Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Carcassonne, The medieval walled city

A year ago at this time I was in France.

I did not think that I would still be reconstructing my trip in my online journal a year later.

However, that means that my recollections will be far more detailed than if I had composed them that same day when I was exhausted and feeling obligated to post something.

The day we traveled to Carcassonne was on a Monday. I had a list of certain sites that I had to visit and several had restrictions as to which day we would be visiting them. For example, Toulouse had English language walking tours only on Saturdays.

I had originally planned on having us travel to Peyrepertuse the Monday after we arrived in the Midi-Pyrenees. The thing is - while this was a research trip for me - we looked at it as a vacation as well.

That meant we did not want to use an alarm clock to wake up. And because we were now on the western edge of a time zone as opposed to being on the eastern edge of the Pacific time zone, the sun rose later in the morning than we are used to in California.

So we woke up later than I would have liked. By the time we finished breakfast, I looked at the clock and realized to travel the distance to get to Peyrepertuse we should have already been on the road at least an hour before.

I instituted Plan B.

We would be going to Carcassonne instead, even though I was aware that the Museum of Chivalry, Arms and Archery was closed on Mondays.

I wanted to visit Carcassonne because it dates back to the time of the Romans and was definitely around in one form or another during the time of Charlemagne.

One thing that would have been a deal breaker was depending on whether there were English language tours available that day. I called and asked. Talking to someone in person using hacked-up French and having them have a tenuous grasp of English is challenging enough, talking to someone over the phone using hacked-up French is entering another level of difficulty.

After being transferred to about three people, I finally spoke to someone who was able to answer my questions. Yes, they had English language tours of the castle every day. No, I did not need a reservation.

I did not realize it at the time, but that phone call and my question about reservations made the difference as to whether or not my husband and I would be allowed to join the tour group.

We set off at about 10:30 and hoped it would not take us too long to get there.

We were still naïve and trusted our GPS to find the best route. We plugged in our destination and followed the directions Garmin gave us.

It drew a convoluted path that defied logic. Rather than cruising at 100 km/hr or so on the autoroute we were driving down narrow country lanes and traversing traffic circles in small villages.

I kept glancing at the Michelin map and wondering when we would finally get at the autoroute and why we were given such a convoluted route. After about 45 minutes, we decided to override the Garmin because we still needed to get past Toulouse which seemed to be taking far too long.

While I enjoyed viewing the picturesque French countryside, I was getting a bit anxious at the time spent traveling. One thing that was inescapable was that ruins were everywhere. Here is a building that may have been a house at one time, but it is beyond even the "fixer upper" moniker in real estate. It also looks as if some of stones have been taken elsewhere.

The idea of recycling used building materials for newer projects happened in the medieval village of Carcassonne itself. That was part of the problem that faced architect Viollet le-Duc when he was put in charge of restoring the medieval walled city. The townspeople of the lower village of Carcassonne had been using the old fortress as their own "stone quarry" for years.

Here are some old pictures that were taken of Carcassonne before its restoration. (These pictures are on display within the castle itself. Therefore these are my pictures of the old photographs.)

As we neared our exit, we could see the ancient walled fortress looming in the distance clearly visible from the autoroute.

The sight was impressive.

The walls, the towers and ramparts project an image of power and strength.

Ah, but as we approached our destination we were given another surprise by our Garmin. It totally butchered the name and we were puzzled when we heard something that sounded like "Sit-tay May Day Vale."

It took a beat before I realized it meant: cité médiéval.

Then I winced.

However, we were happy to have arrived and it only took us about two hours and change to get there. It was crowded and parking was at a premium, but thankfully we were visiting on a weekday and it was not in the high season. I hesitate to think of how large the crowds are during July and August.

Here is a diagram of the medieval city for you to get an idea of the scope of its fortifications.

As we entered into Carcassonne, we were greeted by a statue of their legendary Dame Carcas. (More on that later.)

The medieval city of Carcassonne was featured in the climax of the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Filmmakers can try to dress the set to give the impression of a time long ago, but that would not stop continuity problems from cropping up that might ruin a shot.

