I thought they knew we were in Europe before they decided to visit Carcassonne.
Although, in retrospect, I could have really hammered the point home before we found ourselves hurtling through the tiny streets of Carcassonne, with barely enough room for one of those laughably small Audis, let alone our rental Peugot van. Actually, hurtling may be too strong a word to use – rather, we anxiously inched along, meter by meter, tightly gripping our seat belts.
What I mean to say is that in the USA (and to varying degrees Hong Kong, for that matter) especially if you live in a metropolis like New York, you can get food later than 10 at night. Hell, you can get food at 4AM if you really wanted to. I may have shoveled the contents of a tub of McNuggets down my gullet walking home at 5AM once. Or twice. When I was in college, we had these infamous calzones served to drunk college students. Okay, they weren’t specifically for drunk college kids, but they were called Bluezones and with ingredients like a full pound of buffalo chicken and blue cheese, and with the name becoming synonomous with weed and finals week, I’m not sure that there was another target clientele.
Not so the case in Europe, much less small-town Europe. There’s not much tolerance or acceptance of eating-around-the-clock. We realized this quickly during our week-long jaunt through the south of France.
Restaurants are open from 12:00 – 2:30 for lunch, and then they reopen from 7:00 to 10:00. And they’re closed on Tuesdays. But on Wednesdays and Thursdays they only serve dinner. And occasionally they’re closed for no reason at all. “But I swear Google says they’re open!” I said helplessly, more than once, hands wringing in front of the annoyed faces of my family, standing before othe pitch-black windows of a restaurant with CLOSED hung on the door. How do you know when they’ll be closed? You cross your fingers and pray to the food gods!
The charms of traveling in Europe.
I have prefaced with all of this because my dad was so excited after our jovially polite host at Logis l’Estelvin chambres d’hôtes asked us if we’d had dinner.“No, we haven’t!” my dad said bouncily. “Do you serve food?”
“No,” was the response, just as bouncy. “All shops are closed.”
“Oh. That’s all right.”
I told you so.
Nevertheless, the next morning, we descended the winding staircase of this 600-year-old building. The night before, we’d verbally tussled with our host a bit with some language difficulties – was it a 6000 year old building? 6-year-old building? And finally settled on 600 years old making the most sense.
A grand chandelier hung from the high ceiling and at each place setting, a croissant and a slice of cake was carefully placed. A basket of fresh baguettes lay in the middle, with an abundant array of spreads and jams in the center – hazelnut spread; apricot, strawberry, orange, and blueberry jam; butter; honey. To the side lay slices of cheese and charcuterie, and jugs of hot coffee and orange juice. I savagely tore through three hunks of baguette that morning and at the time, I’d thought that was a lot.
Pray for me because this was to become my new normal – reduced to a carb-induced coma before 9 in the morning.
As we finished our meal, the proprietor, Vincent, stood quietly at the door and made quiet small talk. Where are you from? What languages do you speak? With a sweeping motion with his land, he announced that he was from Valencia!
“Si vos hablar espanol, no hay problema!” He said with a smile.
I wondered what would take this man from Valencia with the wild white beard and hair into running a one-room B&B in Carcassonne, France.
A grand romance? Escape from he harnesses of an old life no longer serving him? A moment of hitting rock-bottom? Who knows?
That day it took us 30 minutes to exit the miniature parking lot, because the damn car refused to behave and we couldn’t figure out how to pay the ticket. (Little did we know, that would only be the beginning). After what seemed like an eternity later, the Peugeot finally decided to roll unconcernedly out onto cobbled streets, which, this morning, were quietly stoic on a cloudy March day.
The Cité de Carcassonne
The spires of the Cite de Carcassonne towered on a hilltop in the near distance, with conical towers spearing the sky from low ramparts and crunicles, all craggy rugged stone and rock. Those towers appeared a stone’s throw away, but they were really a good 15-minute purposeful stride from the bottom. The streets turned even narrower and quieter (if that was even possible), until my dad, my mom, my brother and I began the light ascent towards the castle.
Oh, those towers! Even though the towers were less densely packed than a Disneyland castle, they were so distinctively Disney-esque: so truly medieval that I was sure in my bones that Walt Disney could not have visited the gates of Carcassonne, seen those towers spindle towards the clouds, and said point-blank to his crew “Yep, the job’s over. This is Sleeping Beauty’s castle, boys.” To visit Carcassonne, I conclude, means to visit Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
Okay, there’s still Neuschwanstein, but still. Neuschwanstein is a toddler (only 19th century) compared to Carcassonne.
