A medieval treasure that’s great for a relaxing escape

by Gazette Reporter
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SUMMER was leaving, and so was I. After a minor delay on the runway, the Ryanair craft rose in the early morning fog, direction: southwest France.
Carcassonne, in the Languedoc-Rousillon region, was basking in the early 20s, and shortly so was I, as I was ferried to the golden ramparts of the medieval city.

La Cite Carcassonne
The history of this citadel – a UNESCO world heritage site since 1997 – is overwhelmingly broad, deep and fascinating. The long story short is this …
Situated on a hill between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the Romans instantly recognised the area’s strategic value and built a fortress. So, around 100BC, Carcassonne found itself on the military map where it sat for a very long time.
Its interior walls, with their stonework variations, tell a story of constant transition. The fortification’s circular design comprises two outer walls, 53 towers (one still known as the Inquisition Tower), barbicans (castle defences), a drawbridge and ditch. Stepping into it is like stepping into a Game of Thrones hologram.
Over the centuries, its authority waned and the city went into terrible decline, to such an extent that the French government wanted it razed.
Enter architect Eugene Viollet Le Duc in 1849, charged with a restoration which began in 1853. The fruits of his labour didn’t quite create a war, but he took some flak for imposing his own vision on the city – and for outsourcing materials.
However, Viollet Le Duc triumphed. We stood in awe amid the ruins he retrieved. What if the walls could speak? I touched the ramparts that have heard the shouts of Roman generals, the roars of Charlemagne, the wails of Cathars, the mutterings of Viollet Le Duc and today the oohs and ahs of tourists.
They have witnessed so much victory, defeat, needless bloodshed and misery, and what has been learned? History just goes on repeating itself …
Back on the winding streets, the force of tourism is a jolt. Everywhere, shops of all hues jostle for your cash – reader, keep your eyes on the architecture and pass by.

Basilica Saint-
My afternoon tour ended in the nearby Basilica of Saint-Nazaire, also restored by Viollet-le-Duc. Its cool mix of Romanesque nave and later Gothic choir held a pleasant surprise: a Russian quartet singing acapella amid the stained glass windows, each carrying its own story.
But should you tire of flickering candles and immaculate conceptions, nip outside for a long, satisfying gaze at the gargoyles.
Whenever I’ve spent too long in a medieval church, my spirit soars at the glorious sight of them snarling at the congregation below, urging us to “feck off out of here”!
Canal Du Midi
The Canal Du Midi – another UNESCO heritage site – is an experience of a different stripe. Built in 1666 during the reign of Louis XIV, this 240km waterway from Toulouse to Sete links the Med with the Atlantic, hence its other name: Canal Des Deux Mers (canal of the two seas).
An original superhighway, it is an impressive example of human ingenuity. Given the area’s scarcity of water, enterprising engineer and canal builder Pierre-Paul Riquet (Baron de Bonrepos, to you) set about taking water from the nearby Black Mountains.
He constructed a 6m cubic metre lake, the Bassin de St Ferreol, which filched water from the hills, then filled his canal.
Back in 2015, these nuggets of prime information were in danger of drifting off forever as we moved along Riquet’s creation for several hours, shaded by great plane trees.
The gates opened slowly, the locks filled with a rush of warm dank water, our barge slid on.
I heard someone say we were passing the home of philosopher Michel Foucault and, yes, there it was, gliding away to my right …
“You can’t hurry on the Canal Du Midi,” our capitaine intoned. “There’s just no point.” Firm Bateau le Cocagne’s tour with multilingual guide is to be recommended and is easily accessible outside the Hotel Bristol opposite the train station.

The Bastide de Saint Louis
Back on terra firma, a stroll around the Bastide de Saint Louis returned me to my land legs. Built during the time of Saint Louis in 1260, it lies on the left bank of the River Aude. Basically a rectangular grid, it’s laid out around a central square, now the Place Carnot.
While its boundaries are determined these days by the boulevards laid out in the 18th and 19th centuries on the site of the old moats, the Bastide’s grid-like streetscape has survived.
You always know where you are and no matter where you wander, you’ll find something to tickle your fancy.
For my part, I stumbled on the Musee des Beaux-arts’ Raoul Dufy exhibition, the French Fauvist painter who claimed “my eyes exist to erase ugliness”.
Several rooms filled to bursting with his vivid work, including their transposition to ceramic and textile design, were stunning.

Vignobles Sarrail
And so, on to the obligatory wine-tasting in the Vignobles Sarrail in nearby Cazilhac. If you’re curious to know how your wine gets into the bottle, look no further.
As we gazed over miles of vines, Pauline Greefhorst, of Domaine Sarrail, reassured me that machines do the harvesting, not humans. In the production area we saw great vats where grapes are offloaded, the oak tanks where wine ages to perfection, and thence to the public outlet, where customers – or visitors like me – sample their wares.
Technically, you’re supposed to gargle and spit into the spittoons which stood as high as my shoulder. But I’ve spent a lifetime refraining so instead I swallowed! It seemed wasteful to do otherwise.
Abrupt as ever, the short break ended and I was scudding home. If you’re an ABB (anything but the beach) person, then Carcassonne awaits. A bientot!

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