A June 2003 trip
to Carcassonne by artsnletters
Quote: Knights and fair ladies, troubadours, sieges, bloody wars, and an Inquisition: the fortified castle-town of Carcassonne has seen them all. The only invasions nowadays are by tourists – visit off-season or stay for the night to enjoy this fascinating city at its medieval best.
A settlement of great antiquity, Carcassonne’s successive owners included Celts, Romans, Visigoths, Saracens, Merovingians, Carolingians, Occitans, and finally the King of France, each contributing a share to the city’s fortifications. Carcassonne’s defenses were state of the art in the 1200s. In its glory days, Carcassonne was ruled by the wealthy, sophisticated Trencavel dynasty, which faced a long-running need to defend itself against the persistent efforts of the predatory Counts of Toulouse to unseat them, giving ample motivation to invest in the latest defensive innovations. You can enjoy Carcassonne’s fortifications as a romantic medieval fantasy, but it’s better visited as a life-size museum of medieval defenses. Take time to learn how well tailored this fortress was to repel the array of medieval weaponry. The fortifications and the Porte Narbonnaise drawbridge are free to explore and accessible around the clock, and you can visit the Chateau Comtal (castle) for a modest fee. The medieval town within the walls is fun to wander, and step into the simple interior of the Gothic church, Basilique St. Nazaire, to enjoy its brilliant stained-glass windows.
This corner of France has a tragic history bound up with the vicious religious disputes and power struggles of the Middle Ages. If you have a car, Carcassonne makes a picturesque base camp for a day trip to Peyrepertuse and Queribus, two of the hilltop castles destroyed during the Albigensian Crusades, when the heretical Cathar sect of Christians was virtually wiped out. Read my journal The Ruined Cathar Castles of Languedoc for details.
Stop by the tourist information office just inside the main gate (Porte Narbonnaise) to pick up some information to explain the medieval fortifications.
The bakery on your right inside the Porte Narbonnaise has the best quiche I’ve ever tasted. Ask them to heat it for you: "Le chauffage marche, s’il vous plait?" ("luh sho-fahzh marsh, see voo play?") It makes an inexpensive and fantastic picnic lunch!
If arriving by train, it’s a 30-minute uphill walk to La Cité. Otherwise, it’s the bus (infrequent and a few blocks from the station) or a taxi (probably worth it).
Le Montmorency is run by a welcoming young couple and their two extremely mellow dogs, a yellow Lab and a Husky, usually found snoozing somewhere in the reception area. The small, cozy reception area always seems to have a few guests passing through or partaking of the free Internet service. There are 35 rooms total, 15 in the main building and 20 more in an annex across the street. My room was in the annex, which has its own comfy if rather airless and stuffy lounge area complete with soda machine. Despite being located adjacent to the main gate to La Cité, the hotel was very quiet.
My room in the annex, costing €69 per night, would have been close quarters for a couple – I practically had to turn sidewise to walk around the bed, and there was only room to lay out one suitcase – but it was fine for a single person. The room was outfitted in that intense orange color so popular in southern France – the same eye-popping shade as those old VW Bugs used to be. The room had a comfy bed, a rather stylish desk, wonderful air conditioning, a safe, and a TV with an English-language station. The white-tiled bathroom was, ironically, quite spacious, with a very roomy shower, a well lit vanity area, and a broad tiled shelf where you can lay out your toiletries.
A standard continental breakfast of rolls, croissants, and hot beverage (tea, coffee, or chocolate) is served in the bar, which is far more appealing than it sounds since the bar features lovely walnut furniture and glass doors looking out over the hotel’s attractive terrace and heated pool and up to the city walls across the street. If you’re traveling alone, as I was, you’ll likely end up at a table with a few other travelers – I met a very pleasant older Danish couple who were on a hiking vacation.
If you crave a room in La Cité, your options are limited. If money is no object, stay at the classy, marvelously located Hotel de la Cité, with rooms beginning in excess of €200 per night. More reasonable is the Hotel Le Donjon Les Remparts, with rooms starting around €100 per night. Alternatively, there is the trés affordable and highly regarded Youth Hostel. But whatever your choice, book early, because all tend to fill up in the summer.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 18, 2004
Hotel Le Montmorency
2 Rue Camille St.-Saens
The menu at Fontaines du Soleil offers several variations of cassoulet, the signature of dish of Languedoc. Cassoulet ("cah-soo-lay") is a hearty stew of white haricot beans (like oversized navy beans) with a selection of meats, which may include duck, lamb, pork, and sausage. I chose a variation with duck and lamb, which came as part of a complete dinner, including salad and dessert, for €22. There is a wide range of other entrees, including such French standards as entrecote (steak) and duck breast, in an equally wide range of prices for those craving something different.
The salad of bitter greens with standard light French vinaigrette was just the ticket to get my salivary glands warmed up. The cassoulet arrived in a brown earthenware pot, accompanied by a basket of hearty rustic bread. At the candlelit table, it was impossible to pass judgment on presentation since the stew itself came in shades of brown. This was my first experience of cassoulet, and I found it rather more thick and spicy than I had expected. I did not even come close to finishing the lavish serving, especially as the bread was too good to ignore – feel free to bring an A-list appetite with you to dinner! It wasn’t a bad choice on a cool and rainy summer evening, but it would have suited even better on a wintry night with the wind howling outside.
