Carcassonne has been on my radar for a bit. Let’s jump right in.

I’ve been reading about La Cité – in the 1200s and today. Hopping off the train in Carcassonne, I somehow expect to see this mysterious, fortified city immediately. Not so.

Carcassonne is divided in two: La Cité occupying a plateau on the right bank of the river Aude, and the Bastide Saint-Louis or lower town, on the left bank. Several bridges connect the two; the best known is the 14th century Pont Vieux. The lower town is nice enough, with pleasant, smiling people. It’s much the same as any other charming French town: antique shops, little boutiques, quaint shops selling crystals and the like, lively cafes. There’s even a Mackers – always a bit of a downer in historic surrounds.

But I’ll not keep you in suspense any longer. This – is why I’m here.

La Cité, a perfectly preserved city, on a hilltop above me. A fairy tale! I half expect a dragon to come in for landing.

Although the tourist office is eager to point out the virtues of the lower town, I’m here for one reason, well… actually two: La Cité de Carcassonne – mother of all medieval cities, and Viscount Raymond-Roger Trencavel, protector of the persecuted, tolerant, kind and brave. Centuries ahead of his time, he is an all-round hero. Sadly, these very qualities will become his downfall.

Hastening through the lower town, after about 15 minutes, just around a corner, that grand fortress materialises before my very eyes. Breathtaking! La Cité is said to have inspired Walt Disney to create the setting for Sleeping Beauty. Just remember Carcassonne came first.

Since this site was first occupied 2600 years ago, many have left their mark: Gauls and Romans, Visigoths, Arabs and Saracens, Franks and various kings of France. Designed to survive long sieges and lure the enemy, La Cité was virtually impregnable.

One of the rooms in the Narbonnaise Tower could store and preserve 1000 salted pigs and 100 heads of cattle. Fake stairs, false doors, barricades, and many winding twists and turns abounded. Also, the two massive stone walls – constituting about three kilometres of battlements and including more than 50 towers and barbicans – afforded serious protection.

The legend of clever Carcas

In 780, Pippin the Younger, king of the Franks and father of Charlemagne, had recaptured most of Southern France from the Saracens. But the impregnable fortress of Carcassonne resisted. According to legend, a Saracen princess named Carcas devised a ruse to save the city. After a long siege, she used the last sacks of grain to fatten up a pig, then threw it over the ramparts. Seeing such a well-fed pig, the assailants gave up, thinking the city had enough food not to surrender for a long time yet. Carcas rang the bells to celebrate, and so the city was named Carcas sonne (Carcas rings).

Different versions of this story are told, some featuring Pippin, some Charlemagne. A good story, and I’d like it to be true. But it’s probably a myth. More likely, the name comes from the Celtic Carsac, name of the important Roman trading post that was there some 2000 years ago.

A living, breathing medieval city

Crossing the Pont Vieux, I approach La Cité on a drawbridge over a moat.

To my immediate left are the jousting grounds, the wide space between the two walls. Circling La Cité between these two ramparts, I’m struck by the immensity of it. The different periods of construction are clearly visible, including much of the original Roman wall.

La Cité is not an isolated fort. There are plenty of those around. Several Cathar castles dot the raw landscape of Languedoc. No, what makes Carcassonne so special, is that it’s an entire city, fortified, still standing, and still home to living, breathing human beings – about 120 of them.

Narrow cobbled streets, alleyways and half-timbered houses greet me as I enter through the imposing Porte Narbonnaise. Cafés and restaurants flourish, as do shops selling crafts, antiques, lavender, linen, leather and crockery, Mediterranean olive oil, medieval chocolates, truffles and paté, t-shirts, brocade wall hangings, postcards and plastic swords.

Oddly, tourists do not bother me. Odd, because Carcassonne is one of France’s premier tourist destinations and this is August, equally premier holiday season for Europeans. The very last day of August, but still.

The tourists are here, of course, but I don’t mind. Somehow, the fairy-tale atmosphere, the old brick walls, the stories contained within them, it all just pulls me in. So much that I hardly notice others, even bumping into one or two along the way.

Carcassonne deserves much more than the one day I can afford it. I would have liked to spend at least one night here, living within the walls of La Cité, getting a feel for it when everything is quiet. Explore the maze of squares and alleys at midnight, see the silhouette of turrets against the night sky. Under a full moon it would be spine-tingling. And walking the silent streets in the early morning mist would surely be magical.

Inside the walls, you can stay at the luxurious Hotel de la Cité or at the hostel in Rue du Vicomte Trencavel. I queue for tickets to the Chateau Comtal, home of Raymond-Roger Trencavel. Entering the courtyard, my eyes are drawn to the walkway along the ramparts.