Such as airplanes coming into view.

After arriving we walked around a little, then found a quiet spot to eat the picnic lunch we brought with us.

We still had time before the 2 pm English language walking tour of the castle and so we walked around the city. There are numerous gift shops and restaurants lining the streets of the medieval walled city.

Here is one of the streets outside the castle which gives you the feeling of entering the past.

According to the official website there are 120 people who actually reside within that ancient site. I was trying to absorb history as I walked in this ancient place, but I kept being reminded of being in the 21st century when cars would beep in order to pass on the roads.

The biggest incongruity to me was the walled city had a Best Western Hotel, along with seeing their courtesy vehicle repeatedly during the day.

I suppose if it was a bed and breakfast and they had horse drawn carriages that conveyed luggage, I would not have had the same negative reaction.

I enjoyed staying in Paris at an historic hotel that was an active hospital, but I dislike the idea of a Best Western in Carcassonne. I regard it as sacrilegious as champagne in a can.

Here I am posing in the same archway as seen above.

We also visited the Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus, but I will save that for another post.

We arrived at the castle gates a few minutes early to buy our tickets. I was taken aback when the ticket attendant told me that the English language tour was full. The next tour would be at 6 pm.

That was unacceptable for it would mean that we would arrive back to our rental cottage late at night and well after dark, plus it would change our dinner plans.

So I argued the point. And this is where my previous phone call and being told that I did not need a reservation saved me.

The woman used her walkie talkie and talking with several people before she reluctantly put our names down on the list and handed me two tickets.

I had not meant to be difficult, but I had been told to buy those tickets as soon as we arrived in the town we would have done so. I followed the directions as best as I could, and was not about to be penalized for it.

Here is the outside of the castle. You can see the moat, two towers and hoardings on the top of the walls.

Check out the numerous arrow slits you would be facing should you be an invader trying to cross the bridge over the moat.

Here was the portion of the castle that belonged to the Trencavels who were in power at the time of the Cathars. The posts in midair demonstrate that there used to be a floor that has long since fallen away.

Here is another image of that large space from a different angle to give you a sense of its size.

According to a marker - this floor has a Roman mosaic under it that dates back to the first century A.D. Then in the twelfth century it was used as a chapel, but was demolished in the 18th century.

Our tour guide regaled us with stories of the history of Carcassonne. She told us that some of the ramparts and a portion of the surrounding wall dates back to the time of the Romans.

The town of Carcassone was also a site of great historical relevance in regard to the persecution of the Cathars (also known as the Albigensian heresy). That religious war was bloody and involved a large swath of southern France in the Languedoc-Rousillon region.

The novel Labyrinth by Kate Mosse is set in Carcassonne and describes the siege by Simon de Montfort's forces that defeated Vicomte Raymond Trencavel and the massacre of the Cathars. Our guide was happy to mention the book during the tour and recommend it.

She also suggested that the name Trencavel literally meant "well cut."

Well, now. Too bad they did not have any images - paintings, statues, whatever - of the Trencavels to allow modern audiences to judge that hypothesis.

Going further we walked on several walls surrounding the castle and were able to look through arrow slits. Consider the people you see serving as potential targets.

Here are two pictures of the castle from the viewpoint of the towers.

As we were walking the walls we were shown what was referred to as "murder holes."

Later we saw a supply of rounded rocks which would have been used as weapons to throw down those holes on potential invaders.

Inside the castle on the second floor there was a mural that had been painted over. At one point someone discovered the hidden mural and great care was taken to remove the layers of paint that had removed it from sight.

Here is another view and supposedly the round shields are to denote the Saracens.

Here is another view of the mural with a statue of the suffering Jesus in the foreground.

I am not sure who these man are supposed to be, but I love the detail in their faces.

Our tour guide, Marie, mentioned the legend regarding the naming of Carcassonne being in honor of a woman named Dame Carcas having outwitted Charlemagne. Here I am standing next to Marie.

I challenged her on the legend as not being based on history. She then shrugged her shoulders and smiled.

