This is my third post for the A to Z Challenge
I could still taste the garlic butter as I walked the cobbled streets back towards the exit of the castle. When in France, escargot are a must, and these were some of the plumpest snails I have ever had the pleasure of consuming. The café inside the medieval city was busy, probably due to the red wine and cassoulet special that was on offer. I had wanted to try the cassoulet since I arrived in town, and I finally had on my third night. I thought that a starter of escargot would have been the perfect way to end my day in the hilltop fortified city of Carcassonne.
I had wanted to visit Carcassonne ever since I read Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. Her novel revolves around the medieval city, both in the present day and in the past, and the history detailed in the story led me to booking 5 nights at a Bed and Breakfast and a return flight from Stanstead. A two-hour flight and 20 minute taxi ride later, I was at the gates to the B&B, and about an hour after arriving in Carcassonne, I was walking towards the hilltop city.
From door to castle, it was probably 15 minutes at an easy pace. Within the walls of the fortified city there is a hotel, but for the budget conscious, the many places to stay in the modern city of Carcassonne are more than appealing. And as it costs nothing to enter the medieval city to walk around the streets and see the sights, you can, as I did, spend entire days up there exploring little nooks and crannies for free – and then spend a little bit to tread across the keep and battlements that had seen enough history for a dozen or more textbooks. And of course, the rather flirty girl who made my lemon and sugar crepe each morning kept drawing me back. Her father was not quite as flirty. Although, in fairness, his crepes were even better than hers.
I’m not going to go into a history lesson – there’s enough information on Carcassonne out there should you really wish to learn what it is all about – it’s history stretches back as far as 1069. In present day, the fortified city provides much of the money injected into the economy, as well as boat rides on the Canal du Midi (more on this later). The new part of the city, or Ville Basse, produces shoes, textiles, and rubber, and is the centre of a major AOC wine-growing region. The River Aude separates the old city from Ville Basse. And there you have all the superfluous information you’re going to need to plan your trip to the region.
Arriving in the middle of the afternoon on the first day, left me little time to fully explore the fortified city that first night, so I walked around the main road inside (saving the little side streets for a later day), and didn’t do any of the extras that I knew I wanted to do – go inside the cathedral, walk the ramparts, go to the old cemetery and get my freak on. I don’t know what it is, but the sense of history in an old cemetery is fascinating to me. I’m not one of those people who gets turned on erotically in a cemetery, but the history there is truly wonderful. Knowing I would be back at least two full days of this trip, I concentrated on finding a café to have my dinner for night. I went simple – a burger and fries accompanied by a beer. When the gates were closing I headed back down the stone steps, across the River Aude, and back to my B&B excited to fully explore the cite the next day.
France, and especially small town France, might just be the perfect place on Earth to stay in a B&B. Everyone seems to be able to make the most delightful pastries and bread, plus homemade preserves, and it is somehow considered almost okay to have a glass of red wine with breakfast. When in Carcassonne, right? Although, full disclosure here … I had orange juice every day.
After a full day exploring on the hill, I used my next full day to explore the modern city. For lunch I stopped at a bakery and bought a ham and cheese baguette, a small bottle of wine, and sat out in the sunshine contemplating how to spend my afternoon. It was then I saw a canal boat go by and decided, if the price was right, I would take a tour down the canals. The price was right. Much like the castaways on Gilligan’s Island (I’m showing my age here) I too set out for a 3-hour tour. A young lady provided notes about the region in French, English, and Spanish, and as the sun beat down this early September day, it was great to just relax and see the citadel from a different viewpoint. Dinner was had in one of the many restaurants in town, and since there is an Irish pub in every city it seems, I watched some football (soccer) before heading back to the B&B.
Running over ramparts and scaling towers, all while muttering “charge” and “hold your positions” is fun no matter what age you are (slightly less fun if someone stuffy and ‘proper’ hears you and gives you a look she gives her dog when he poops on the floor), and I highly recommend it. But it was not the highlight of the trip. Not even a little bit. The fantastic escargot and cassoulet – a rich slow-cooked casserole containing meat (typically pork sausages, duck, goose and sometimes mutton), pork skin, and white beans. It derives its name from the pot it is cooked in – the Cassole – were not even the highlight. The highlight was, on my final evening in Carcassonne, when I had decided to eat dinner in town instead of in the fortified city, I stumbled across a tiny shop with the most eccentric shopkeeper I have ever met. He rushed out of the shop, chainmail hanging from him, a tiny woollen cap adorned on his head, his tunic edging below his knees. He tells me, in broken English and broken French it must be said, that for 5 Euros I can have a tour of his shop, which is basically where the armoury once was, and he can tell me about the weapons that would have been wielded during the time.
For the next hour I was thrust back hundreds of years and donned helmets that weighed over ten pounds, scale armour that weighed nearly 50, draped in robes and then further armour, and I got to handle a multitude of swords, bows, crossbows, and daggers. All told, I got to be “me” my 6-year old self imagined me to be on so many occasions. Through patience and very clean ears, I learned that the weapons’ master I was playing dress up with had taught Kevin Costner how to shoot a bow and arrow on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and he had done some sword work with Milla Jovovich on The Messenger (side note – not the kind of sword work I would have liked to do with Milla but that’s another story). While I did not engage in any combat, real or simulated, it was the best way to end what was an incredible trip to a place that all should see if they can.
I had a mid-morning flight the next day so after dinner I retired back to my room at the B&B. a short walk to the River Aude for some photos later, I arrived at a closed airport with tons of security vehicles around and police tape stretched across the road. Within minutes it was all removed and we could go inside – the airport’s yearly emergency evacuation drill had gone off without a hitch. Well, if not informing worried travellers is without a hitch.