La Cité de Carcassonne

Great view of La Cité de Carcassonne from Lower Town

30 years ago Mike and I accidentally stumbled on the phenomenal walled city of Carcassonne.  I believe that it was the first walled city that we had ever seen and we were impressed.  At least I was, Mike doesn’t remember the visit at all and I don’t think he really believed that we had been there.  Since our discussion about this, I actually found a photo on my computer labelled “Jackie in Carcassonne 1992”, how nice. 

I read that La Cité, as the medieval town is known, has 52 towers and a 3 km long double wall enclosure.  It really looks exactly like you would imagine a medieval city to look which was great.  The medieval town had 1,000 residents at the beginning of the 20th century and today there are only about 100. 

Mike and I arrived at the entrance gates to the town at the same time as a small tourist train was arriving.  This gave everything the feeling of Disneyworld which was too bad because La Cité is authentic.  A major difference from Disneyworld was the lack of entrance fees to visit the town.  Touristy or not, Mike and I took the 25 minute train ride around the outside of the walls and quite enjoyed ourselves.  The interior streets are packed full of restaurants and all the small tourist stores added to the Disney feel which I wasn’t so fond of.  The pandemic has helped me appreciate the lack of crowds when viewing historical sites.  Mike is better these days with crowds than I am, which is quite a switch from when we were younger.

Carcassonne: Disney style entrance

We visited Carcassonne a few times on this trip.  On our first visit we walked around and listened to one of the audio tour apps that we have on our phone.  One section of the town was closed.  It had a sign saying that it was only closed three days a year, Christmas, New Year’s and May 1.  Guess which date we visited?  At the time we didn’t worry about not seeing one area as there was so much else to see. I later found out that the area that had been closed was known as the Chateau and the Ramparts.  This was the only area of the town with an entrance fee and it included a tour and an audio guide.  We decided to return and tour the Chateau and Ramparts and we were really glad we did.  The audio guide, for us, was fantastic.  It was in English, with almost continuous talking as it guided you through the 12th century chateau and onto the top of the ramparts for gorgeous views overlooking the area.  It took almost 90 minutes. 

Carcassonne has two distinct sections, the medieval fortress of La Cité de Carcassonne on the hill and the Ville Basse or Lower Town.  We spent one day just visiting the Lower Town which was very nice.  This time we found a different app with an audio tour that we used around the Lower Town. 

In the 19th century La Cité was on the verge of demolition and had been used as a stone quarry for about 50 years.  Later in the 1800s a major reconstruction and restoration project was started.  Something that had never occurred to Mike and I before this trip to Europe are the choices that need to be made when you are restoring a building, or in this case a town.  Do you restore it to the way it looked in the 12th century, what about the 15th century look of the area, how about a different period all together.  In a town, does it all need to be restored to the same period?  The answers to these questions will dramatically change what the end result looks like.

Phenomenal mosaics in Basilica

The Basilica of Saint-Nazaire in La Cité has some of the most gorgeous detailed stained-glass windows that I have seen.  One window shows the life of Christ.  All of the windows in the picture here, including the huge round windows, were all marvellous stained-glass.

Overall Mike and I really enjoyed our time visiting Carcassonne.  It wasn’t overly crowded, the only line-up was to buy the tickets and audio guide for the chateau and ramparts.  Parking spots very close to the entrance were available.  In addition to no entry fee there was no price gauging for the food or parking which was impressive.  One should not visit this part of the world without seeing Carcassonne at least once.

