Archive for the ‘castles’ Category

Les Fantômes

May 21, 2010

When you move into a house that has been around since 1100, sitting on a patch of the Earth inhabited for about 25,000 years, you assume there might be a few ghosts about. Plenty of people have lived in the château Latour; it’s likely that some of those inhabitants or visitors died here. And just perhaps some of that matter or energy that made up those humans has hung around.

It’s not so much that I believe in ghosts, but more that I try hard not to succumb to the all-too-human arrogance that asserts absolute understanding. The universe is mysterious. We simply do not know everything. Galileo is a great example, denounced to the Roman Inquisition, tried, convicted of heresy and sentenced to house arrest in the 1600s for the mere suggestion that the Earth was not the center of the universe. We’ve been wrong before. I try to keep a mind open to possibilities. This, of course, is both helpful and problematic when you’re a writer. Too many possibilities leads to writer’s block or a prose so scattered no one can follow, but a mind closed to possibility can never be the mind of a fictionist. My characters and stories grow from my imagination, often in a way that seems mysterious. Sometimes I almost hear voices. Sometimes I can see a whole scene or character, or hear a conversation, that exists—I think, but am not certain—only in my head. Sometimes the words and stories come with so little effort that it seems like magic. Explain it with psychology or biology or history. Call it madness or divine inspiration or demonic possession. Call it mystery or magic. I can’t explain it, but sometimes the fiction seems a kind of haunting.

We moved up to the tower apartment on October 21, Halloween Day, so I asked Pete and Rosie for a good ghost story. They told me about the phantoms with whom they share Latour des Feuilllants.

First is the white-robed man with the square hat who is most often encountered on the fifty wooden steps in ten flights up to a tower that originally served as a look-out across the hills and valleys for marauders, invaders and other dangers on one of the many Roman roads that cross this part of France. Both Pete and Rosie have seen him numerous times, Pete most clearly in an evening encounter at the first floor landing. Some time later, in his reading of the history of the monks who were the original inhabitants of the chateau, Pete discovered an illustration that matched the costume he had observed in his encounter: a man in a square white hat with robes nearly to the floor, identified as a “first visitor” or cleric who would have been sent out from the Vatican to check up on country estates like this one, owned by the Church and manned by the monks from monastery outposts. This spirit is not malicious, Pete says, but a gentle watchman who drops by to check up on things from time to time.

Chained outside the front door...

Chained outside the front door is a couple from around the 1400s, more traditional sorts of ghosts. The gruesome story goes like this. The master of the house, as was common in those days, exercising his “droit de seigneur,” got a serving girl pregnant. When she gave birth, the master and mistress—the couple chained outside—threw the girl and her newborn into the big fireplace in the formal dining room. These evil-doers, the story goes, are condemned to a long tenure stuck on earth. But they are outside, we’re assured, not permitted to enter.

Thrown into the fireplace...

There are often unexplained smells—of baking, often—and sounds in the château. Occasionally something like a piece of paper will move, just slightly, without explanation. The monks buried their own on the property, just outside the wall, so some of those fellows may be wandering about as well. Pete says he feels he’s being watched quite often as he works about the garden and orchard. Sometimes he talks to the ghosts. Maybe that’s a little like me when I write. Talking to ghosts.

How do Pete and Rosie know these details about the ghosts? Early on in their ownership of the house, a guest—a French garage mechanic—came down to breakfast after his first night having slept terribly. He explained. “There was this terrible heavy weight on my chest all night.” He slept in the same room in which Susan and I slept when we first arrived in Saint Araille. Susan—a sponge for feelings and emotions in the ordinary world—suffered a week of disturbing dreams there, “bloody” and violent dreams, as she described them. Izzy too, sleeping in the bedroom at the other end of that apartment, had bad dreams those first weeks. We had chalked it all up to the newness of the situation. The change in our lives. Now we reconsidered our psychological explanation.

