Thursday, April 21, 2011
One of the biggest tourist sights in this part of France, the Cité de Carcassonne is an intact (for the most part) medieval walled city. So that's our goal for today's jaunt. It's about 1.5 hours from here, so we're up and out of the house by 9:30, lunches packed. We have reservations for dinner-wine tasting at 7:30 about half-hour from Carcassonne, so we know it will be a long day.
Our first stop is the "aire" (rest stop) along the highway that gives us a great view of the city. I'm cheating and posting a photo we took earlier when we stopped on our way to Toulouse. Today is hazy and the cité is in shadow from this vantage point, so a good photo is too difficult right now.
Carcassonne proves to be easy to get to with parking right at the gate, although I can imagine in summer, both parking and touring Carcassonne would be next to impossible. But today, while it is busy, it's not too crowded. There are lots of French families, so I'm guessing kids are on Easter break from school. There are smatterings of other tourists too, but most seem to be French. The wind is gusting at 65 km/hour (about 40 mph). Without the wind, the day would be very comfortably in the high 60's, but we need layers of sweaters and jackets against the winds.
This cité somehow survived intact the wars of the middle ages when it was an important post between Spain and France. Then when the border moved south to the Pyrenees, the cité declined and was forgotten. Viollet le Duc studied and restored the town over 50 years starting in 1843. He managed to keep Carcassonne from becoming a stone quarry for other buildings, which so often happened to abandoned forts, churches, and citadels. So while he took 19th century improvisations on what the town probably looked like, he did do serious investigation of the visible clues before rebuilding parts. We owe him a lot for saving many of the most important monuments of French history.
Legend has it that the name comes from the 8th century when the Saracens occupied the town in spite of having been defeated and pushed back to Spain by Charlemagne. Beseiged by Charlemagne for a long period of time, Dame Carcas (a Saracen noblewoman) stuffed a pig with cereal and threw it over the side of the town walls. Charlemagne then lifted the seige and withdrew, thinking that the town must have plenty of food supplies if they could afford to waste this whole pig. As they were leaving, Dame Carcas had all the bells rung in celebration to which a soldier of Charlemagne remarked "Dame Carcas sonne" (Lady Carcas rings).
Carcassonne has two perimeter walls as well as a wall around the castle. It sits on the highest land around its alluvial plain. Some of the walls and towers date back to Roman occupation of the area when this was an important outpost of Rome. Within the city are several streets and small squares lined with restaurants and tourist shops.
There is a cathedral as well and when we went in to visit, there was a quintet of men singing religious songs acapella. Their voices filled the cathedral with sound in spite of their small numbers, the acoustics are that wonderful. I had to buy a CD. Unfortunately, can't post the video we took as it's bigger than 100 MB. Dommage!
We walked the streets and as it was near lunch time and Christie REALLY wanted to try authentic cassoulet (a regional speciialty), we found a restaurant and ordered cassoulet for lunch, ditching our attachment to the sandwiches we had packed for lunch. It proved that the fake-cassoulet I had made several nights ago was not only in the ball-park, but a home run for taste.
Continuing our exploration, we meander the streets a bit and head for the castle, waiting a long time in a short line to buy entry tickets. After a brief intro film, we tour the castle, wandering in and out of covered walkways, towers, crenolated ramparts, and hoardings (wooden ramparts built onto the sides of the stone walls in time of seige, with arrow slits and openings in the floors to drop boiling oil and stones). Every corner is a picture from a fairy-tale castle and we end up taking 185 photos in Carcassonne, none of which we are willing to part with. Oh, dear. There are lots of poses of Dosch's conquering the castle among the serious attempts to capture the size and medieval feeling of the town.
Kids do their tourist shopping in the town, we stop for coffee and tea around 4 PM and then split up to wander at will until 6:15. Once again gathered and by now, completely windblown, we head for the cars and our next engagement, dinner and wine at Vinécole.