A grab-bag of Day 6 on the Southwest France road trip in and around the Aude department.
The roads twisting through the Massif Central were destinations in themselves. We drove through the Parc naturel régional du Haut-Languedoc in a dreamy state of otherworldliness, interrupted only by the rare appearances of other vehicles whipping out suddenly from unseen bends, commandeered by drivers who look equally spaced out.
“You MUST go to Carcassonne,” my friends told me.
“Ummm,” I replied. I’d never been a huge fan of travel advice, having been recipient of some spectacularly bad ones in the past.
In the end, it was our lovely, tiny landlady of the gîte we were renting in the adorable, equally tiny village of Montmaur who settled it. “Of course you must go!” Her fingers were clapped over her mouth; her brows sky-high. And then in a softer voice, as though it just occurred to her we might be particularly slow, “Why did you drive all the way here if you weren’t going to go there?”
I was glad I went, of course – it would be quite ridiculous to say otherwise. We enjoyed tramping about the fortifications and on its ramparts, where the biting, freezing Cers wind coming off the Atlantic threatened to take our ears off. There was an introductory video – quite a good one – in one of the rooms near the entrance that continued the sad story of the Cathars during the Crusades led by the same abbott who brought the crusaders to the Cathedral of Saint Nazair in Béziers.
Morale in the city was ebbing away steadily as the wells dried up in the continuing heat, but the crusaders did not want to destroy Carcassonne as they had Béziers. If they did, what would be left for whichever of them took over the city? They offered fresh terms. If the city surrendered, the lives of its inhabitants would be spared provided they walked out wearing nothing but their shirts and breeches, leaving everything else for the crusaders. On August 14th, Raymond-Roger and nine of his subordinates were given safe conduct to discuss the terms with the besiegers and accepted them, but then, in breach of the safe conduct, Raymond-Roger was seized and chained up (he died in mysterious circumstances in his own prison a few weeks later, aged 24). The next day Carcassonne surrendered and the citizens left as agreed, ‘carrying nothing but their sins’, in the words of the crusade’s accompanying Cistercian chronicler.
Honestly. People do the shittiest things in the name of religion.
And in the Basilique des Saints Nazaire et Celse, visitors were treated to the low, throaty hum of a vacuum cleaner being plied over Gothic sandstone walls.
It also has to be said that there is a lot of tourist tat in Carcassonne. Now, I am fully cognizant that tourist shops spring up around well-visited places to get people like me to drop a few dimes. My presence and my insatiable demand for vin chaud in genteel settings, fridge magnets, tea-time sets with le chocolat chaud and nutella crepes, are the reasons why there is tourist tat. I name the above because those are things I, yes, bought. Still. One wonders if the law of diminishing returns ought to be applied here.
Leaving, I ran into a UFO, and thus completed my day.
Dinner was procured from a maddeningly darling grocer’s just outside Carcassonne. The medieval fortress loomed above as we drove away, car boot stuffed with over-priced vegetables, cheap wine and the eternal baguette.