In addition to being a mechanic, the Frenchman was a psychic—apparently a quite well-known one—and he offered to exorcise the chateâu for Rosie and Pete. They agreed, and followed along as he performed the task. As the mechanic/psychic and his friend (another psychic) moved from room to room and floor to floor in the château, he told them what he saw, who he encountered, a little of the ghost’s history. His friend kept asking questions like, “who is that?” Or “why do I hear a baby crying?” As they proceeded, stable to breakfast room to dining room, salon and up through the building, he sprinkled holy water, prayed, and, finally, gathered the spirits together and then released them to rise to heaven. At that point, Pete became suddenly so cold that he had to leave and go sit by the fire. The psychics left soon after, to go to Lourdes to replenish their supply of holy water, and the woman said that as they looked back at the château on the hill, they could see a mist rising toward the sky. All the drive to Lourdes, their car was under a bright patch of sun, “illuminated” though it was a cloudy day.

I’ve never seen a ghost, never experienced the things Rosie and Pete describe, exactly. But I kept my eyes open all winter, all those long trips up and down the stairs to take the dogs out in the darkness, ready for an encounter with the white-robed first visitor. I never saw him. I did feel nervous, spooked even, quite a few times. The château was huge for our little family of four and the two dogs, and because we kept ourselves primarily up in our tower apartment, the rest of the house was cold, dim and dusty. If ever there were a place for ghosts, this is it.

In March, Pete and Rosie returned from New Zealand, and Spring arrived. Doors and windows and shutters were flung open, the daylight hours lengthened, and the house became more lively. More filled with life. Anything ghost-like seemed to fade back into the few shadows.

Then Susan strained her back, leaving her in agonizing pain for several weeks. The best mattress in the apartment is on a small twin-sized cot up in the loft at the very top of the tower, next to the double bed in which Izzy sleeps. Susan began sleeping on that firm bed in the loft, which is windowless except for one skylight and the glass door that opens onto the porch overlooking the countryside. The weather changed around then. Cold, wet winds blew in from the west and the Atlantic Ocean. We tucked in around the wood stove in the evenings until bedtime.

One morning after the kids were delivered to school, Susan said, “I almost forgot to tell you. I saw ghosts last night.” Very late she had woken and seen several reddish glowing figures around the loft. At least four and maybe as many as a half-dozen. “I was plenty awake enough to know that what I was seeing wasn’t a dream,” she said. “I tried to think of what it might be. A plane going over? No. It was dark out, overcast. There were no lights on in the house.” The figures were just there, presences, wavering a little. “It was really weird,” she said. “Definitely something there.” Eventually they went away, but she was spooked and didn’t sleep well the rest of the night. Two nights later, she had a much more intense experience. She woke to find a reddish light form right next to her bed. A sound like static or a humming. In the middle of the form, she saw a sepia-toned series of scenes, like a silent movie on fast-forward. She saw women wearing long dresses and scarves and men, peasants she thought, harvesting hay or grain and throwing it onto a wagon. Scenes from a life, she thought, a long time ago. There didn’t seem to be any malice in the ghost, but intensity, she said, as if the ghost really needed her to see this. A witness to a life, perhaps. Again, it eventually disappeared. After that, until her back healed, Susan willed the spirits to stay away, telling them before going to sleep that she wasn’t willing to see them now. We have had no ghostly encounters since then.

Are we haunted? Who knows?

This is what I do know. Ghosts have crept into almost everything I’ve written since Susan’s encounter—a long short story, this essay, a whole new novel for teens set here in the château. I am fascinated by the idea (though not the actual experience; I’d just as soon not see any ghosts). Why do we see or imagine ghosts? What do these fantasies or fantômes or fears have to tell us? Are our unconscious minds communicating something we need to recognize or know or learn about our own lives? Do we simply frighten ourselves by contemplating the vast unknown in the universe? Is some matter or energy or spiritual being trying to lead us astray or toward some celestial epiphany? Or is it merely that we humans live consumed by the importance of our individual lives, which, it turns out, are relatively insignificant.