Here’s a little history for you (cobbled together from good ol’ Wikipedia and my dad’s “Provence” history book sitting oh-so-conveniently in the car): Carcassonne is a relic of medieval Provence. Although Provence was part of the Holy Roman Empire for a period of time (honestly, what commune or town wasn’t at this time), local lords remained fiercely independent, giving rise to these magnificent fortified medieval walled cities. The Cité passed from the Romans to the Visigoths, to the Saracens, to the Franks, and then passed under the protection of the Trencavel family. The Crusades came not long after.
What does this mean for our charming citadel? It means that this city of stone, this now-charmingly quiet cobbled town, was attacked over and over and over. Which means that it’s all the more reason to visit Carcassonne.
Because medieval towns were built for safety rather than for comfort, they featured strong castle keeps enveloped in even stronger ramparts, with purposely narrow gates so that they could be closed off and defended in attack. Everything with a purpose.
There are a lot of people trying to visit Carcassonne today. Today it’s filled with tiny restaurants, souvenir and crafts shops, and art displays, but although the interiors have changed, the exterior has remained astonishingly intact. It’s as easy to imagine a cobbler’s shop where a stylish art gallery now stands as it is to imagine that feudal hot shot lords rode their horses under arches and through the portcullis, and rode over the moat – now bone-dry – through a lowered gate.
The entrance to the castle was guarded by quietly working staff. I approached in what I think, ahem, is confident French and say “Quattre billets, s’il vous plait.” French 1, hello!
Without missing a beat, the recipient of my oh-so-confident request, a well-groomed bearded French man in his early 30s, launched a rapid-fire question right back at me in French because duh, I’d just spoken to him in French.
All my composure flew out the window and after a few ungainly sputters, I very gracefully and articulately said, “Sorry, what?”
He took a slow deep breath (I swear his eyes rolled into the back of his head) and said, “With the audio or not?”
“No audio,” I replied meekly. In English.
He raised an eyebrow and printed four tickets.
So here is the dilemma for the traveller. Learn a few words, get the accent just so, and then be totally unequipped for what comes after, and end up speaking English anyway! I practice all my words, get all my conjugations in line, give my most guttural r’s, and get responded to in near-perfect English by the poor soul who happens to be on the receiving end of my unfortunate no-vocabulary French. Oh you sad girl, they seem to say, we can speak in English for you.
And yet she persisted! I never learn.
Visit Carcassonne on a Self-Guided Tour
The first mark of interest was the wide open courtyard. It was within this courtyard, where groups of children on school trips talked and chattered, that I marvelled at the 2,500 year old history – at the inhabitants being Gallic, then Roman, then Saracen, and then the Crusaders. Carcassonne, you’ve had some fickle owners.
There are also rooms upon rooms here. Stark, stony rooms open to cold winds – and when we got high enough in the towers, the March wind swooped and whooshed dangerously around us. I wondered how often the people who once manned these ramparts and towers shivered in the cold and longed to be closer to the heart of the castle, by a warm hearth with food in their bellies.
In one of the larger rooms, a short film detailing the history of Carcassonne plays, with subtitles in French, English, and Spanish. Because time wasn’t on our side and also because we had had no idea just how crazy enormous the castle was, we rushed on, from steep staircases to the next arched gate to the next rampart, with wide crenulations and the tiniest arrow slits for castle defenders.
Near the end of the route that lead us rushing through the castle, there were artifacts and preserved displays: paintings and long-battered and worn frescoes shadowed the ceilings and walls, and stoney knights carved in astonishing detail.
We passed enormous smoothly carved stones, each the size of a bowling ball, a sobering display of the weapons of war. I imagined some young fighter caught in the throes of the Crusades hurling this stone of death with a battle cry through the crennallations in the castle walls down to attackers below, with inevitably gory results.
I also thought of the first time I watched The Patriot where a cannon lops off a soldier’s head, and I, fascinated at the age of 12, shriekingly called my little brother to come and watch the replay, which I delightedly played over in ¼-second time.
As we came down through the winding streets of the Old Town and bypassed the shops, I noticed the gaggles of schoolchildren and the hushed voices of couples, of visitors jotting notes and lingering over information plates. To visit Carcassonne means to have a lot of patience for this type of behavior.
As we huddled in each tower and heard the whistling of the wind, as we walked up uneven stairs and down again, and as we were able, undisturbed, to trace our fingers over rock and age-worn stone, and to stare over the vibrant orange of the roofs down below, completely undisturbed by shouting crowds, I could that much more easily picture the ghosts of this place: the Grand Hall lined with fireplaces, now exposed to the wind, the holes where archers perched, ready for the command to release, and the echoes of its everlasting grandeur. Are you ready to visit Carcassonne now?
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