Archive for the ‘Carcassonne’ Category


November 7, 2009

carc1One of the few toys we brought with us for our ten months in France in our 400 pounds of luggage is a set of cardboard pieces called Klutz Building Cards: How to Build Castles. It’s an ingenious toy: simple, cute, a good way to talk to the kids about knights and princesses and medieval history. We spend several evenings in the first few weeks comparing our constructions to pictures in books and online, discussing ramparts and defenses, wars and raids, and what it must have been like to live in those times. We compare the printed pieces to our own château, which was a fortified home and granary. James and Izzy have one lonely little plastic knight figure, which they tumble into the towers and perch in precarious situations along the walls, mainly so that he can fall off, complete with the requisite screams: aaahhh—blam! His little sword is the only weapon we’ve ever officially allowed as parents, so it is, of course, central in much of the imaginary play. The cardboard pieces of the building set are printed with stone walls (some vine-covered), stained glass windows, wooden planks, ramparts, shuttered windows, open windows, hearths with huge kettles hung inside. All this cardboard construction and theoretical history lessoning becomes startingly real on the day we visit Carcassonne.

Carcassonne is east of Toulouse, toward the Mediterranean Sea, in the unfolding of hills between the Massif Central rising to the north and the Pyrénées to the south that was once the disputed border with Spain. The land here forms a natural corridor more easily traversed by Romans, Crusaders, invaders, traders and others. The earth is rich for farming. The temperatures are relatively mild. Most of the towns perch atop hills, and many (along with homes and keeps like the château in which we’re living) were fortified. Carcassonne, roughly halfway between Toulouse and the sea, was one such place, a walled city on a hill, a castle, a bastide, a fortification, a child’s toy castle come to life.

By the time we arrive in the lower (slightly newer) town of Carcassone, the children are restless. We had stopped at an Aire (a rest area) off the A61 for a picnic to stave off their hunger on the way, but an hour in the car plus twenty minutes to find our way to the Cité, which is the old upper town within the castle wall, has tried their patience. Despite the pictures we’ve seen online and in books, none of us are quite prepared for the sight of Carcassonne. We wind our way up the narrow roads, following the signs, round a bend, and there it is—curving stone walls, turrets, mammoth wooden gates, a drawbridge over a (now-dry) moat, wooden ramparts, the notched stone top all the way around where the knights would (really!) shoot arrows, drop boulders, and pour boiling oil onto their attackers. A real castle.

Isabelle carcasonne

The region around Carcasonne, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997, has been inhabited for about 5000 years, and the Romans established a fortified outpost on top of the hill called Carsac at about 100 BC. Some of the lowest ramparts date from that era, but the present-day structure is a bit of lesson in European history, walls built higher, a second wall added to make a “curtain” of defense, the town closed in within the wall, towers erected to watch for the English invaders and crusaders from the west, the Visigoths and Franks from the north, and the infidels and barbarians from the south and west, over the course of more than a thousand years. The Romans gave the town to King Theodoric II of the Visigoths (from what is now eastern Germany) in 453; the Visigoths fought off King Clovis of the Franks (also a Germanic tribe, but more closely allied with the Romans) in 508 but lost the town to Muslims from Spain in 725; King Pepin the Short (another Frank, the father of Charlemagne) sent the Spaniards packing from the region in 760 but couldn’t break through the defenses of Carcassonne to take the castle. A succession of local counts (from which the English word “county”—the land ruled by a count—comes) controlled Carcassonne through the Middle Ages, most notably the Trencavel family beginning in 1067, who built the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire and their elaborate residence, the Château Comtal, within the fortifications of the city walls. Pope Urban II blessed the cathedral in 1096. During the Crusades, the fort and Trencavel family finally surrendered to the army of Simon de Monfort (a French nobleman and Christian convert who married into English nobility), who declared himself viscount and added more fortifications. In 1247, the city submitted to the rule of France and King Philip III built the outer walls. The Black Prince (of England), King Edward, couldn’t get through the defenses of the fortress in 1355, so (as was typical during these times) he destroyed the lower town. The fortress, after nearly 1000 years of additions and reinforcements, now protected by a double curtain wall and 53 towers, was deemed impregnable. What wars and armies couldn’t accomplish—the destruction of Carcassonne—however, peace almost did. In 1659, the region and city officially became part of France. No longer a military outpost, the fortifications fell into ruin, so much so that the government scheduled the whole thing for demolition in 1849. Enter Carcassonne’s truest knight in shining armor, an architect named Viollet-le-Duc, who made the restoration of Carcassonne his life’s work. Criticized for some historical inaccuracies and liberties in the restoration (some towers, for instance, have peaked roofs rather than the flat roofs more typical of this region), le’Duc’s legacy has resulted in a marvelous recreation that inspires the imagination and brings the distant past into sharp focus. This is no Disneyworld invention or cardboard construction; Carcassonne makes history—the castles, the wars, the people’s lives—three-dimensional and interactive, a stone fortress that makes that world a little more real.