Here in Latour des Feuillants, I am conscious, daily, of the fact that in this very spot have likely lived and died thousands of other individuals: prehistoric cave painters, Roman soldiers and travelers, monks and peasants, wealthy lords of the manor, extended farming families, World War II resistance fighters and twentieth century bed and breakfast owners. Twenty-five thousand years of single all-consuming human lives. As I consider Susan’s haunting, the intensity of that ghost who needed to have his or her life witnessed, remembered, counted, I think I better understand my own fictional hauntings. These lives and stories and people who appear—apparitions—in my mind and become physical on the page, whether they are subconscious parts of myself or some mysterious others, are a most important magic. The writing, for me, is a kind of manifestation of existence. With the words, I try to witness the vitality and mystery and humble reality of a single, simple human life. And in the end, I suppose, this too becomes a kind of ghost.

Advertisements

Daily Bread

May 18, 2010

When I was a child, I memorized the Lord’s Prayer, Christ’s response to his disciples when they asked him to teach them to pray. The only request for a tangible thing in the entire prayer is “give us this day our daily bread.” Not for tomorrow, just for today, because we must remember to let the future take care of itself. We must eat today. And it’s not a six-course dinner we need, or even a full meal or meat or vegetables. Just bread. Just for today. Simple, plain, everything one really needs.
The French understand the centrality of bread to life. Remember that one of the causes of the French revolution was rising bread prices. When Marie Antionette cavalierly said, “Let them eat cake,” she not only dismissed the plight of the common people, she forgot that here, bread is an essential. Bread is life. According to de l’Institut national de la boulangerie-pâtisserie, in 2004, there were more than 34,000 artisan boulangers in France, accounting for more than 70% of bread production in the country. A “boulanger” (baker) and “boulangerie” (bakery) must adhere to strict regulations, including the choosing of the raw materials, kneading the paste, controlling the fermentation, and cooking the bread in its place of sale. None of the products used or produced may ever be frozen. This is by law, the “décret pain,” or “bread decree” of 1993. Bread is serious business here.

Bread in France is also ubiquitous and simple and delicious. Even when everything is closed for one or another of the many holidays, you can almost always find a boulangerie open for an hour or two with loaves still warm from the ovens. At any time of almost any day, we pass Frenchmen on the street with a loaf or two—no bag or wrapping—tucked under their arms. Most buy it daily. Even the shops in the aires (rest-areas) on the expressways sell baguettes, and I’ve often seen travelers grab a loaf and a package of ham to dine at a picnic table outside. Rip the baguette open, stuff in the ham, eat. Absolute satisfaction. Indeed, the bread is often a meal in itself. The truth is that a good bread really is all you need.

In Saint Araille, Monseiur Marty Chantal, boulanger, arrives at about noon every Monday, Wednesday and Friday—not daily—but to my door, which is even better. We can hear the beeping of his little white delivery van across the hills, the dogs barking hysterically as he starts up the driveway to the château. He came during the snow-storms; he brings special cakes on holidays; he has chocolate croissants to lure the children clamoring down the stairs on cold mornings. If we’re not home or don’t happen to come when he beeps, he leaves the bread, au natural, tucked into the front door handle, in a bag only if it happens to be raining. If we’re in the mood for something special, he has a variety of extra treats in his packed van, baked fresh by his own hand during the night. When we arrived in October, we placed a standing order with M. Chantal for two baguettes (literally, “sticks”) every delivery day, and we often supplemented by baking in the bread machine in the tower apartment or stopping at the boulangerie on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. In mid-winter, we changed our order from baguettes to pain aux céréales (cereal bread), which is so good that we often lurk around at the window and delay lunchtime, waiting for the sound of M. Chantal’s horn. I’ve been known to eat a third of a loaf for my lunch.