I run up the stairs, eager to check out the view – and promptly drop my camera. Very first day in use, one little stumble, and my brand new little Ixus hits the stone floor. True, it’s the floor of a 13th century chateau. That’s at least something.

The view from the gangway is magnificent; I can see the entire lower town across the river. Trencavel must have looked out here as well. He wouldn’t have seen the lower town, but he would have seen the river, the wide fields and the Pyrenées in the distance on a clear day like today.

My train of thought breaks. I’m a bit distracted by my damaged camera. Annoyed at my carelessness, I sit down at a cafe in the shady Place Markou to examine it more closely. Amazingly, it seems to be working, even if the screen is badly cracked. Back to using a viewfinder again, and a strap around my neck like some nine-year-old with a latch key.

Soon I’m enjoying a pain bagnat, a salade niçoise-sandwich, essentially a tuna/vegetables/egg-sandwich – a speciality in the south of France. (Less of a local speciality is my distinctly non-medieval coke-flavoured slush.) Gazing at the splendid surroundings, I try to absorb all this wonderful energy coming at me from every wall, every corner, every little street.

Time travel

Again, my thoughts dwell on Raymond-Roger.

He walked these streets, looked at that wall. He probably passed it every day on his way to work – whatever the work of a 13th century viscount may have been. Perhaps it meant inspecting troops, seeing to his subjects, supervising projects. Perhaps a bit of hard labour, for the sheer joy of it.

Did he lean on the gate at the entrance to the Chateau Comtal, like I did minutes ago? Did he have clandestine meetings with young nubile maidens in quiet corners? Later with his young wife, maybe in the deserted little cul-de-sac named after her, the Impasse Agnes de Montpellier? A few years later, did he walk with Agnes and their little son, Raymond, through the streets of La Cité? It’s surprisingly easy to picture the little family strolling these narrow streets, greeting people, stopping for a chat.

There’s a lot we don’t know about Agnes. But we know she was born in the 80s.

I decide to try a little mental experiment: visualising this place without modern amenities. I’ll just clothe everyone here in imaginary medieval costume, throw out everyone’s mobile phone and have them speak Occitane, the language that has given its name to the region: Languedoc = language of Oc.

Today is 31 August 2006. Hopping back to 31 August 1206, I imagine this must have been a scene of intense activity, much like today. It was a Thursday. The afternoon sun would be warming the courtyard of the Chateau Comtal.

Take away the miniskirts, the tattoos and those three girls – about 14, I’d say – would probably giggle and engage in the teenage speak of the day. That 50-something wife would probably complain loudly to her husband, just as she is doing now.

Those two young men (early 20s?) would likely ogle the girls and have a beer, but not Heineken from a can. And they wouldn’t be wearing shorts and RipCurl tees, but a tunic. And they would speak Occitane, not Dutch.

That man over there, dishing out ice cream, maybe he would be a blacksmith, beating iron for a horseshoe. And this balancing artist, well, he would probably show off then, just like now.

I amuse myself with these thoughts of Carcassonne 800 years ago, and wish Raymond-Roger would magically appear and share his thoughts with me.

The medieval hero who talked the talk and walked the walk

Raymond-Roger Trencavel, viscount of Carcassonne, Razes (present-day Rennes-le-Chateau), Beziers and Albi since the age of nine, was a fascinating character. Brave and independent, he stood alone against the Catholic forces from the north in 1209. This is the man who faced the full force of the first crusade.

The Cathars had broken away from the Catholic Church, a sin punishable by death during the Crusades and the subsequent inquisition. For the Good Christians, as they called themselves, theirs was the only true Christianity. They considered the Catholic Church to be corrupt. Many have had similar thoughts since, not least this man.

A main principle of Catharism was the duality of good and evil. The universe was created by both good and evil powers, they held. God was responsible for the spiritual world, Satan for Earth and all material things. Jesus was not a god, but rather an angel here to deliver a message. Also, humans had several opportunities to evolve and strive for perfection through a succession of lifetimes.

In many ways, Catharism was ahead of its time. The Catharists opposed violence, considered women and men equal partners in a marriage and were strict vegetarians. Many are drawn to similar ideas today – luckily, without risking persecution.

Trencavel was a Catholic himself, but a tolerant man, offering shelter and protection to Cathars and Jews. His seat at Beziers was even run by Jews. In the end, he was the only one willing to protect people from being slaughtered by the crusaders.

