Carcassonne

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Carcassonne

Follow the signs to La Cité. The modern town below is known as 'la Ville Basse.' This is an easy place to tour as Carcassonne speaks for itself. It is so unfeasibly good-looking that it seems like something out of a Hollywood film. You can't really go wrong here. It is small and compact, has plenty of nice shops, cafes and restaurants, and is unashamedly touristic in the best sense. There is little in the way of lengthy historical details to bother a tired group but there are plenty of good stories to revive them, and the opportunity to flex your raconteur's muscles with evocations of chivalry and siege warfare. In the words of the tourist board: "Il ne faut pas mourir sans avoir vu Carcassonne." (Mind you, the Neapolitan tourist board says the same thing about Naples.)

How the town got its name  This is a famous and silly story but very charming. It goes like this. At the beginning of the C9 Charlemagne laid siege to the town, a siege that lasted many months. The citizens were getting desperate. They had scarcely any food, no water and no supplies. They were on the point of surrendering to Charlemagne's army. All of a sudden one of the townswomen by the name of Dame Carcas came up with a brilliant idea. She got hold of the shrivelled body of a dead pig and stuffed it to overflowing with the last of the town's stores of grain. She then climbed to the top of of the ramparts and flung the pig out in the direction of the besieging army. The pig exploded and the grain came flying out. When Charlemagne heard the news he despaired at the thought that there was evidently so much food left in the city after months and months of attack, and he made the decision to abandon the fruitless siege once and for all. Dame Carcas had saved the day. In joyous celebration of victory she climbed the belltower of St.-Nazaire and rang the bells for all to hear. The townsfolk in their joy cried out "Carcas sonne!." And that is how the town got its name. Or at least so the story goes.

By curious coincidence the old Roman name for the town had been 'Carcasso,' which some ungenerous souls have suggested as an alternative origin for the modern name.

A little History  In a nutshell, Carcassonne's history is its geography. The city lies perched on a plateau at a vital crossroads: the east-west trade route between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, and the north-south route from France to the Pyrenees and Spain. For this reason it was repeatedly subject to attack and repeatedly fortified throughout its medieval and pre-medieval history. The Romans were the first to build the walls in the C3 and C4; then came the Visigoths from the east, here for 250 years until 725. They were in turn defeated by the Saracens who were ousted after two generations by the Franks. The great period of Carcassonne's history begins in the C11 with the arrival of the ruling dynasty of the Trencavels. For about 130 years it wielded tremendous influence. Then in 1209 came the Albigensian Crusade aginst the Cathar heresy and the city fell under siege again. The victor was Simon de Montfort who gained control of Carcassonne. In 1223 it came under the aegis of the French king for the first time. The next generations were those largely responsible for developing the fortifications of the city as they look today.

With the arrival of gunpowder and heavy artillery in the C15 fortified towns like this one began to be obsolete. In the C17 a treaty was signed between France and Spain bringing the border further south to the Pyrenees where it is now. Carcassonne's geographical importance suddenly became a thing of the past. The walled city degenerated. When it was rescued from decay and imminent demolition in the last century by, among others, the architect-come-restorer Viollet-le-Duc it had basically become a slum.

(Incidentally, in 410 the Visigoths under the leadership of Alaric looted Rome and, according to legend, hid the treasure in Carcassonne. Good luck if you go searching for it.)

The Visit  Ideally, before arriving in Carcassonne you should try to find a spot to park and get a view of the walls from afar. You can explain a little about what they are looking at from there. This is the finest medieval fortified town in Europe. The walls are a masterpiece of military planning and execution. They represent almost every generation from the Middle Ages (even if much of the present aspect reflects the romantic C19 imagination of Viollet-le-Duc, viz. especially the conical roofs of the towers). There are two concentric sets of walls, an inner and outer one. They are separated by the lices, a wide dry moat created in the C13 when the outer walls were built. The inner wall has 25 towers, the outer 20. Only when they stand at the foot of the walls or walk the lices will the group get an idea of how massively tall, thick and impenetrable these walls are. It is hard to imagine how, before the age of gunpowder, these fortifications could ever have been breached. (So the English thought in the Hundred Years' War: they did not even attempt a siege.)

In the town itself it is generally not necessary to do a fully-fledged walking tour. Walk the group the minute or so from the bus parking to the main gate, the Porte Narbonnaise. After explaining a little about the gate point the way to the Chateau Comtal (the seat of the Trencavel family) and the church of St.-Nazaire, recommend that they stroll the ramparts and leave them free to explore and enjoy the town. The Porte Narbonnaise is truly impressive. It is formed of two huge towers 82 ft. high, reached across a drawbridge. Originally access was barred by a heavy iron chain, traps and two portcullises (you can see the grooves at either end of the drawbridge where they stood). Note how the road to the gate zigzags slightly. This was to prevent a battering ram gathering any momentum. If you look up to the top of the towers you can see wooden machicolations from which boiling oil, tar, molten lead or stones could be hurled at any attacker. The towers themselves served a dual purpose. They were also store rooms which could hold 1,000 pig carcasses and 200 sides of beef. They contained a water cistern large enough to store water for six months in time of siege. This was true of all the 45 towers along the ramparts.

Now leave the group free time. The Chateau Comtal involves an entrance fee and is not really worth the time. They are better off walking the walls, exploring the alleyways of the town and taking a brief look at the stained glass of St.-Nazaire, especially if it is a sunny day. Opposite the church there is a famous luxury hotel, recently restored, the Hôtel de la Cité, if anyone is looking for somewhere really classy to have a cup of tea.

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