"Our eyes set upon Aigues-Mortes . . .
a jewel carefully set in a case of stone."
-- Alexandre Dumas
Porte de Gardette, an impressive entryway
My first view of Aigues-Mortes was a stunner, just beyond the bridge arching over the canal west of the old city. Facing the canal is a formidably stark, blond stone wall topped by toothed battlements. The fortified town is perfectly rectangular, with square towers at each corner and eleven fortified entrances, each unique but otherwise with a pointed Gothic arch. Just outside the walls is the imposing Tour de Constance, a tower complete with moat and arched bridge. While the tour buses buzz around Carcassonne, "restored" with photogenic but historically inaccurate artistry by the controversial Viollet-le-Duc, Aigues-Mortes still stands, stately and intact, pretty much as it did when it was built near eight centuries ago. Why had I heard so little about this place?
The long walls of Aigues-Mortes
Aigues-Mortes owes its creation to King Louis IX. Louis was a pious, ascetic fellow who literally wore a hair shirt and said fifty Ave Marias each night before going to bed. He was also something of a mama’s boy, perhaps understandable since he became King of France at the age of eleven with his mother ruling as regent until he came of age. For centuries Louis was held up to French children as a model son and to the world at large as the ideal Christian king. He was also noted for many charitable works for the poor and diseased. Later in life, he became passionately preoccupied with crusading and built Aigues-Mortes in 1241 to serve as a jumping-off point for men leaving for the crusades. Although nowadays it is landlocked, at the time of its construction the south wall of the town faced directly onto the sea, enabling ships to be loaded with men and supplies under the protection of the walls.
Walls at sunset
Louis later took up crusading himself, although he appears to have been appallingly bad at it. During his first venture, the Seventh Crusade, having left his mother to rule in his absence, he was defeated, captured, and held hostage by the Egyptians until the Knights Templar somewhat reluctantly coughed up a heavy ransom for him. He eventually returned home and spent several years putting France back in order, during which time he built the lovely stained-glass marvel of Ste-Chapelle in Paris. However, not having learned his lesson the first time, he embarked on another crusade in Tunisia in the height of summer. His army was soon decimated by plague and the sun, and Louis himself took ill and died at Carthage. He was canonized as Saint Louis thirty years later.
Gateway and pedestrian street
These days, Aigues-Mortes remains a medieval masterpiece. Within the walls, the majority of the streets are still paved in bricks and the buildings are all in the traditional style. There is a very limited one-way route for cars through the city, but you will not be permitted to enter unless you are a resident or have a pass from your hotel. Consequently, most of the city basks in the quiet of pedestrian streets. Yet, despite its movie-set beauty, somehow the town had the air of a place where people actually live, at least off-season. Kids’ bikes lay cluttering the main square near a clutch of outdoor cafés while an impromptu soccer game was played. A man stood at an upper-story window, smoking a cigarette while gazing out at this scene. At the nearby church, a wedding was in the offing. The groomsmen and bridesmaids, scarcely out of their teens, stood chatting nervously just outside in their finery. But the ceremony soon started, preventing me from casting more than a quick glance through the window of the door to see the simple interior.
Street outside the church
Although Aigues-Mortes hasn’t yet been discovered in a big way by Americans, it is clearly a tourist destination for others. The clutter of cheap souvenirs displayed along the main streets leading from the parking lot just outside the walls off boulevard Diderot to the place St-Louis can hold its own with that row of souvenir stands by the Leaning Tower of Pisa (those who have been to Pisa will know what I’m talking about), with every variety of gaudy T-shirt and postcard imaginable. And the fiberglass cow painted in tiger stripes was a bit of excess that doesn’t belong in any town that could pass as a living museum. The desk clerk at my hotel told me that in August, the streets are so wall-to-wall with tourists that one can hardly move; given that warning, I’d probably skip a visit here then. Yet much of the city is still quite pristine, and when I visited in early June, it was not at all crowded and definitely worth a few hours of anyone’s time. If you can come outside of late summer, I highly recommend a visit.
Tower, moat and bridge