M. Chantal himself has retired during our year here, turning deliveries at least over to his daughter, Mademoiselle Chantal, a lovely smiling young woman in her twenties. In one of our early chats with M. Chantal, we learned that he hoped to travel to the United States in retirement—to see the Rocky Mountains, he said—and we’ve been wondering if he’s on his way to Colorado now. This, as we gaze at the Pyrénées white-caps an hour to the south. Like these mountains, bread, too, has its cousins across the sea. And we discover that this desire—to go, to see, to adventure in the world where the unfamiliar becomes familiar—is a shared desire. A simple bread, different and sometimes better.

In the nearby villages, the bread baking is often an event, a community gathering with lines out the doors of the boulangeries. When we visit La Couvertoirade, a beautifully preserved bastide village in a remote corner of the Aveyron, we see the communal ovens such as once existed in every town. In the Middle Ages, citizens paid a tax for which everyone gained the right to bake their daily loaves. As we wait with the others for Sunday loaves to emerge from the heat, the community of the event—the sharing and visiting of the people—seems as important as the sustenance of the bread itself. Is not that too a kind of daily bread?

As a treat, I buy “American” bread for James and Isabelle at the Intermarché supermarket. The brand is “Sam’s,” but, despite the name, it’s actually French cereal bread baked in the regulation rectangle and pre-sliced. True “American bread” tastes like paste compared to this bread, rich and nutty and fresh. With a little Nutella and fresh kiwi jam from the abbey, this sandwich makes more than a complete meal. Even plain, Sam’s surpasses Uncle Sam’s. Why is this bread so much better?

I read the label. Seven kinds of farine (flour), plus fiber, water, grains, and some of the usual suspects, including ascorbic acid, diglycerides, and sirop de glutcose-fructose. In my research, however, I find these differences. Bread flour in France is rarely bleached. Flour used in the U.S. has a higher gluten level. Potassium bromate, which U.S. bakers use to strengthen bread, is banned in the European Union. French bread is legally controlled and may not contain anything but flour, water, yeast and salt. Traditionally, it should be baked on a hearth. It doesn’t keep for more than a day. Sam’s, I suspect, is not cooked on a hearth, certainly not in an official boulangerie, so maybe it is the flour or the water that make it so good. I used to know a very old New York bagel shop owner who swore that New York bagels get their wonderful flavor from New York City water. “You can’t get New York bagels anywhere but New York!” he’d shout. Maybe you can’t get French bread anywhere but France because of the wheat grown here on the hillsides all around us in the Haute Garonne. Maybe it’s the soil or the air. Maybe it’s just that Frenchmen have appreciated bread for a very long time.

At the Grottes de Gargas, we see hundreds of images of hands printed on the walls from the Stone Age, and it comes as no surprise to learn that these same hands might have worked the first breads. Neolithic peoples baked bread in this same part of the world before 10,000 BC. Bread—the stuff of life, the symbol of our only real necessity this day—was born here, raised on the very yeasts in the air, and has been perfected and become essential to everyday life over the 12,000 years since. Every culture has a bread that is born of its own history and land, and the bread in a contemporary culture reflects not only that history, but some of the modern values of that culture.

When I think about the relationship of Americans to bread, what seems different is that we have forgotten to appreciate bread. We have neglected the simplicity of this one essential need. We want more and more and more. We live in excess, like the bread shelf at the Safeway supermarket. We do not have time to stop for daily bread, much less bake it ourselves. Can you imagine Americans lined up and waiting for a loaf of bread fresh from the oven? We do not want to wait for our bread to be baked, but we expect our bread to wait—preserved with whatever additives are available—for us. We have valued the new, the next thing, that which might make life more efficient, faster, or better, and in our rush and cry and looking always so far ahead, we have lost something very simple and essential to a healthy life. This day, this bread.

It is not that the French are a simple people—far from it. This a land that values complexity, theory, thought and philosophy. Consider Sartre, Montagne, Irigaray and de Beauvoir. Nor is the difference that the French are not busy, hurrying from home to work and school just as contemporary Americans do. The difference, it seems to me, is one of priorities. And bread is a good example of this.

