite the square was a welcome respite from the thirty-degree heat that got a bit exhausting after a while. We patiently munched our baguettes until the clock struck one thirty and the doors opened. Like so many places its hours were pretty relaxed. It opened mid-morning, closed for a decent lunch break, then opened again for a few hours in the afternoon before closing for the day. It was free to go in, yet had four staff at the entrance desk whose main job seemed to be to direct visitors to the toilets or the lockers.
The collection was quite small but housed in a spacious old townhouse with a shady inner courtyard. There was an exhibition about the life of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc the architect, and also a few paintings depicting the Cité. One of these illustrated the Carcassonne myth, which goes like this.
Some 1,300 years ago the Cité was under siege against the army of Charlemagne, the Frankish king. Queen Carcas took over defence of the city after the death of her husband in battle, five years into the siege. Food was running out and the situation was becoming desperate. She commanded that a pig be fattened up on much of the remaining wheat. When it was nice and fat, it was jettisoned over the walls into the midst of the besieging army.
They naturally assumed that if the defenders could afford to feed up a pig, hurl it over the walls, and suggest they have a hog roast they must have plenty of food, and carrying on the siege was pointless. They marched away to enjoy some pulled pork and Queen Carcas called for all the bells to be rung out to celebrate. Someone cried out ‘Carcas is ringing!’ which in French is ‘Carcas sonne!’ The name stuck.
Further salons in the gallery displayed a variety of painting and sculpture, mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries. French artists were a pretty erotic lot even before the Impressionists, as well as being decidedly perverse at times. One painting graphically portrayed a pack of wolves gorging on the open carcase of a dead horse in a desolate landscape. Goodness knows what the artist’s studio must have been like while he was doing that one.
The picture that struck me most was a scene in Saint Lazare prison depicting the last victims of the French Revolution awaiting their fate. One can have mixed feelings about the fate of the aristocrats but one of the prisoners (as identified in the helpful key below) was Marie Antoinette’s hairdresser! He looks understandably frightened, but a little research reveals that he must have proved his proletarian credentials and snuck off to Russia.
In my book, no holiday is complete without a boat ride, so one morning we boarded a flat-bottomed cruiser to take us through a couple of locks on the Canal du Midi. The canal skirts the top end of the Bastide and you cross it to get to the station. Our guide was a lady who explained the story of this waterway in French, then English, then Spanish. The trouble was her PA system was playing up and if you remember Norman Collier the effect was much like his act, if not quite so funny.
The Canal du Midi was dug out by hand in the 17th century to link Toulouse with the Mediterranean. Another canal was dug from Toulouse to the River Garonnes which empties into the sea at Bordeaux, ultimately creating a direct (if winding) route between the Med and the Atlantic. Begun in 1666, its 150 miles were completed in just fifteen years.
It predates the Industrial Revolution yet compared with later British canals it is substantially bigger – at least twice as wide and so capable of accommodating horse-drawn barges that were massive compared with our own narrowboats. Commercial traffic steadily declined after the coming of the railways, and once the last two barges were laid up in the 1980s, the canal was turned into a recreational attraction.
As we puttered along under the shade of plane trees, many interesting facts were shared. The plane trees were planted because their roots would strengthen the banks and their fallen leaves would sink to the bottom and create a waterproof membrane. Sadly, the planes are dying from a fungal disease and must be replaced. At every lock there is a plate on the side of the lockkeeper’s house indicating the distance in metres to the next lock. Each horse pace is about a metre so that would suggest how long it would take to get there. And so on.
The locks intrigued me. The sides aren’t straight but concave. This suggests to me that they were built on the same principle as a dam, the shape helping to restrain the earth behind them, since the volume of water and the depth of some of the drops would impose high loads. And when they fill the locks they don’t mess about – the water gushes through the sluices in a torrent so you rise up very quickly indeed.
The trip promised a panoramic view of the medieval city. If a momentary glimpse of the ramparts in the far distance through tall clumps of verdant foliage counts, then we got it.