Cycling canal beside our campground

In addition to Carcassonne, Mike and I spent time exploring this area by both car and bicycle.  The picture here is of the Canal du Midi that Mike and I have been cycling along since Bordeaux.  If you could see through the trees on the right you would be able to see our camper.  We stayed in Castelnaudary for 10 days which seems to be about the average so far this year.  Alongside the camp site was a pedestrian/cycle bridge over the canal into town.  Even before we arrived we had been told that we had to try the very popular Cassoulet dish which was originally from Castelnaudary.  The dish is made mainly from white haricot beans with sausages and other types of meat in the pot.  This was one of the very few times when Mike and I didn’t share a meal.  Mike enjoyed the cassoulet but couldn’t finish it.  I had the menu du jour or special of the day which is what Mike and I typically share every day.  It is a main dish that often comes with both an appetizer and dessert.  A typical price, equivalent in Canada to the price after tip and taxes, for the menu du jour is around 15.5 Euros or $21 Canadian.  While Mike tried the cassoulet, I had a quiche Lorraine for my appetizer and after that I was full.  After that they brought me my chicken and scalloped potatoes which I could’nt eat.  With neither of us finishing our meals we were a bit concerned about whether the restaurant was prepared to package left overs to take away.  Since we always share, this hadn’t come up before.  Luckily the restaurant was fine with this.  They then brought me the dessert included in the daily special.  It was a large pastry stuffed high with whipped cream and soaked in a lot of rum.  Mike and I managed to finish that.  A few days later we ran into our first restaurant that wouldn’t let us order the daily special if we were sharing.  Wouldn’t you know, it was run by an English woman.  We walked out.  Everywhere else has been super, we have even been taught how to ask for an extra plate for sharing in French.  I hope this doesn’t become a trend.

Our last ride in this area was not along the canal due to the location of the train stations we were using.  This mean that we ended up riding in much hillier territory on a day with a very strong headwind.  At about the 30 km mark Mike’s battery had gone down to 1 bar and we were quite concerned since we had more than 10 hilly kilometers (6 miles) still to go.  We found a supermarket with a seating area and coffee machine. I think the machine coffee in France is better than the cappuccinos which I have almost given up on. I waited there while Mike took both batteries and rode to get the car. Our batteries are now 3 years old and have been used extensively. I am afraid that they might not hold the charge they used to.  I hope that we don’t need to start evaluating our rides and the distances and elevations ahead of time.

Four Châteaux de Lastours

We had a great day exploring in the car.    We started out heading to Lastours, a town with the ruins of four castles/chateaux built on a hilltop nearby.  You could hike up and around all four but that looked a little too energetic to Mike and I.  If we could have driven to the top of the hill near one of the castles, we might have enjoyed hiking to the others but the distance uphill was more than I wanted.  In addition, it would have been a day long hike which we weren’t prepared for.  The view of the castles from the road was great as you can see above.  We find it almost unbelievable how many shades of bright green we see everywhere. 

After looking at the scenery, we continued on to one of the largest caves developed in Europe called Gouffre Géant de Cabrespine.  This cave tour included an English audio tour that was quite good.  The cave was so large that it had an adventure park with ziplines, a boat ride on an underground river, and more in it.  However, we never got to those sections.

During our drive we came across a small village called Saissac.  We find it really interesting that these very old towns and villages are still lived in and productively used today.  It was a great day.

Saissac village

We have had a few visitors recently which as been very nice.  This has been something that Mike and I have really missed over the last couple of years due to Covid-19.  We had one couple from Ireland visiting.  It was the night before the election that put the pro Nationalist government into power in Northern Ireland.  I would love to have got their take on the Northern Ireland election.

We met a younger couple in a restaurant in a little town we visited who were from California.  They were not in a camper but using Airbnb accommodations.  They had originally come over for about 3 months and are now planning on staying in Europe for 9 months to a year.  It is funny how these European trips keep getting extended.  Mike and I are in year six of our three year plan.  Mike now says that the plan was actually to come to Europe while we were in good health which is still the case.  We actually live a much healthier lifestyle travelling in our camper than we do when we are in Toronto in our apartment where we tend to be rather lethargic.

We talked with one French camper who had visited Canada including Quebec.  He was commenting on how different he found the French language in Canada.  He said that this was because the French language in France had changed and evolved over the centuries whereas the language in Canada is an older French that has stayed fairly constant from when it was first brought to North America. He said this often happens in areas that are spin offs from France.  I have no idea if there is any truth in this but it is an interesting theory.

In a previous article I mentioned that we were going to buy tickets to see the Harlem Globetrotters in Toulouse.  We did, and we drove back for the night and had a very enjoyable evening.  We don’t often get out at night these days.

We are now leaving Castelnaudary and heading south-east to the Mediterranean Sea.  We plan on staying in Port-la-Nouvelle which is just over an hour from where we are now.  For once, the weather forecast looks great for the next week with no rain and temperature highs ranging from 21 – 25° C, still with fairly strong winds.  I will post pictures of our Mediterranean rides as soon as I can.

Harlem Globetrotters in Toulouse, France

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