Carcassonne, July, 2017
Helen Rose Outdoor Diary.
Although I have been to the Languedoc in south west France many times, I have never visited Carcassonne. Carcassonne is a fortified town in the Aude Department of Occitane. It has been inhabited since the Neolithic period and is located in the Aude plain between historic trade routes, linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and the Massif to the Pyrenees Mountains. Its strategic importance was quickly recognised by the Romans who occupied its hilltop until the demise of the Western Roman Empire. In the fifth century it was taken over by the Visigoths, who founded the city. Its strategic location led successive rulers to expand its fortifications. The city is famous for La Cité de Carcassonne, a medieval fortress. This was restored n 1853 by the theorist and architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and was added to the Unesco list of World Heritage Sites in 1997. Some would say that the fortress was over-restored as Viollet-le-Duc had his own ideas on restoration such as including conical towers which were not part of that period.
We spent an entire day in La Cité de Carcassonne where within the medieval walled city there are many shops and restaurants. It is the largest and best conserved medieval fortress in Europe. It has double walls, a castle and the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire – reported to have the most beautiful stained glass windows in France. This being France, lunch takes up a great part of the day as it is leisurely and wine is usual with the meal. I had the specialty of the area which is cassoulet. Cassoulet is one of those iconic French regional dishes that acquire a history and status of their own. The story is that during the 100 Years War in the 14th century, Edward the Black Prince besieged the town of Castelnaudary. When the inhabitants were down to their last supplies they pooled what was left – beans and bits of meat – and ate the mixture. Strengthened by it they soon saw off the English, who apparently ran all the way back to the Channel, and cassoulet was born!
The leisurely lunch was followed by a trip to the Castle and the ramparts. It is not possible to walk around the entire perimeter of the ramparts of the walled Cité. Walking around the ramparts gives the chance to appreciate its advantageous geographical situation overlooking the Aude countryside and the Bastide Saint-Louis which is the name of the old town in Carcassonne. It felt like walking in the footsteps of all the previous rulers including the Cathars in the thirteenth century. The Cathars were a religious group who appeared in Europe in the eleventh century and largely regarded men and women as equals with no objection to contraception, euthanasia or suicide.
The following day we spent touring the Bastide where there was much to see including the market at the Fountain of Neptune created by Italian sculptors in 1771. A good excuse to sit in a café and people watch! There were many churches and buildings to explore along with the Museum of Fine Art with its ornate Neo-Classical façade. It is a pleasure just to walk in the streets of these old French towns such as Beziers and admire the architecture and colourful flowers spilling from the balconies.
Canal du Midi.
The Canal du Midi is Occitan (the local language) meaning canal of the two seas. It is a 241 km (150 mile) long canal. The canal was at the time considered one of the greatest construction works of the 17th century. The canal connects the Garronne River to the Etang de Thau on the Mediterranean Sea and along with the 193 km (120 miles) long Canal de Garonne forms the Canal des Deux Mers, joining the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. The canal runs from the city of Toulouse down to the Étang de Thau near the Mediterranean. We decided to take a trip on the Canal Du Midi crossing the Carcassonne harbour passing under the highest bridge on the canal and sailing outwith the city. The area is attractive with one hundred year old plane trees providing shade at the side of the canal. We passed through two locks which are all now automatic. This is a busy canal with many very large and plush pleasure boats to be seen. The cruise was relaxing but unusually the weather was cold and grey so the boatman provided rugs for us to keep warm. Unusual weather for the south of France in the summer.
There is so much to see in the Languedoc that I hope to return many more times to explore it and visit châteaux.
Coming attractions; The Sumava Mountains.
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