Travel with kids: Carcassonne, Occitanie, France, in two days

Carcassonne in Occitanie, South-Eastern France, is a small place, and I had allocated two days; I was on my way to Narbonne where I was invited to a wedding by the family of my French exchange of 40 years.

Carcassonne in Occitanie, South-Eastern France, A rest at the west exit, with a great view of the town and valley

A rest at the west exit, with a great view of the town and valley

This is the problem with Carca, it’s a stop-off, before the beach, before the mountains. But it deserves better, two days turned out to be nowhere near enough. You could easily spend seven days exploring the walled Cité of course (two days), then there’s La Bastide their mediaeval  ‘Down-Town’, boating on Le Canal du Midi, water-sporting on Lac de la Cavayère, wine-tasting tours and cycling tours along the River Aude. So another trip is most definitely required, especially since the short time I had there was so wonderful.

Carcassonne in Occitanie, South-Eastern France - View of La Cité, from Pont Vieux

View of La Cité, from Pont Vieux

 

The Walled City

I headed to the walled town (La Cité) as soon as I had checked in and napped. It’s always rated in the Top 5 walled cities, no matter the criteria or the critic. It’s top of ‘the largest’ (europeanbestdestinations), ‘the EU’s favourite’ (dreamdestinations), ‘the most charming’ (musement),  ‘the world’s best’ (CNN), ‘great’ (Rick Steeves), ‘the best preserved’ (tourism-review), ‘the EU’s greatest’ (europeanwalledtowns.com), … you get the picture. It’s also been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997. During my stay I visited La Cité 3 times, once for the guided tour (book well in advance) and twice to wonder freely around the ramparts and town.

Carcassonne in Occitanie, South-Eastern France - The two walls: the inner Gallo-Roman, the outer Mediaeval

The two walls: the inner Gallo-Roman, the outer Mediaeval

 

I know it since years because it featured in a film I adore, Les Visiteurs, in which Jean Reno, normally a humourless gangsta or cop, plays a mediaeval knight who shoots his fiancee’s father by mistake. To salvage his honour – and his distraught lady-fair who plans to throw herself  into a convent –  he gets a potion from the family Alchemist which permits him to time travel to un-break the eggs. It’s hilarious. Carcassonne is his castle.

It’s massive, 4km of walls, two rings, a village and a keep. And has 2,500 years of history, starting with a proto-historic hillfort in 6BC, which was reinforced by the Romans. Its Gallo-Roman mosaics are still visible in the basement of the Donjon! Placed strategically on the cross-roads N-S between Spain and Northern Europe, and E-W between the Med and the Atlantic, it was a powerful, wealthy city, and thus worth fighting for. It has seen numerous adversaries through the centuries and has not had a great record of keeping the baddies out in fact, despite all its impressive defences. Home/away wins detailed below:

  1. 1st c BC. Locals vs invading Romans; away win
  2. 1st c. BC -5th c. Romans vs miscellaneous attacks; home wins
  3. 5th c. Romans vs invading Visigoths; away win
  4. 8th c. Visigoths vs invading Saracens; away win
  5. 8th c. Saracens vs invading Franks, under Charlemagne; away win
  6. 13 c. Cathars vs invading Catholics; away win
  7. 14th c. onwards, considered impregable during the 100 Years War; matches suspended
  8. 16th c. The King of France vs invading Hugenots: home win.
Carcassonne in Occitanie, South-Eastern France

One of 52 towers, with all mod-cons i.e. fire place and latrine, facing inwards…

Not that many battles over 2,500 years I suppose. One bust up every 300 years on average. So it would have scared off vast numbers of small fry that history has not needed to record. Only the most organised, best-financed, blood-thirsty and greedy could seriously entertain attacking the citadel. Or most heroic, depending on which side you’re on.

Carcassonne in Occitanie, South-Eastern France

The disrepair in the 1800s, before Viollet-le-Duc began restoration

 

Given all the battles aiming at its destruction; given the lack of battles, when Carcassonne became neglected as the rebellious townsfolk were ejected by the King and moved over the river to start again, leaving it to the weaving community; given the weather, a combo of hot and windy; given the Cathars were a rebel sect and their ruined castles a feather in the cap of centralised France; given the plundering of stone for other building projects; given its receding importance as a military outpost when the frontier with Spain changed; given the vast expense and skills needed to restore it; really it’s totally freakish it’s survived. London was just like it, but look how that turned out. Londoners stayed put and just dismantled or upcycled everything that got in the way.

Entrance showing adaptations

Entrance showing adaptations

 

The village inside the walls used to house 4,500 people; I like how the Lords wanted to keep their underlings safe too. But life inside the citadel… An impractical place up a hill, with few entrances, lots of obstacles and winding blind alleys. Walls your only prospect. Like living in a prison really. Was it a Spartan society, where boy-children were bred to fight, and girls to bear more boys to replace the slain. I guess the townsfolk also gave birth to the masons to restore it, the farmers to feed it, the merchants to fund it. A microclimate in which parents down the centuries were teaching their children the skills to keep the place not just safe but thriving. Was there a Council that oversaw the community, filling skills gaps and ejecting the unproductive?

Narrow winding cobbled streets in the town

Narrow winding cobbled streets in the town

 

It’s super high-density by our standards. I have a lively imagination and a very sensitive nose, so out goes the turreted romance, in comes the stench. There was no Roman-style sewage system, so was it a case of waiting for gravity to work its magic on the hilly outcrop, with modest gullies here and there… but that amount of effluent. I want to believe they had night-soil collectors, but where did they put it, on the fields? Spread the stink.

Blind alleyways creating a labyrinth

Blind alleyways creating a labyrinth

 

It wasn’t so much beautiful as imposing. Also if you imagine the mind-set that required such a structure just to be able to sleep safe at night, it’s a testament to the constant fear that reigned, to the grim self-sufficiency of people who could hope for no reinforcements, and to the monumental vision of the builders despite having only simple tools and basic training.

 

Carcassonne is a total must, to see, savour, imagine and enjoy.

Mediaeval World workshops featuring daily life

Mediaeval World workshops featuring daily life

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