ramparts carcassonne

We enter Carcassonne from a car park at the Narbonne gate on a clear and warm October day. We cross a bridge over what would have been a moat filled with water and dodge other tourists to enter the forty-foot wooden gates. At tourist information, just to the right inside, we collect a map and look down into a dry well, dark and cool, and out the slot windows in the stone walls. Narrow medieval cobblestoned streets that slope into caniveaux (gutters) down the middle curve past candy shops and cafes and places to buy Styrofoam shields and swords and princess crowns and homes with wooden shutters stacked one atop another. More than 200 people still live within the walls of the upper town, the Cité, but these are not characters dressed in period costume. These are shop owners and waiters and soccer fans—modern descendants, perhaps, of those people who sheltered in the fortress when the lower town was attacked or those who set up shop where customers already congregated. One of the successes of the modern Cité de Carcassonne, for me, is that it does not have to try hard to lure the tourists, at least not during this shoulder season of fall. This is no medieval fair, staged for entertainment, but a city that thrives on a tourist economy. The historic and educational landmark of the fortress draws the crowds, and the residents provide the food, gee-gaws, postcards, and services on which those people will spend their Euros.

In late October the town is crowded but not claustrophobic; it is easy to imagine the chaos of a hot day at the height of the summer tourist season when thousands of people per day visit. Indeed, the first two weeks of August are dedicated to a medieval fair called the Spectacle Médiéval with period costumes and theatrical enactments including live jousting tournaments. The fact that Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, was filmed in Carcassonne attests to its charmed quality of history-come-to-life. And perhaps the costumes and jousting lend a more performative aspect to the experience, but something about the simple reality of the ancient stones beneath our feet and in the walls makes this day’s visit nearly perfect.

saint navaire carc garg

We thread our way through the streets and emerge into a wide square. Directly across is a second set of walls, the interior castle or château, complete with wooden ramparts or walkways along the tops of the walls. We purchase tickets (€8 for adults; children free), cross a second drawbridge, pass through more huge gates and into a vast courtyard with an ancient sycamore tree at the center. Upstairs, in a wide banquet room, a video in wide format recounts the history of Carcassonne (in French), and then we wander. There is room after room of artifacts dating from the Roman era through the restoration: statues, gargoyles, mosaics, tools, weapons, and coins. We walk the ramparts, reading the information plaques at every interval, learning about the methods of defense, discovering the slots for archers, looking down between the stone squares of the battlements to the walls, the cathedral, the town, and the countryside spreading into the blue distance. It is as if we have stepped through history into that cardboard castle on the living room floor at home, now stone and timbers and cobbles and very real. It’s also fun. Each tower is different. Each turn of the battlements reveals a new view. It’s easy to imagine being on watch atop the wall, huddling by the human-sized fireplace in winter, hauling water and food and armaments up and down the tower steps. And I am completely aware that this Carcassonne romanticizes the reality. This Carcassonne is immaculate, the restrooms are clean, the people are bathed and shaved, no one is hungry or diseased or smells, no stones are being hurled at the walls from catapults manned by slaves. No one is dead or bleeding, except the kid who scrapes his knee while playing under the sycamore in the courtyard.

Back in the village streets, we stop in at the Basilica Saint-Nazaire to admire the stained glass windows, the vault, the combination of Romance and Gothic architectures, and the gargoyles leaning out over the square. We find a restaurant with tables in the sun behind a wall for a late lunch. There is not much else to do in Carcassonne. A museum of chivalry, arms and archery will entertain older children, and at the Musée d’École one can see what a French school was like in the 19th century. One can stay in one of the fine hotels within the castle walls, dine at any of the dozens of restaurants or simply have a cup of coffee or (a favorite with James and Izzy) lait chaud (warm milk with sugar) at a café. A walk between the two sets of walls in the lices, the grassy space the moat would have filled, probably scummy and dank with offal back then, is a pleasant circuit of about 3km. We end our visit with a ride on the gorgeous carousel outside the Narbonne gate. Watching the children bob up and down in that never-ending circle, the walls and towers of Carcassonne behind them, darkening against an orange sunset, it’s easy to believe in a kind of magic that brings history closer, sanitized or idealized perhaps, but not cardboard or miniaturized.

carousel carc

I notice in the children’s play the next day that the little knight spends less time falling off the wall of our living room castle-construction and more time tending to everyday business. He gets cold and is wrapped in a blanket. He gets hungry and has to cook over the fire. He feels lonely and afraid when he is on watch in the tower outpost. Thanks to Carcassonne, that imaginary world has become a little more real.