[personal profile] luis_mw
So, camera and sun-screen in hand, off we went…

The road from the hotel looked like many of the roads on the edge of a town. Not quite far enough out for the gentrified suburbs, not quite the inner city. Jut rows of town houses, occasionally converted into apartments, the odd shop or other business and the grounds of some kind of school. There was a slightly shabby, abandoned feel about it, but that could be due to the wooden shutters on every window making the houses look as though they had been boarded up. After the advertised 10-15 minute walk, turning at the advised traffic-lights, we got our first glimpse of the city walls.

It was a curious contrast. Leading up to the walls, some strictly utilitarian roads and roundabouts, serving the assorted car-parks and feeds to a couple of hotel, with all the charm of an out-of-town business estate. Then, rising above these, at the top of a grassy slope, was the outer curtain wall of the city, broken at intervals by fairy-story castle towers (complete with the obligatory pointy roof – a 19th century addition, we later learned). This is what we had come to see – not the Ville Basse that clustered around the bottom of the hill and on the other side of the river Aude – but the fortified city of Carcassonne.

There are a number of fanciful myths about the naming of the city, involving dead pigs and ringing bells, but these are of relatively recent origin. Evidence for settlement dates back to 3500BC, but the area became important as a trading centre in the 6th century and the name mostly likely dates from them, via the Romans.

At first sight, you might be outside any large castle – curtain walls, pierced with arrow slots and topped with crenellations; the occasional tower; heavily fortified gatehouses approached by a narrow bridge across the dry moat… All good castle-y stuff you might think. And you’d be right. But, it is much more than that. Once you get through the gateways, instead of finding yourself in the bailey, as one might expect, you find yourself in a bustling town. The streets are narrow and winding, and quite often steep, but you might easily be in the “arty” part of any historical town. Of course, being a major tourist destination, almost all of the shops are selling gifts and souvenirs. In our rambles, we only encountered one “mundane” shop – a small convenience store. Otherwise it was cards and t-shirts and plastic swords and shields, plus a fair scattering of classier establishments (metal swords, tapestries and such like). In some parts, every third establishment was a café or restaurant of some sort. Many had the prix fixe menus displayed at anything from €11 to €38. Despite the huge choice of eateries, the menus all seemed remarkable similar, at least in the lower price ranges. Inevitably, almost every one had cassoulet somewhere on the list. We thought we might have a leisurely brunch, but the English guided tour of the château part of the city was scheduled for noon, so we opted for a toasted sandwich, eaten while we walked.

There was a brief stop in which we discovered that the public toilets, despite being hi-tech self-cleaning ones (a la London super-loo), were still the old-style shower-tray with footrest variety. Admittedly, it did also have a fold-down basketball hoop thing that you could sit on, but I still didn’t think I could manage the thing safely and opted to wait. Fortunately, the ones in the château were more civilised.

The guided tour was the only part of the city that cost money to get into, but it was worth it. Our guide took us into the castle buildings, into various towers, round the ramparts and the open-air theatre, all the while telling us of the history of the city, the castle and the Cathars. For a sect that was fairly comprehensively exterminated in the past, the area seems awfully proud of them – indeed, much of the tourist promotions seems to be centred on the idea of Cathar Country. Our guide told us a lot about them, sufficient to pique our interest into researching them further. It was a good tour, taking in many of the more interesting parts of the castle, and affording lots of good views for the photographers. It was also very windy up on the ramparts, and in some places, the wind blowing up the machiolations caused several of the ladies to emulate a certain well-known Marilyn Monroe scene. It was certainly a healthy tour – funny thing about these castles – all those steps and spiral staircases.

We also learned that the pointy-roofed towers are completely wrong – being created during the restoration in the 19th century. The chief architect of the restoration, Viollet-le-Duc, was from the north of France, so based his reconstructions on what he was used to there. Down in the south, where it doesn’t snow so much, the roofs are very different, not as steep and using clay tiles rather than slate. It is rather alarming to think that, had it not been for this work, the city might have been demolished.

After the tour, we found ourselves by the main church, which gave us an opportunity for a break from the wonderful sunshine, and a chance to sit down (well, you need a long exposure to take pictures of the stained glass...) However, there was still much to see. Our walk from there took us out into the enclosure between the inner and outer walls. While this was a good chance to study the architecture of the castle, it was also very windy – and dusty! After a few minutes of being sand-blasted, we opted for the nearest gate through to the relatively sheltered inner parts. We explored shops, bought a couple of shirts for me, purchased postcards, then sat and had a slushy each while postcards were written.

We continued to explore until we felt we had pretty much covered the most part of the city. By now, limbs were beginning to ache. So we returned to the main square, which seemed to have become the food court for the city. After much debate, we settled on one of the open-air cafes and sat down for our evening meal, featuring, surprise, cassoulet. The local beer was nice.

Suitable replete and rested, we headed back down the hill to our hotel. The room in the Etap was basic, but comfortable enough, even if it did have somewhat eccentric light fittings (a vertically mounted tube that could be rotated to illuminate the bed or the handbasin) and pod-like shower and toilet facilities (kind of like being in an indoor Portaloo). The free wifi was made of use of and sleep was had.

Many photos were taken - you can see them here...

The next morning, onward, via assorted castles and abbeys...



June 2012

3456 789

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags