Carcassonne: A Fairy Tale City

June 10, 2011

Carcasonne from a distance /Michelle Locke

The ancient walled city of Carcasonne had me before hello.

Just driving up to the fantastically fairy-tale expanse of walls, turrets and towers was so infatuating that I was among those asking our driver to pull to the side of the road to get a quick picture.

Unfortunately, it turned out the 1-1/2 lane road doubled as a Grand Prix training course. There were Peugeots to the left of me, Renaults to the right of me all driven by impatient French people who were none too pleased at seeing a silly tourist taking up a valuable few centimeters of road. I lasted a couple minutes, but scurried back to the car after a large guard dog, happily on the other side of a sturdy fence, chimed in with his assessment of my critical thinking skills. (Note to self: Would short essay on Large Dogs From Which I Have Hurriedly Retreated sell?)

But none of the above took away from the spell of Carcassonne, which only intensified as I walked its narrow streets.

Despite the T-shirt sellers and other kitschy touches, you get a strong sense of history here, especially on the less traveled paths away from the restaurants and shops. Humans have lived on, and battled over, this patch of land for centuries. Romans, Visigoths, Saracens, crusaders all shook a spear here.

One of the last battles fought in Carcassonne was for preservation _ the place had devolved into a slum and might have been demolished in the 19th century but for the efforts of a few people including the writer Prosper Mérimée. The anti-demolition crew carried the day and the architect Viollet-le-Duc was commissioned to renovate the fortified city.

Here is a site with some practical info on visiting. I’ll give you one tip; go early in the morning. It can get a trifle sultry not to mention crowded in the afternoon.

And here is a slideshow of my day.

I didn’t take a very studied approach, choosing to wander around and poke my head into whatever nook or cranny beckoned. I was amused to see Best Western has taken over one of the hotels inside the walls. (No snark here, though. It was a delightful place to sit down for a minute on a hot afternoon, the staff was helpful and friendly and they let us borrow a cup of WiFi.)

Walking the walls gives you a good workout and a good vantage point; it’s cool to look through the narrow apertures at modern Carcassonne spread out below. I mimed pulling back my bow to let an arrow fly … until I noticed the skinny kid looking at me with a decidely supercilious expression. There’s a torture museum which I skipped, cannot take man’s inhumanity to man, but I did enjoy a leisurely walk around the Basilique Saint-Nazaire, which is built on the site of a 6th-century church and features some pretty stained glass windows.

If you are gastronomically inclined there is a Michelin-starred restaurant inside the walls, La Barbacane. I find that history is more likely to make me thirsty than hungry, so I opted for an extremely delicious pale ale drunk under the shade of a spreading tree.

No barking dog, no speeding cars, just me, some suds, and a new treasure trove of memories.


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