Going Medieval in Carcassonne

October 24, 2008 by · 2 Comments 

I awake in the morning nestled into my comfy, flowered bedding and pull the curtains open to enjoy the view of the yellow hills with their patchwork of green trees. A waft of lavender enters the room from the patch below that is drying.

Soon there’s a tap on my door and it’s time to go down for petit dejeuner. Our hostess Jacqueline has laid the table with bread, croissants, yoghurt, fruit and preserves. She greets us with a sunny ‘bonjour.’

Jacqueline told us that it’s been really dry this year, which explains the yellowed hills and the dry lavender. The temperature is around 12 or 14°C today, but Jacqueline says it has only recently dropped so low. Apparently last week is was warm, sunny and beautiful.

Soon she brings coffee with hot milk and we sip our café crème while browsing through brochures of the area’s many attractions. La Cité, the medieval city of Carcassonne is the first order of business for us today.

On our approach to the 2,500-year-old, walled city we had to pull over and appreciate the grandeur of the site. It’s Europe’s largest fortress and inspired Walt Disney as the model for the castle in Sleeping Beauty.

It’s a clear day and we are able to look south to the Pyrenees mountains. Today the Spanish border is about 120 kilometres south, but before the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 it was just outside Carcassonne, which might explain the care they took to fortify the city. Carcassonne protected the French border.

In the Roman Era (give-or-take a few decades 100 BC to the mid-400s AD) Carcassonne made some good bank thanks to a handy location on the Toulouse-Narbonne trade route. It had pretty good defenses back then, but they were beefed up in 1226 when the king of France took over.

For an invader in 1226, the specs of Carcassonne must have seemed like Danny Ocean going over the plan to rob the casinos in Ocean’s 11. Carcassonne has a great lookout from its location high above the Aude valley — sneaking up undetected would have been a challenge.

Visigoth, Saracen, Frankish or other assailants first faced curved walls that were fitted with defensive battlements. If they found a way to pass the outer walls, there was an open space to cross. Not so bad, right? Wrong. The castle’s crossbowmen had an easy shot to pick off footmen.

Next there was a moat with a drawbridge that could be lifted as another line of defense. If invaders braved the waters they faced a narrow entrance flanked by twin towers that housed numerous holes for firing. There were more “murder holes” that allowed defenders to shoot down from a wooden gallery at the top. Also, there was an iron grid that would drop down to close off the passage and keep the castle safe.

Like Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13, invaders still managed to break through the defenses every now and then. Over the years the city has been a Moorish conquest, a feudal stronghold, a Cathar citadel and a frontier fort. These days, the site is a tourist attraction. Entry through the outer walls and over the moat is free. Visitors today are welcomed with shops and restaurants. It’s a great place to get a taste of cassoulet or to buy some local artisan handiwork.

There is a museum to visit. It’s located in the heart of the old castle and it’s worth the €7.50 (C$12-ish) entry fee. Many of the castle’s foundations date back to the Roman era, most of the walls and towers are original but the upper sections are courtesy of architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc’s 19th century rebuilding project.

The old city fell into ruin after the Roussillon region became part of France in 1659. In 1844 Viollet-le-Duc came to the rescue. The restorations of the city and its medieval look went on for about 50 years, with architect Paul Boeswillwald completing the work after Viollet-le-Duc’s death in 1879. It has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1997.