It took only a few minutes to arrive in the modern city of Carcassonne which seemed strangely quiet for a Saturday afternoon and after a few minutes of parking indecision found a spot with no charges just about five hundred metres from the main attraction and its medieval core, La Cité, a huge walled town that was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1997.
For the record France has thirty-seven World Heritage Sites, which is third most in Europe after Italy and Spain.
We were glad that we had parked in the city and not in the official visitor car parks not just because there was a parking charge there but because we now had to walk and across the Pont Vieux and the River Aude which was lined with trees that were just beginning their transformation into Autumn colours. This is the best pedestrian approach to La Cité because, set high up on a hill overlooking the river, Carcassonne’s ancient walled city is picture-book perfect and this fairytale collection of drawbridges, towers and atmospheric cobbled streets was reputedly the inspiration for Walt Disney’s ‘The Sleeping Beauty’. This may or may not be true but is also similar to the story of Cinderella’s castle in Segovia in Spain.
A stone statue of Dame Carcas stood at the drawbridge entrance to the city and again, whether she is fact or fiction, this is the legend of Carcassonne. When the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne stood before the gates of the city with his rampaging troops, the castle army existed of only one person, Madame Carcas. (Difficult to believe I agree, but I will carry on anyway). Somehow she managed to give the illusion that many men were still on the walls (rather like the movie ‘Home Alone’).
Charlemagne’s plan was to starve out the occupants of the castle and Dame Carcas, rumbling this, threw a pig over the wall, its belly filled with sweet corn to give the impression that it was well fed. Charlemagne was duped and falling for the deception that the castle was both well provisioned and bristling with angry soldiers packed up and left. On witnessing the retreat Madame Carcas triumphantly blew her horn and thus – Carcas sonne. Now this is almost certainly not true and is very similar to the story of the painted oxen during the Hohensalzburg Fortress in Salzburg in Austria but one thing that is true about Carcassonne is that it was used to portray Nottingham Castle in the Kevin Costner film ‘Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves’ and for anyone that has seen the real Nottingham Castle this requires no explanation why.
Carcassonne stood as a fortified city from as far back as Roman times until Napoleon removed it from the list of official national fortifications and it fell into such disrepair that in 1849 the French government decreed that it should be demolished. This prompted an immediate campaign to preserve it as a historical monument and in 1853 restoration work began under the direction of the architect Viollet-le-Duc who repaired the walls and the roofing on the towers and the ramparts. The restoration was strongly criticized during his lifetime for lack of authenticity because recently returning from work in the north of France, he made the error of using slates and restoring the roofs as pointed cones, where local practice was traditionally of tile roofing and low slopes but it is exactly this feature of his restoration that has made Carcassonne such a magical place.
After walking around the outside of the walls we entered the city by a minor entrance and were transported into an alternative world of narrow streets and cobbled alleyways. we were immediately below the flying buttresses and the grotesque gargoyles of the St Nazaire Cathedral, which is a nineteenth century replacement for the original building but still manages to give a realistic medieval impression. We walked around the corkscrew streets and explored the battlements but at €16 each declined to take the Chateaux tour. There are rather too many shops in Carcassonne for my liking but we looked in one or two and puffed our cheeks out in disbelief at the prices and then we compared menu cards in the bars before selecting one that was consistent with our budget where we stopped for a drink.