Magical Carcassonne in Cathar Country

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This month’s article is all about the famous UNESCO listing walled fortress city of Carcassonne in heart of Cathar Country in Occitanie. You may have heard Rick Stein talking about it on one of his TV series along the canal du Midi. Here’s Beth take on this mesmerising place which receives an average 3 million visitors every year!

“Vicious blasts from the Autan wind roared over the Black Mountains, screaming across vast plains to Carcassonne. Soldiers positioned high on crenellated battlements shivered and drew in their cloaks, but they were no match for the penetrating icy gusts. Dear God, it was cold. Their job to defend the mighty Carcassonne from attackers was ceaseless. Life as a Cathar in the Middle Ages was tough. At least, that’s how I imagined it must have been.

A recent visit from my history-loving friend gave me the perfect excuse to revisit Carcassonne, one of my favourite historical sites. And, happily, it was a sunny day with barely a breeze in the air.

It’s a two-hour drive to reach the cité, long enough for me to get annoyingly excited. I’m not sure Trish fully understood my eagerness until the moment arrived.

“Wow! It’s amazing,” she gasped at her first sighting.

A Disneyworld of fairy turrets interlaced with perfectly patterned walls glittered in the summer sun, a hilltop jewel crowning the Aude plain below. The meandering river close by shimmered as it flowed lazily around part of the fortification. This place is mesmerising.

We parked and climbed steep steps to the entrance. If you’re planning a visit to this world-famous attraction, beware. There are lots of steps involved in a comprehensive exploration of Carcassonne. We approached the imposing entrance with its mighty drawbridge, trying to absorb the sheer scale of our surroundings. There’s a pillar which features a stone replica of Lady Carcas. Her story, based on legend, tells how the city came to get its name. Here’s my interpretation.

Lady Carcas was an 8th century Saracen princess. A feisty lady, she ruled the cité Carcas after her husband died during the wars between Christians and Muslims. Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was hell-bent on reconquering the city. But it was challenging.

Carcas was besieged for years by Charlemagne’s army. The inhabitants struggled, but by the sixth year, food and water were running out. People began to starve. Lady Carcas, refusing to surrender, ordered an inventory to be made of all remaining reserves. It didn’t take long.

The villagers brought her a few scraps together with a pig and a sack of wheat. It was the beast that gave her a cunning idea. Much to their surprise, Lady Carcas commanded that the pig be fed as much wheat as it could eat. Had she gone mad?

The corpulent animal was duly produced for inspection. Lady Carcas declared it ready for action. A group of soldiers grabbed the porker and hurled it at the attackers from the highest tower of the city walls. Unfortunate for the pig, but it impressed Charlemagne and his troops no end.

Believing the city had enough food to waste fat farm stock, Charlemagne lifted the siege. Overjoyed by the success of her plan, Lady Carcas had all the bells ringing in the city. One of Charlemagne’s men exclaimed, “Carcas sonne!” (“Carcas sounds!”) And this is allegedly how the name of the city was born.

Luckily we had chosen a quiet day to visit. We ambled along narrow cobbled streets, the same ones used by folks so many centuries ago. Were they crowded and smelly back then? Was petty crime rife? Were there beggars and starving dogs looking for scraps? Did the bubonic plague touch the populace? Or was it clean and well-ordered? We suspected there were probably elements of each.

We passed several gift shops and cafés en route to the château and ramparts, many of which were housed in restored buildings using original medieval timbers. This place was mind-blowing. Our tour began with a short film about the fortification’s history, extending over 2,500 years.

Of major significance was the period concerning the Trencavel family. They were powerful Cathars in the south of France between the 10th – 13th centuries and were once notable custodians of Carcassonne. Pope Innocent III launched the crusade against the Cathar heretics during this period, a political consequence of which was the eventual exile of the Trencavels.

It was during the 13th century when Carcassonne took the form of the fortress that can be seen today. Until the Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed in 1659, Carcassonne defended the border between France and Aragon. Battles and great fires ravaged the cité, causing devastation to its people and buildings. Over the years, it gradually fell into ruin, perpetually bombarded and slowly neglected.

In 1844, the French state commissioned the architect, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, to restore the cité. The restoration began in 1853 and was not completed until 1911 after his death. The renewal returned the royal city to its original splendour of the late 13th century with its featured pointed slate roofs. It was these we had come to see.

Interior exhibits included fragments of Romanesque frescoes. The restored colours were vibrant, gorgeous. There were Gothic masonry treasures, grumpy gargoyles, a magnificent water urn and the original stone bust of Lady Carcas.

Back outside, we explored room footprints and, on one side, a section with wooden hoardings erected on a high wall. The overhanging wooden ramparts originally protected defenders. The building’s shell bore other evidence, marks where the upper floors of the Trencavel household would have been; outlines in the walls of immense fireplaces, windows and doors.

We clambered up the steep inner rampart steps, each bevelled with action and age. Momentarily sheltered from a fresh breeze by the crenellated rampart wall, we poked our heads through to enjoy views of the Black Mountains. The vista is extraordinary!

We continued, emotionally blown away by what we were seeing. Up and down knee-high stone steps, sometimes eye-level with vast slated turrets and barbicans, all designed to prevent attack from siege engines. We paused beneath conical roofs, avoided murder holes, passed crenels made for defenders to unleash their weapons of war, and spied arrow slits in walls.    

Like roofs? If so, you’d love Carcassonne. Our elevated position gave us a bird’s-eye view of sloped, rounded, square, and damaged roofs. Always tiled, they form a higgledy-piggledy morass protected by the mighty defensive walls.  

“Look!” said Trish, “that must be someone’s home.”

She was right.  

Trish had spotted a back garden, though not an ordinary one. This featured Roman statues, possibly authentic. Amazingly the cité has 50 residences. While living in France’s second most popular tourist centre can’t be easy, I couldn’t help thinking about how exciting it must be to experience life inside these walls.

Reaching ground level, we strolled along more sunny cobbled streets, sheltered from the prevailing wind. We passed divine-looking restaurants and more tempting shops as we headed towards the gothic church, which in 1898, was upgraded to a basilica by Pope Leo XIII.

Inside, the sense of serenity is extraordinary. Silently, we studied exquisite stained glass windows; they’re some of the oldest in the south of France. Graceful vaulted arches accented the breathtaking simplicity of its ceiling design. Candles flickered along the sides, highlighting the pulpit, the cylindrical pillars with sculptured capitals and the magnificent organ pipes. What a treat to spend time here.

Our route back to the car was via the outer ramparts. Once again, we were astonished by the enormity of this place. We craned our necks at the turrets high above. Three kilometres of ramparts, two fortresses (during its history), four gates and 52 towers – we had only scratched the surface. No wonder this great city was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997.  

And did my friend, Trish, enjoy herself? This was her reply.

“Can we come here next time I visit, please?”

We are currently listing a couple of superb (and rare) properties in the Black Mountains and Carcassonne area; one is an hospitality property with 89 ha land and a restaurant. The second property is a rare domaine in the middle of a forest with 74 ha of peace and full privacy with a river, a waterfall, a herd of deers and your own private airfield, priced at a cool €4,9M!

For more France related stories make sure you check Beths books, all about country living in her estate and her adventures in south west France, check out her website.  If you are looking to move to the Occitanie region to start a new life or for a holiday home, then get in touch.

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