Daily bread is a priority in my life here in Saint Araille. Fresh, simple, a reminder of the only thing a human really needs. It provides a place of community and of intercultural exchange. Bread is a creation of earth and air and fire and water, worked by human hands, as straightforward and innovative as the stone wheel on a log axle. We make bread from the materials at hand, the materials of this Earth. We might pray for this one essential sustenance, but for what do we truly ask? To be able to create sustenance from the materials at hand, the things of the earth. To share with a community of people. To value this day, fresh and warm and simple. All we really need. The breadboard on our table in the tower here in France is carved with these words by which to live: Donnez-nous ce jour notre pain quotidian. This day. This bread. Enough.

Latour/La Tour/The Tower

November 15, 2009

We writers love towers. They are removed and lofty, closer to the divine. Maybe we believe writing in a tower opens our thoughts to the heavens, to the muses. Maybe we need to look away from our work—the tedium of language, the marks on the page, these attempts to quantify a life, life itself, and one’s thoughts—into distances, to see the bigger, wider view. Maybe we seek quiet and solitude to be alone with our thoughts, to focus on the words. Maybe we need to hide to create. The tower’s symbolism and uses—power, protection, lookout, communication, storage—draw us up the stairs, toward the sky. The words housed in this stone structure—the words themselves a structure—contain, and maybe disguise or secret something, maybe imprison, maybe let us watch for something else.

Acrobatic ballet on former prison tower, Auch

At the first of November, Susan and I and the children move up to our home for duration of our stay in a village in France, the château’s tower apartment. It is a proper private space about 50×25 feet with a fully equipped kitchen, living room, dining area, bath and toilet, two bedrooms, and laundry, and a huge loft opening onto a covered balcony overlooking the countryside to the east, north and south. A wood stove stands in the open hearth, supplementing the under-floor heating, and we are fully connected to the rest of the modern world with satellite television, DVD, and Wi-fi. On the other hand, the square holes for the beams of the catwalk ramparts that once ringed the roof attest to the tower’s former importance as a lookout post for the monastery that owned and built it and the surrounding residents. Since the 11th century, when the stones were worked and laid and stacked up in a tower of more than 60 feet on top of a tall hill, Christian Crusaders regularly crossed this part of southern France on their way to Spain and the Holy Lands. Invaders frequently made incursions from the south—where lies Spain beyond the Pyrénées, about three hours drive from here—and the east—where the Mediterranean Sea opens to Rome and Greece, North Africa and the Middle East. Pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella passed nearby. In the tower, we are the tallest thing for miles around. We inhabit both old and new worlds. We climb the thousand-year-old stairs, hang our laundry where the monks kept an eye out for Saracen raiders, sleep restlessly while the winds from the Atlantic and the white Pyrénées howl like ghosts, and wake to write at dawn for an audience to whom I am connected by satellites and radio waves. Weird.

In the Tarot, the Tower is a symbol of destruction, the collapse of the systems and structures we erect in our lives to make us feel safe, to keep us secure, to hide away our secrets, our vulnerabilities. The pictures from the most ancient decks show a stone tower struck by lightening, the people within escaping from the flames and stones in the nick of time, often naked to the storm. This is a mythology that explains those times in life when everything falls apart. When what we had counted on suddenly no longer is. Jung liked this symbolism, of course. He even built a tower himself, by hand. Our tower seems strong, even when the wind blows. We tell ourselves that it has been here for a thousand years. This is unlikely to be the storm that brings it down.

