6.05 pm at Carcassone Bed and Breakfast
Another enormous bathtub – this seems to be turning into the holiday of no showers. But enforced relaxation with bubbles and pistachio nuts works rather nicely, especially following a glass or two of red wine. Dad thinks he is drinking far more than usual on this trip and blames me and Gary – but I can assure you the regular afternoon red wine is entirely his idea! He even has a bottle in his room.
Our hotel is utterly charming. It is an old narrow house owned by Mike (English) and Peter (Scottish) and each room has been wonderously decorated. Mine is the red room – toile de jouy wallpaper, four poster bed, chandelier – need I say more? Huge bathroom, antique furniture and wonderful views of the citadel all lit up at night. Dad is in the blue room with chinoiserie wallpaper, a long string of plump porcelain Chinese people hugging each other as ornamentation, wine glasses and corkscrew, and an even better view.
But best of all is the Carcassone Citadel itself. It is like something out of a special FX movie – the most complete and beautiful medieval fortified city I have ever seen. Indisputably dominant, foreboding, awesome in the traditional meaning of the word. It stands on the highest hill here with the snow capped Pyrenees in the background. Shaped like a wobbly doughnut it has two defensive walls with a cobblestone road running between them where they used to practice archery and jousting, and studded with 48 towers of various shapes and sizes. The first wall dates back to Roman times, and the second to the 1200’s.
The legend of a feisty and clever woman gives it its name. Dame Carcass headed up the Saracens in the late 700s when the city was besieged by Charlemagne (son and father of Pepin – not sure which was the musical star) for over five years. Dame Carcass was getting pretty desperate as food stocks were running low. Then she came up with a bright idea. She took a pig and force fed it lots of wheat – it fattened up nicely (and no this is not the start of a low carb lecture) and she threw it over the wall to crash on the stones below at the feet of Charlemagne. He immediately thought that if they had so much food they could throw away a pig bursting with grain then the siege would never end so he gave up. As he marched off Dame Carcass had all the churches ring their bells in victory and delight. Charlemagne turned and gazed up at the citadel and exclaimed “Dame Carcass sonne” ie Carcass rings – and so was established the name Carcassone.
Inside the citadel is an utterly charming meander of crooked streets, a castle, a cathedral, an amphitheatre, two wells, gift shops, numerous (mostly closed) restaurants, and even more numerous doggy bag-and-poo points.
This is the quietest season, but it was a perfectly sunny day, and I think this may be the very best time to visit. We visited the castle, walked the battlements and learned about the history of the place. Its first real heyday was in the 1100’s when it was governed by a series of Raymonds who were tolerant Catholics, aka Cathars. Sadly, Pope-not-so-Innocent III decided he didn’t approve of tolerance and encouraged a brutal crusade against the Cathars. The citadel was conquered in 1209 and taken over by the cruel crusade enthusiast Simon de Montford.
It had a later heyday as protecting the frontier between France and Spain during the middle ages, and had a rather grim dun coloured Bastide town built at its base in the mid 1200s – the “new” town. This was burnt down a hundred years later by England’s black prince, but then immediately rebuilt.
In 1659 the Treaty of the Pyrenees shifted the border between Spain and France further south with Catalan being divided between the two countries – one still sees tapas and gazpacho soup jostling cassoulet and onion soup in many a restaurant menu hereabouts.
From then on Carcassone Citadel declined, used for hovels and as a quarry until a local amateur archaeologist and an architect friend decided to restore it in the late 19th century. They went for a Louis IX look as imagined in the late 1800s, so how true a citadel it is now is open for debate. Nonetheless is made it on to the UNESCO world heritage list in 1997.
And I have to say I haven’t yet met a UNESCO world heritage site that I didn’t adore. No holiday is complete without one.
Meanwhile in Farnham
Yesterday I went to Canary Wharf while the girls visited Sue. This morning I went to the Monochrome exhibition at the National Gallery.