My favorite part of the dinner turned out to be the dessert of frozen cassis: frozen blackberry liqueur served in a tall frosty liqueur glass. While somewhat similar to sorbet, the frozen cassis was more solid and produced a startlingly contradictory effect on the tongue, icy temperature paired with the heat of alcohol. It wasn’t an elaborate dessert, but it was an intriguing one, and the sweet and cool cassis was the perfect light finish to a filling meal.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on October 18, 2004
Fontaines du Soleil
32 Rue du Plô
Attraction | "The Legend of Madame Carcas"
Madame Carcas Legend
Attraction | "Carcassonne's Fortifications, Part One"
The basic theme of Carcassonne’s fortifications is "concentric." There’s one imposing set of outer walls, divided by an open space from an equally imposing set of inner walls, within which is a fortified castle, the last resort of defenders forced to surrender the outer and inner fortifications. Each of these three rings of fortifications is formidable. The outer walls are nearly two miles around – imagine the effort and expense that went into such a massive building project!
Once cannons made castle fortifications obsolete, Carcassonne’s walls fell into disrepair. At one point, portions of the wall were sold off for quarrying by local builders. However, in the mid-1800s the city’s historical worth was recognized, and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was commissioned to restore the walls and towers. His controversial renovation was rather more picturesque and imaginative than strictly historical. For example, the slate-tiled cones on the towers are typical of northern, not southern, France; the original towers would have had flat roofs.
The little train trundles along the "moat," which was never intended to hold water – it’s actually called "the lists." The purpose of this flat, barren, sunken interval between the outer walls and the inner walls was to provide an unprotected no-man’s-land which would have to be crossed by invaders who managed to breach the outer walls and which would make it difficult to push siege weapons up against the walls or scale the walls with ladders. During peaceful interludes, the lists were used for jousting practice by resident knights. In the centuries during which the fortifications were no longer manned or maintained, townspeople built ramshackle houses in the lists which were only cleared out in the 1850s when the fortifications were renovated.
Continued in the next entry…
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on October 18, 2004
Fortified Cite de Carcassonne and Lower City
Attraction | "Carcassonne's Fortifications, Part Two"
You wind up your catapult and begin heaving big stones at the outer walls, but the stones just bounce off the rounded walls of the 20 towers, as does the battering ram. Such weapons would have crashed through the square towers of northern France, where round towers disappeared during the Dark Ages, being rebuilt only when returning Crusaders brought the style north with them. Here in the south, the knack of making round towers had survived the departure of their Roman designers. The walls are much thicker at the bottom – try breaking through 13 feet of mortar and stone! If you manage to breach these walls, you’ll find these outer towers open to the inner walls, providing no shelter from the arrows of the defenders. Now you’ll have to cross the barren lists to attack the inner walls.
As you try to batter or mine through or tunnel under the inner walls or raise ladders, you’ll be under a constant hail of arrows flying from the walls. The spacing of the towers depends on when they were built; Roman towers were spaced closer due to the limited range of the javelin and catapult bolt, while medieval towers are farther apart due to the greater range of the crossbow. There’s nowhere to hide – at least one archer can see you, no matter where you are. While your arrows only rarely fly into the narrow arrow slits, inside the towers the slits are built into wedge-shaped recesses which let the defenders shoot arrows across a wide arc. Above you, more archers can hide behind the tooth-shaped, or "crenellated," battlements while shooting down on you. As if that isn’t bad enough, there are wooden extensions on top of the walls (now missing) which allow the defenders to drop hot pitch, oil and lead on you. Ouch!
If you’re hoping for a break when the soldiers step away to eat or rest, you’re out of luck. Each of the towers could be garrisoned by up to 200 soldiers and was equipped with a cistern to catch rain water and fireplaces for heat and to cook food. Even if the tower is isolated in the course of the battle, the soldiers can still hold out a good long while.
If you manage to break through both rings of walls, you’ll be starting over again at the innermost layer of Carcassonne’s defenses. In the heart of the fortifications, on the western side of La Cité, is Chateau Comtal, the Count’s Castle. Once again you’ll find forbidding walls, lofty towers, and an easily defended dry moat distancing the castle from the town. (Here, the wooden rampart extensions on top of the walls have been restored.)
Lucky you! Today Carcassonne welcomes its camera-toting invaders!
The bridge is flanked by two 80-foot tall towers, among the city’s tallest. These towers can be distinguished from the others by their prow-like projections facing away from the city, to better to repel attacking fire. Each tower was designed to be garrisoned by a substantial contingent of soldiers for the duration of a siege, so each is equipped with a cistern to gather rain water, and each has several floors, each with a huge fireplace. The interiors also bear evidence of the Gothic builders, with ribbed vaulting and, facing into the town, windows with elegant tracery.
