CAR­CAS­SONNE BREAK

The sun-soaked city in Aude isn’t just a pretty for­ti­fied face, says Lara Dunn. Look beyond the walls of the Cité for a town of two equally in­trigu­ing halves

France - - Contents -

Go beyond the for­ti­fied Cité to ex­pe­ri­ence the con­trasts of this tourist hot spot.

Wan­der­ing along the wind­ing streets, tur­rets and ram­parts loom­ing above at seem­ingly every turn, it is easy to see why Car­cas­sonne has be­come so en­dur­ingly loved by vis­i­tors – some three mil­lion of them a year. In­deed, em­bark­ing at Stansted air­port a cou­ple of days before, I was a lit­tle per­turbed to find a sub­stan­tial num­ber of birth­day party and cel­e­bra­tion groups al­ready loudly en­joy­ing the flight. After my ar­rival in the city, how­ever, I had not spot­ted a sin­gle per­son­alised T-shirt or fluffy bunny ears, so per­haps these char­ac­ters had dis­persed to less sober climes than this scene of so much bru­tal Cathar his­tory.

Just paces from my ho­tel, the for­ti­fied hill ap­peared im­pos­ing and im­plau­si­ble. Look­ing just like its board-game name­sake, or per­haps the cas­tle from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the tow­ers and walls did not seem real. It could be ar­gued, of course, that the verisimil­i­tude of the Cité is no greater than those ex­am­ples. Car­cas­sonne was re­stored in the 19th Cen­tury by Eugène Vi­ol­let-le-duc at the be­hest of Pros­per Mérimée, the in­spec­tor of an­cient mon­u­ments, and sports some flam­boy­ant slated tur­ret roofs that would prob­a­bly not have fea­tured in the fort’s func­tional hey­day.

How­ever, the vis­i­tor is quickly caught up in the con­fec­tion, such is the im­pres­sive ef­fect of the hill­top ram­parts, which en­cour­age en­thu­si­as­tic me­an­der­ing, and of the ro­bust gates, guarded by

Dame Car­cas, the myth­i­cal saviour of the city. Dining in a lush gar­den and look­ing up at the walls, I found it hard to sum­mon any cha­grin, when the al­ter­na­tives might have been a city in ru­ins or one made un­recog­nis­able by new de­vel­op­ment.

Stand­ing in one of the higher tow­ers, it al­most looks pos­si­ble to throw a stone (or per­haps a pig, as in the game) at the ville basse and on to the Bastide Sain­tLouis. Clus­tered around the lower slopes of the hill, on the left side of the River Aude, the Bastide was built in 1260 dur­ing the reign of Louis IX, and ful­fils the role of ‘new Car­cas­sonne’, a mis­nomer if ever there was one. The streets are broader, and the build­ings more gen­teel, but by most town stan­dards, the Bastide Saint-louis still feels old.

A bustling mar­ket dom­i­nates the gra­cious Place Carnot three morn­ings a week, stalls groan­ing with vividly coloured lo­cal pro­duce, while the Les Halles mar­ket hall takes care of any fish, meat or seafood needs in­clud­ing per­haps tak­ing a small glass with a few oys­ters, fresh from the coast. The restau­rants above in the Cité, and even more so here in the Bastide, are one of Car­cas­sonne’s glo­ries, along with those crenel­la­tions. Aside from the mar­kets, I pass a multi-award­win­ning pâtis­serie, see lo­cal wines cham­pi­oned left, right and cen­tre, and en­joy ex­cep­tional meals, even while avoid­ing cas­soulet – a lit­tle heavy for a hot, sunny day. For a small city, Car­cas­sonne boasts a mul­ti­tude of restau­rants that ap­pear in the Miche­lin guide, with and with­out stars. It is a foodie par­adise. Strolling past smart bou­tiques, artists’ ate­liers, gourmet food shops, cafés, restau­rants and the stan­dard high-street fare to be found in any medium-sized French town, it feels like a world away from the fairy-tale tur­rets of the Cité, which still catch the eye wher­ever you go. Even the mu­se­ums are dif­fer­ent, with the re­fined Beaux-arts in the Bastide Saint-louis con­trast­ing with the pop­u­lar mu­seum of the ram­parts, and a slightly du­bi­ous-feel­ing at­trac­tion ded­i­cated to the In­qui­si­tion. Back in the Cité, on my way to a bou­tique sell­ing cos­met­ics made from the lo­cal herb pas­tel, which is also the source of a blue dye, I pass the door­way of the Musée de l’in­qui­si­tion. The words of Monty Python echo in­side my head once more. “NO­BODY ex­pects the Span­ish In­qui­si­tion!” In­deed, Car­cas­sonne’s chief weapons as a week­end break des­ti­na­tion are sur­prise and good food; Sur­prise, good food and his­tory; Sur­prise… you get the point.

ABOVE: The re­stored tur­reted walls of the Cité in Car­cas­sonne look over the Aude coun­try­side

ABOVE: Rue Saint-louis in the Cité; TOP: The foun­tain in Place Carnot in the Bastide Saint-louis; INSET: A statue of Dame Car­cas guards a gate­way to the

Cité

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