150px-RWS_Tarot_16_Tower

I have always been a weather-watcher, but in the tower, I find myself both obsessed and mystified by the weather. Up here, the winds blow almost all the time. The winds in France have names—Autan, Mistral, Tramotane, Cers. The winds that blow in this part of the Haute Garonne are not the Mistral of Provence, but they can be just as fierce, just as damaging. The winds that blow in from the south and west—from the Atlantic Ocean and across the Pyrenees—in the fall and winter can be very cold, very wet. In the first week of November, our first week in the tower, a series of storms blow in from that direction, sideways sheets of rain, sycamore leaves sweeping past our windows. The wind is loud outside, like waves at the beach or the blood through the heart and veins of someone under great stress, intense. In legend, these winds can make a person go mad, tumble the walls of self that holds the mind together. But isn’t that always the legend of great winds? The tower stands rock solid, cutting the yowling winds. We feel safe but unnerved.

La tour, Montesquieu- Volvestre

Lightening does strike, on occasion, we’re told. It has hit this very tower, the tallest thing for miles. It strikes the chimney and travels straight to ground. It hits the satellite dish and, like an evil sprite, dances through all of the electrics in the whole château, blowing out the television, the d.v.d. player, towel warmers, computers, washing machines, an oven. We protect ourselves as much as possible, keep everything important unplugged unless we’re using it. Unless we see and hear a thunder storm approaching. We watch for lightening like those sentinels of old watched for marauders. I think of the Tarot card image, everything tumbling to the ground.

We find that the weather on the ground floor may be very different from that up in the tower. Some days we hike down all those flights of crooked wooden steps from the howl of wind outside into warmth. The wind from the east feels dry, though the clouds may lower and darken the day early. The clouds may part suddenly, blue skies opening up. Rainbows spring up from the brown plowed hills and disappear into lavender clouds. The snows creep down the Pyrénées as the storms pass, day by day, week by week. And then the weather turns warm again. We pick more of the tomatoes from the garden. My spinach and arugula sprout in the garden. We run in shorts one day and dress the children in winter coats for school the next. Who are we inside this tower? Something different each day. Something unpredictable as the weather swirling around us. But also something solid and unchanging within—is this the self? We come down to earth some days, and find it a strange place.

I move my chair and work table so that I am able to see the sunrise, pinks and oranges and purples and reds. I sit on the swing on the balcony on warm afternoons and look through binoculars. I point the telescope toward Jupiter so that we can look for the giant red spot, a mammoth storm that has been swirling up there 400 million miles away for thousands of years. Since the time this tower was built and monks in robes tended the fields and slept on boards without blankets and watched the horizon for danger coming. They sat, perhaps, just about here and watched these same stars. We look up and out for God, but isn’t that spirit also contained within these walls, permeating the very stones of this tower? The light I see tonight left that star when that lonely monk sat in my place now. When this tower falls, what secret minotaur will be revealed?

View from our tower

In this tower, though, I am not alone. James and Izzy and Susan are all here, and soon we’ll be joined by the dogs in our care. It’s a busy tower, full of life. My heart swells with it. The structure is sound. It holds our joyful noise and points it to the heavens. It draws the heavens down in bolts that illuminate and warm, transformed into dancing sprites. Change—even destruction—can open the heart to magic, to the divine within.

I rise at 5, as is my custom, to be alone in the loft with my words, my writing, my stories, watching the sunrise, watching for invaders, storing away the harvest for another, colder day. I don’t know all that is hidden in the heart of this structure. It has not yet been revealed to me. The tower has not yet fallen away. Change will come though. I know it. And it may be the change of a tower falling, some structure tumbling, a rug pulled from under my feet. It has happened to me before: my coming out, my brother’s death, my father’s silence, even falling in love with Susan and the birth of the twins, the total demolition of my former life. I have learned that the tower falling can bring new light. We can rise to the challenges, embrace the changes, move into a new world.

Sometimes the words build the tower up. Sometimes they protect the secrets. Sometimes they reveal them and the tower crumbles. I seem to land on my feet, naked perhaps, vulnerable. But clean. Illuminated. The words are just a tower. The life within the walls is ordinary and divine in the same breath, the same light of heaven. Stones may crumble, but the light warms, a kind of magic. We must trust—not fear—the process of change. I signal the world miles away. We are safe up here together, even when the walls come down.

Carcassonne

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.