The drawbridge could be raised to bar attackers from the city gate. You’ll notice that it’s crooked on the city side to slow a rush of horses or men and to prevent the use of siege weapons. In addition, if you look up at either end of the drawbridge, you’ll find the grooves that once held heavy iron portcullises, or vertical grates, which could be dropped to trap soldiers on the drawbridge. Once the attacking soldiers were on the drawbridge, the defenders could drop stones, molten lead, hot oil, or hot pitch on them through the holes and slits in the wooden platform above (the platform is restored).
Finally, if invaders got so far, the final archway through which they would enter the city is surprisingly small. This opening would only permit a narrow stream of invaders into the city so that a relatively small number of defenders could kill them off as they entered.
So rather than picturing gilded coaches rolling into the city, it’s more true to history to picture a bloody, gruesome battle at this gate. Fortunately, the drawbridge is now permanently down, the portcullises have been removed, the soldiers are gone, and you are free to stroll openly in.
Porte Narbonnaise (Narbonnaise Gate)
East walls of the old city
Attraction | "Carcassonne's Medieval Town"
The medieval city still has about 200 residents, but almost every business establishment within the walls is geared to tourists. There’s the usual variety of tourist clutter: plastic armor and swords for the kiddies, Carcassonne crockery and tea towels for the grown-ups. Come at midday and every view will be blocked with tourists and the dreck set out to entice them. Visit before 10am or after 3pm, and you can easily imagine yourself back into the Middle Ages.
In its golden age, the 1100s, Carcassonne was a wealthy, sophisticated city. The educated, open-minded rulers of Carcassonne welcomed all manner of unusual folk: Jews, Muslims, the radical Christians called Cathars. Raimond-Roger Trencavel, last of that dynasty to rule Carcassonne, was a connoisseur of music and poetry, inviting the finest troubadours to perform in his court – not only the well-born singers who were welcome in all the courts of Europe, but also talented bards of the scruffier variety. These artists performed for a literate, mannered nobility and a wealthy merchant class. Clothing fashions were elaborate for both men and women: a visitor from the north scoffed at the men’s clean-shaven faces, their parted hair, their "locks grown long like women," and their clothing "whose colors suit each man’s mood." By medieval standards, it was a pretty colorful and bohemian place – a bit like San Francisco in the 1960s, but without the protest signs.
These cultured people constructed some marvelous buildings. My favorite is the barrel-vaulted restaurant on the same square as Basilique St. Nazaire and Hotel de la Cité at the southwest corner of town. See what interesting corners you can find; there is plenty of evidence remaining of the refinement of that earlier age.
In 1209, crusaders were sent to eradicate the heretic Cathar sect, and because the Trencavels sheltered Cathars, Carcassonne became a target. The city fell when the wells ran dry during a particularly hot summer, or, according to another account, when Raimond-Roger Trencavel was tricked out of the city with a false offer to parley. The old town began to wither in 1248, when the King of France took possession of the fortified city for the last time after a series of skirmishes with dispossessed Trencavel heirs and rebellious local citizens. The people of Carcassonne were ejected from the fortified city and given the area beneath the city walls to settle. Over the centuries, the walls fell into disrepair and were used as a quarry, but the old town remained essentially intact. The mid-19th century restoration of the walls and city has given us a Carcassonne once again insular, formidable, and elegant.
The basilica is an interesting blend of Romanesque and Gothic styles. After his victorious Albigensian crusades, the King of France began to destroy the southern Romanesque churches, rebuilding them in the Gothic style to symbolize the control of the north. In the case of Basilique St. Nazaire, only its extremities had been torn down when the Hundred Years War intervened in 1317. With bigger fish to fry, the King abandoned the project, and only the destroyed sections were rebuilt in Gothic style. The nave, or central aisle, of the church still has its robust, rounded Romanesque arches, while the chancel (altar area) and transepts (side chapels) have fragile, pointed Gothic-style arches, framing the airy brilliance of Gothic stained glass windows.
Come at mid-day to see the windows at their most brilliant. Most are still originals dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. These windows told Bible stories for the mostly illiterate medieval population. The stories are read left to right and bottom to top. The central window behind the altar shows the life of Jesus; it’s flanked with a window on the left depicting the story of St. Peter and St. Paul, and one on the right of Saint Nazarius (to whom the basilica is dedicated) and his sidekick Saint Celsus, martyred by the Roman emperor Nero in the first century A.D. for evangelizing – reportedly, when Saint Ambrose found their tomb 200 years later, their bodies had not decomposed and their blood was still liquid.
Most of the Tree of Life window in the southern transept (right side of the church facing the altar) was made around 1320. The tree symbolizes eternal life and rises into a crucifix, symbolizing Christ’s sacrifice to redeem men. The lower panels, however, were inaccurately restored by Viollet-le-Duc. Originally these panels showed the four rivers of Paradise, symbolic of God’s love for man, but the restored windows depict Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and Noah’s ark, stories illustrating God’s anger with men. Some critics now refer to this window as the "Tree of Death" as a result.
The rose window on north wall (left side facing the altar), dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is the oldest, made about 1300. The basilica’s organ is one of the oldest in France, in existence since at least 1522
The church is free. It’s closed between noon and 2pm.
Basilique St. Nazaire
Southwest corner of the walled city