Friday, February 20, 2015

Carcassonne

France, and indeed Europe, is incredibly rich in history. History which can be seen all around us and yet dates back thousands of years. The most obvious signs are of course the many castles and monasteries dotting the landscape, some of which have been there since the middle ages. Quite a few are, in one form or another, open to the public too. But it's not just the 'upper class' buildings which have been preserved, simply riding through an older town in France can mean we're riding roads that were built by the Romans... Just try to imagine how many people have travelled these roads!

Carcassonne's history goes back somewhat further than most. There is evidence of occupation dating back as far 5500 years ago...! Mind boggling numbers. Despite being a trading centre, it was more than likely its strategic location which ensured growth and significance. The Romans were one of the first to recognise this and fortified the hilltop. Over the centuries Carcassonne has been the centre of some fierce, and no doubt bloody, battles. Battles which didn't end until 1659 when the Treaty of the Pyrenees meant it was no longer an important strategic military settlement.

Carcassonne has since been restored and made its way to the Unesco World Heritage Site list. Today tourism is the main source of income, although wine production in the surrounding area is evenly important. Despite having seen the tourism brochure, we had no idea what to expect. Quite often places like this have become unrealistic tourist traps. Carcassonne hasn't. Sure there are souvenirs for sale everywhere and the fortified city's sole income seems to come from tourists, but it hasn't lost its historic significance. Quite the opposite. Approaching the city is an impressive sight. Its perched on top of the hill and fortified to the extreme. It must have been a hard place to conquer.



We were given a tip on where to easily and safely park our bikes, which was just outside the city. A short walk through the park and past old characterful houses, leads to climb to the entrance. Once inside we found ourselves in the Middle Ages, well... apart from mobile phones, digital cameras and the hideous clothing we now seem to regard as 'leisure wear'. One family in particular caught my eye... mum resembled something nasty from a cartoon, the kids were totally not interested in anything but the smart phone while dad followed like a droopy dog. Of course the kids were slobbering an ice-cream while arguing on how to do whatever on their phone. As I'm in 'family mood' anyway, I might as well air my grievance against parents who allow their kiddie winks to wear radioactive bright pink... If you're wondering why everyone is wearing welding goggles; have a look at your kids! I mean, seriously, it's not a bouncing castle but an historic town... made from greyish stone, medieval buildings and subdued colours... while your kids bounce around looking like something Sci-Fi from Hollyweird...? 

On the other end of the scale we found a couple of free runners on the walls around Carcassonne, which would have been even better had they been in period dress... Inside the walls of Carcassonne there are quite a few places to eat and buy souvenirs. Most eating establishments had a sort of 'expensive bullshit' feel to them but in one of the narrow alleys we found a colourful Frenchman with quite possibly the smallest restaurant I've ever seen. Despite the small size he prepared quite a few different foods and for a nominal outlay. There are no chairs or tables and no waiters, François prepares it all himself and does so in enthusiastic French style! Order something simple like a hotdog and you get the theatricals for free! We enjoyed both food and show and thus asked for an ice cream too.



Just outside the main walls, archaeological excavation is still going on. Young people digging and carefully scraping layer after layer of soil away with spoons, looking at each and every rock they find. To you and me they probably look like ordinary rubble, but they see that it once was pottery, a statue or even the foundation of a wall or building. 

Art students at work in Carcassonne 
Carcassonne is one of those places where simply walking around and, more importantly, looking around is all you have to do for an enjoyable day. The atmosphere is good and there is plenty to see. For some reason we also found quite a few people in Buddhist style dress. Entry is free, unless you want to have a look at the restored castle part. It's also a place that shows what can be done when people don't accept a government decision... Carcassonne was in such a bad state that in 1849 the government decided it needed to be demolished. This caused such an uproar that restoration began just 4 years later. The uproar also resulted in us being able to see it and walk through it. I hope they have been rewarded for their uproar, if not then the should be posthumously.

Carcassonne can be visited from Montolieu campground, which as you can read in the next post, is a good base to explore the surroundings from and only a short ride away from Carcassonne over rural French roads.


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