What about the food then? Well, as I said, in the heat a sensible lunch was a bit of bread, cheese and some tomatoes in the shade outside. As for dinner, on evening one we headed up to the Cité and had a reasonable Niçoise salad in one of the squares, naturally sipping rosé, which is the only wine to drink in these parts. Evening two saw us try out Le-Bis-Troquet just off the main square in the Bastide. An energetic maestro with a broad smile sat us down and prepared most of the food on a gas barbeque-sized unit at the front, half on the pavement. There was a fair deal of theatre involved but the meal was delicious.
We were a bit late setting out for dinner on our third and final evening so the choice was limited. We wound up in the main square and got a table outside one of the obviously touristy eateries. It felt like the owner had been to England and tried out Café Rouge, then thought, ‘Sacré bleu! What a concept; indifferent food, served in a clichéd Parisian atmosphere, and at inflated prices!’ I went for the cassoulet, which apparently is the signature local dish. My version had a roast duck leg on top of a sausage stew containing lots of haricot beans.
It wasn’t too bad in actual fact, but I really fancied some fish. The trouble is, in spite of being barely thirty miles from the sea, it is practically impossible to find any to eat in Carcassonne. Either the locals are all unreconstructed carnivores or they know that the Med is too mucky and murky to trust anything that comes out of it.
The reason we were late to eat on our third day in the area was that we took the train to Beziers. Flummoxed by the ticket machines, we were lucky that the ticket office at the station opened at 9am in time for us to get a train half an hour later. If you think buying train tickets in Britain is complex, try France. Every single train has a different price for the same journey and reservations are compulsory. Added to that, my full name and date of birth were required before I could get hold of les billets.
The ride itself was uneventful, although no-one seemed to pay much attention to what seat they were expected to sit in. But all the trains seemed pretty dated – this was not TGV territory.
Beziers spreads over a hill above the River Orb. You leave the station and head up through a decidedly English-looking municipal park. It is called the Park of Poets and small statues of the likes of Hugo and Voltaire hide among the trees and beside the lakes. At the top is the traditional French city boulevard that you could walk down the middle of to reach the old town – similar to Carcassonne but with bendier streets.
We dropped into the little art gallery to be greeted with more erotic Victorian art, and then the cathedral at the very top of the hill. That done it was time to find baguette, cheese and a bench somewhere. The first two were no problem, but there were practically no benches anywhere in the town centre. It seemed like when everything was freshened up a few years ago, the local café owners got together and demanded no benches so people would be forced to buy from them. So we perched on some low railings like everyone else.
I was keen to go to Beziers to see the highlight of the Canal du Midi, a staircase of locks that brings vessels down to the level of the River Orb, and thus able to reach the open sea. This gigantic enterprise was a half hour walk out from town across the impressive ancient bridge.
The main flight consists of six interconnected locks. At the bottom there is a basin with a further lock entering a now-disused set of quays, and another directing vessels to the large dock basin below the town. Watching those vessels move smoothly from lock to lock and making their down up or down was captivating.
The locks were busy with vessels, most of them cruisers which can be hired. Considering how big the canal is, the depth of the locks, how large these boats are, and how congested it all gets, it was surprising to learn that you can rent one with no experience at all.
At the end of the street where we stayed was a small all-night petrol station which advertised ‘twenty-four hour bread’. When we looked in on our last morning we discovered a fully-fledged bakery inside, producing a steady stream of baguettes. We bought a couple and after a final nose round town ate our lunch in the square by the station and awaited the bus back to the airport.
You know how you often see people who remind you of someone on the telly or in films, and it takes a while to remember who that is. The driver of the bus was like that. After a few minutes I twigged it. He was the dead spit of Bill Hickman. Hickman, as I’m sure you know, was the stunt driver behind the wheel of the black Dodge Charger that Steve McQueen chased in Bullitt. He also drove the car in the frantic and terrifying pursuit of a subway train in The French Connection.
It soon became clear that our driver not only looked like Bill Hickman, he drove like Bill Hickman! The tight streets of the town gave him little opportunity for some sport, but once we hit the highway to the airport he was off. Careering round bends, charging into roundabouts, really putting his Mercedes-Benz charge through its paces as if it was a coupé and not a coach. Thankfully the Ryanair pilot didn’t look like Tom Cruise!
And that was farewell to Carcassonne, a place where not only might pigs fly, if the legend is true, one did!
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