I first saw the astonishing medieval cité of Carcassonne in 1975, after having hitchhiked for two-weeks across France without a guidebook or a decent map. As I approached it for the first time, the ramparts looming up at me out of the dusk across the ancient bridge that links the ville basse [or lower town] to the towering confection of the walled city.
I was twenty and had finished my first year at university in England. I longed for adventure but after a summer of working for a firm of builders merchants, I only had about one-hundred pounds in my pocket which wasn’t much even then. So, I bought a copy of the International Youth Hostels Handbook and a ticket to Calais then stuck out my thumb. The only map I had, was the one in the front of the YHA book and it showed only the major towns and roads. From that, I devised a circular route around the country. What I didn’t know however, was that hitch-hiking was technically illegal in France. In retrospect that explained why my lifts were on average, three-hours apart…
By the time I reached Carcassonne, I was tired but one thing I had discovered on my trip was that wherever you found a Youth Hostel in France, it was normally at the top of a hill. Such was the case here. Standing at the foot of the massive grey, stone walls of the cité, looking upwards towards the summit of the hill on which it was built, I knew I was in for a steep climb. As soon as I entered the cité however, I found a maze of cobbled narrow streets lined with stone-built shops and ancient public wells complete with pulleys for buckets. What attracted me however, were the tree-shaded cafés where groups of young people sat around drinking red wine. Suddenly, my tiredness was forgotten. I fell in love with Carcassonne and stayed a full week recovering, cooling my heels and making new friends. When I left, I vowed that one day I would return. What I didn’t expect was it would take a full thirty-six years to redeem my promise.
The hill around which Carcassonne developed, has been a place of habitation for at least 3,500 years and became a fortified Roman camp in about 100BC. After the fall of the Roman empire, it passed to Visigoth hands and became so well fortified that it was able to withstand attack from both the powerful Frankish knights of the North and Saracens from Barcelona. Eventually in 1067, Carcassonne became the property of Raimond Bernard Trencavel, who brought with him an age of peace when Carcassonne grew in wealth and power.
His descendant Raymond Roger Trencavel became caught up the Catholic church’s 13th Century Crusade against the so-called “Cathar” heretics, who were tolerated within the cité by the Catholic Trencavel. A sympathetic picture of the man is portrayed in Kate Mosse’s best-selling book Labyrinth, in which strands of medieval history are woven with elements from the Grail legend, within the structure of modern thriller. Like me, Kate Moss was overwhelmed by the atmosphere of the place and has even gone so far as to have bought a house there.
Carcassonne has all the elements you would expect of a fortified medieval community. Completely surrounding the town are two concentric outer walls with high towers, topped with pointed slate roofs. To gain entrance to the inner area, you have to pass over a drawbridge and through a massive portcullis. Within the walls, there is a castle with its own protective moat and drawbridge, leading to a formidable central keep. It truly is walls within walls.
After Trencaval surrendered his castle to the thoroughly unlikable Simon de Montfort, leader of the French knights besieging the town, he was incarcerated and allowed to die. Then began a horrific round of inquisitions, where Cathars were identified, forced to confess and repent or be burnt at the stake. Many believers chose the latter path.
Ironically, the Cathars called themselves “good Christians”. Although they varied in their beliefs, most considered that if God was pure “good”, he could not have created “evil”. That meant that there had to be an equal and opposite God who was “bad”. If the good God was created entirely of “spirit”, then all things material were “evil” and again by definition that included the powerful of this world and the established church. The purpose of life was to transcend matter and become one with the God’s love. Unfortunately, this meant that Christ had to be a man, as he couldn’t be the pure spirit of God and a human at the same time. Therefore there had been no virgin birth and no resurrection. That combined with the Cathar’s disgust with the opulence of Catholic ritual and the wealth of the Catholic church sealed their fate.
By the mid 19th Century, the Cité of Carcassonne was no longer of military or strategic value and the French government decided to demolish it. The mayor of Carcassonne Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille, was astonished and appalled and led a campaign to preserve it for future generations. Within a year Eugéne Viollet-le-Duc was commissioned to undertake the vast restoration project. By the time of his death in 1879, the work still was not completed and was continued by his pupil Paul Boeswillwald. Although the restoration is not “authentic” by present day standards, it is quite astonishing and gives the feeling of complete immersion in a medieval environment.
My purpose in visiting Carcassonne was not just to engage on a sentimental journey and relive old memories. My partner Sandra and I had been considering buying a house in Europe for our future and after talking through some possibilities [“how about Cyprus?” – too hot, “how about Northern Spain?” – too wet? “how about England?” – not likely, too cold!], we decided that Southern France was probably “just right!”
We started looking around the Carcassonne region and after a week decided that though the countryside was beautiful and you could buy an old winegrowers house for very little in a rural area, we wanted the convenience of a town. Cities like Beziers and towns like Castelnaudary did not appeal and very soon, so decided that Carcassonne was a good place to live.
These days, it is home to an international arts festival that runs all summer, it has a new multiplex plus an old art-house cinema, there are music concerts in the old churches and free concerts outside. The restaurants are plentiful and universally good, then there is the wine. That is every bit as good as I remember! So to cut a long story short, it looks like I may be seeing quite a bit more of Carcassonne in the future…
To find out more about Carcassonne try this link: http://www.carcassonne.org/carcassonne_en.nsf/vuetitre/docpgeintrovisiter