Thursday, January 29, 2009


We arrived at Carcassonne in the Roussillon area of France just before dark fell about 5:30 pm. Google Maps is wonderful in getting detailed directions to specific directions. However Couchsurfer Celine’s directions were much clearer to her home in Carcassonne once we reached the city limits!

Again, I am amazed at the size of the city. Our first Couchsurfing experience is interesting. Celine lives with her partner and their son in a flat on the edge of the Old City and the room that we are given has the most amazing view of the Old City above us – all lit in the night sky.

Celine works long hours for the local Health Department as an Environmental Engineer and Xavier even longer in his computer/video hire business. Son Yann is 6, at school and a bundle of energy like all little boys his age. Celine’s job has been made harder this week with the weekend storm that saw some areas buffeted by the strongest winds on record.

We spend time with Celine and Yann (Xavier is still at work) talking generally about differences in our lives. We ate a very late lunch and are not hungry, so Celine has dinner. Yann seems to like the toy Kangaroo and Koala clip that we have brought for him and before long is playing with Michael with lots of his toys. They move into his bedroom and more toys after a little while! We offer to cook dinner for everyone tomorrow night and Celine accepts.
It has been a long day and so we make our goodnights and settle down to bed before 10 pm – the earliest in a while. Xavier gets home just before we retire.

Wednesday 28 January 2009

This morning we again amaze at the old city that we can almost reach out and touch! Celine is off to Toulouse this morning and Xavier will take Yann to tennis (young primary school students do not attend school on Wednesdays). We plan a day in the old city and the adjoining cemetery.

This is the low season and Celine has warned that most of the shops in the Old Cité will be closed so we go to the local supermarket to get the makings for lunch. The parking areas are almost empty supporting Celine’s comments. Still, this is a positive as we know that we will not have to jostle with lots of others to see the things that interest us.

We enter the City (Carcassonne Cité Médiévale) crossing where once a drawbridge impeded unwanted entry into the city across a deep ditch. While we finished our cheese and date bread rolls in the forecourt outside the city, we admired the towers that flank this entry gate and watched as artisans re-pointed some of the masonry on one of the towers while flocks of pigeons watch disinterestedly from their perch in the sun on the sharply sloped roof of the tower.

The first thing that strikes us is the slope of the roadway into the old city and the narrowness of the streets (just wide enough for local business vehicles to navigate). The buildings open straight onto the streets and there are refinements such as centre gutters to drain water away. Cobbled streets make it easier for repairs to be done, but let me tell you, they are not easy to walk on – especially when they have used rounded pebbles – edges up! We make a brief stop at the information office just inside the gate, get a map of the city and are told that the whole city is open and free to visit – except for the Castle where there is an entry fee.

This City has an amazing history dating back to the Romans before Christ – about 3,500 years. Over the centuries there have been many changes and additions to the City and to its castle as a result of the influences of Visigoth, Saracen and Frankish assailants. This continues today as we witness an incredible fervour of workmen scurrying around many of the properties doing repairs, maintenance and enhancements. There are a number of building styles evident – new ones at least are mimicking the old styles. As Celine has predicted, there are only a handful of shops open – they are doing as reasonable trade on such a nice sunny day. We can only imagine what it must be like during the summer months – every second shop is a café or restaurant and it is obvious that they utilise every bit of space inside and out.

The city is surrounded by a double wall and only one of the many towers cuts across both the walls. These walls were built at different times and led to the city being almost impregnable. While the city was breached in its early times, the castle within was never taken by force and in time of trouble gave shelter to the citizens of the city. The city is named for Carcas, who helped to hold a siege by the French. A copy of her bust stands proudly at the entrance to the city and the (very worn) original is in the museum within the castle.

The Basilique Saint Nazaire was the Cathedral for the city for many years. It is a beautiful church with amazing rose and nave stained windows. The city has a long history of supporting the Cathar knights and there are many reminders here in the basilica and in the castle.

And now to the castle within the City – the Chateau Comtal. The only entry is through the barbican – a fortified area of a reinforced gate, then a wide open space that was easily accessible to the castle crossbowmen and then a draw-bridged access across a deep moat (though it is doubtful whether it ever held water). This was one of the features that allowed this castle to be never taken by force (although it was at least once surrendered). Within the castle walls there are a number of features that helped in the defence of the castle including:
Portcullis – an iron/wooden grid sliding downwards to close off a passageway;
Machicolation – a stone overhanging gallery with openings in the floor for missiles to be shot downwards;
Arrow loops – vertical slits made for shooting arrows; as well as
Hoardings that allowed attack to be made is safety from any area of the battlements.

(and more b***** spiral stairs!)

We wander at will in and through the city streets and in the list – the area between the walls, marvelling at the remains of early Roman and then medieval works. It truly is fascinating to be walking through living history. Carcassonne has been restored after falling in to almost complete ruin. It is held up as one of the best examples of medieval military architecture in the world. It was restored under the famous architect Viollet-le-Duc from 1853 in one of the world’s biggest archaeological restoration projects ever undertaken being completed in 1910. It is now on the UNESCO heritage register and is one of the national monuments of France.

Once we have had our fill, we return to our entry point and cross the road to the cemetery. We are slightly disappointed as the oldest grave we can find only dates back to the early 1800’s. We had hoped to find some much older ones, but on talking with Celine and Xavier later, we come to the conclusion that the same system is used in France as is used in Germany – that your grave site is your for a period of time and that after then, if you don’t purchase the plot, then the grave is re-used.

There is another museum outside the city wall – Le Musée Memoires Moyen Age (Memories of the Medieval Age) that focuses on the history of Carcassonne primarily through its sieges. Michael goes in to have a look at the wonderfully detailed diorama models and an excellent audio visual presentation.

So we were not disappointed. Carcassonne had a huge expectation to live up to for us – and it met it admirably. I had just finished reading Labyrinth by Kate Mosse which is set in the city – it is a great book and well worth the read.

Another day over, we head back to the supermarket to get the makings for dinner. We have settled on lemon cream chicken with fresh vegetables (they are a luxury when travelling!) followed by fresh raspberry tart. 30 minutes after we get back to Celine’s place, we have dinner on the table. It is appreciated by everyone (whew)!

More talk of life in France and Australia. Celine is not working tomorrow as a national strike day has been called. No school for Yann either. Xavier however will work. We give our thanks, a few gifts we have brought with us and a promise of accommodation should they ever get to Australia (this was one of the things in Celine’s profile that drew us to her) and about 10:30 pm head for bed setting the alarm for 7:15 am.

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