The Albigensian Crusade

A word here about the Albigensian crusade, yet another military campaign waged in the name of Christianity, launched by Pope Innocent III (who was anything but), to free the country from the “Cathar heresy” and to maintain the unity of the Catholic Church.

Conquered lands were offered up to French royalty and nobility, thus creating an efficient army of mercenaries. The crusade soon degenerated into an orgy of heretic-burning and extreme violence even by medieval standards.

Beginning in 1209, the first main event was the sacking of Beziers. The entire population, thousands of people – women, men and children, and not just heretics – were slaughtered or burnt inside churches where they had sought refuge. Legend has it, when asked how to know a Cathar from a Catholic, Arnaud Amalric, papal legate and leader of the crusaders, said:

Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius. Kill them all. The Lord knows those that are His own.

Next was Carcassonne, well-fortified but vulnerable, lacking water and over-filled with refugees under Trencavel’s protection.

When Carcassonne was under siege, Trencavel was offered a truce. He left the stronghold to meet his adversaries. This was a ruse. In the middle of negotiations, he was taken prisoner and thrown in a dungeon where he died on 10 November 1209, under mysterious circumstances. Officially, he died from dysentery. Some say he was poisoned. He was 24.

One city after another fell and the Albigensian Crusade, by its sheer brutality, was one of the bleakest chapters in the history of the Catholic Church.

The Medieval Inquisition then took off in full force, the precursor of the more infamous Spanish Inquisition.

An inquisitor appointed by the pope led each district. His job was to examine suspicious persons, or entire districts infested with heresy, such as Languedoc. The process began with a campaign. Heretics were requested to repent and report to the inquisitor within a mercy period of one month. Failure to comply resulted in arrest, interrogation, often torture, and then punishment – the harshest of which was death by burning.

In the Cathar region, the stronghold of Montsegur was one of the last to fall. After almost a year’s siege, Montsegur was taken in 1244. The most resilient of the Good Christians, more than 200 people, were given a choice between renouncing their faith or burning at the stake. Legend has it, they sang while burning.

To the modern mind, it seems incredible that so many would choose suffering a painful death over a brief lie about your beliefs. But being convinced they were leaving this evil place to go home, perhaps the time before passing out from pain or smoke inhalation would seem like seconds, compared to eternity in paradise.

Back in the present

In the 18th century, Carcassonne was abandoned, and in 1850, a decree was issued to demolish La Cité. Oh, horror amongst horrors!

Fortunately, historian Cros-Meyrevieille saved the city from destruction. Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, founder of the modern science of conservation, restored the ancient fortress to its original appearance. He obviously took some liberties. After all, slate would hardly have been available in the 1100s. But my little pamphlet, published by Centre des Monuments Nationaux, assures me that the notion that present day Cité is a 19th century reconstruction is entirely false. And that these are indeed Roman and medieval fortifications that I see before me.

Carcassonne has more to recommend it than La Cité. Amongst these is the Canal du Midi, on the World Heritage list, like La Cité. Constructed in the 17th century, this canal runs for 240 kilometres and connects the Mediterranean with the Atlantic. You can explore the whole region on board a barge, or you can ride a bike or amble along the old towpath.

The Languedoc is also fine wine growing country and home to the first bubbly, the Blanquette de Limoux, forerunner of its more famous cousin from the region of Champagne. It’s light and aromatic and interestingly, must be bottled during the descending moon in March. Mystery all around here.

Into the future

Space travel, well I’m sure it would be interesting for the first few light-years, hanging out in a space capsule with a few mates.

But time travel, now that is really fascinating. No mere mechanics would do the trick here, I think. Rather, the power of thought – and focus – and faith. The faith part, that would be the kicker, wouldn’t it?

But if someone finds an effective method – and I will be looking for one, too – think of the possibilities for travel writers! Not only do you have the entire world, but all of time as well. The possibilities are endless – and there’s enough for everyone. No competition necessary.

Think London’s been done a million times and there’s no new angle? Think again. How about Whitechapel on a dark autumn day in 1888 – actually being there! Or how about 1536? Anne Boleyn’s head chopped off, seen through the eyes of a 21st century writer on the scene. Macabre? Somehow London lends itself to that, doesn’t it? Exciting city; full of mystery!

But I digress: this isn’t about London. Equally exciting and full of mystery is Carcassonne. And I’m hereby volunteering to write the first guidebook to 13th century Carcassonne. It’s a truly astonishing place.

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The Historic Fortified City of Carcassonne is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.


I originally wrote this piece for Boots’n’All; now ever so slightly reworked and more photos added.