If you look around Carcassonne you can find the legend and the real history.

Here's the legend:

Here is the old sculpture that was replaced. You can see why since it is unrecognizable.

There is even a road named after Dame Carcas in Carcassonne.

I mentioned that there is some discussion of the history without the legend of resisting Charles the Great.

Here you can see a marker which states that the name dates back to 70 B.C. Centuries before Charlemagne was a twinkle in Pepin le Bref's eye.

Even the official website for Carcassonne admits to the origins of the town's name.

The oldest traces of man - 6th century B.C.- were found on the promontory where the Cité lies. Around 300 B.C., the Volques Tectosages brought the Iberians of Languedoc to submission. In 122 B.C., the Romans conquered the Provence and the Languedoc. They fortified the oppidum which took the name of Carcaso, and occupied our region until the middle of the 5th century. The Visigoths then became the masters of Spain and the Languedoc. The Cité remained in their hands from 460 to 725 A.D. In the spring of 725, the Saracens took the Cité. They were driven away in 759 by Pépin le Bref, king of the Franks.

Yes. They admit that Charlemagne's daddy was the one at the gates, and that he conquered Carcassonne. At that point, if Charles was outside the gates he was not "the Great" but simply Prince Charles - or Karl for those who prefer the Germanic variant.

I had blogged about my thoughts on the subject of where history ended and legend began and how it relates to the naming of Carcassonne about five months before I went there.

I do not blame the people of Carcassonne for trying to claim some connection with Charlemagne and that the idea that they heroically stood up to this great historical figure, but I wish that people realized it was just a lovely tale but not history.

The townspeople claiming and celebrating such a legend surrounding Charlemagne stands in stark contrast with the city of Montauban. They could lay claim to a literary character that is in the legends of Charlemagne, but unfortunately they do not.

More on that when I discuss my visit to Montauban.

Oh and speaking of the legends of Charlemagne, Matthew Gabriele's book The Legend of Charlemagne in the Middle Ages: Power, Faith and Crusade will soon be published.

Next time I shall show pictures of the basilica.



L.C.McCabe said...

Lillian wrote:

"Thank You", Linda, for sending us these lovely pictures, and as usual in your excellent command of the English language.....I was glued to every word....Just wonderful reading..

A few months back, I picked up Kate Mosse's book, Sepulchre, and wondered if you had read her book, the story is set at Domaine de la Cade, some miles south of Carcassonne......Saw Kate on TV, a very lovely lady. Now, I must read Labyrinth!

As you know, I love reading your Musings!!!!!!

"Thank You so much", for taking the time to write, about your experiences in France, it is so enjoyable to read. and for sending us the lovely pictures of the historical places you visited, we appreciate it very much!!!!!!!!

Have a fun and an enjoyable day!


L.C.McCabe said...


It's nice to hear from you again. I'm glad you enjoyed that post as well as Kate Mosse's book Sepulchre. I have not read it yet, but knowing that it also takes place in the Languedoc Rousillon region of France makes me want to read it.

One more book to place on my growing To Be Read stack.

There is still so much more to share with everyone of my trip. Stay tuned as some of the other sites are not as well known as Carcassonne. In fact, some are probably downright obscure.


Huy said...

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A few months back, I picked up Kate Mosse's book, Sepulchre, and wondered if you had read her book, the story is set at Domaine de la Cade, some miles south of Carcassonne......Saw Kate on TV, a very lovely lady. Now, I must read Labyrinth!

tgrno1 said...

Nowhere outside Carcassonne will you find such a complete example of 6th, 7th, and 8th century walls in Europe. Stay in Carcassonne or along the river below the old town, which will give you a romantic view of La Cite lit up at night.

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fire-fly said...

Carcassonne may not be as big as, say, Rothenburg-an-der-Tauber, but it's a fascinating place to visit. No cars (except dwellers) inside the city walls, so easy to walk. Excellent museum inside the château (which is inside the Cité, or medieval city), great views from the ramparts, beautiful church and very atmospheric streets.

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