Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Carcassonne, day six

It was time to lay seige to the castle. We had been in Carcassonne a decent, long time and had only really spent a short time at the restored castle - and eating at that.
It is difficult to convey how the castle/fort/wall citadel thing looks in this town. The castle is really huge and high up and the actual town, where most of the residents live, is below and beyond the castle. We are just under the castle, in the street that runs beside it so we are officially 'old town'. The new town is over the bridge from us, and we spend a good amount of time there as that is where the Christmas festivities have been held.
But today we would turn our heads from the commerce of the new town, and to the history of the castle above us. The kids were keen to bring weapons. I kinda put the brakes on this plan; it was to be a seige of the soul rather than the bricks.
The day was incredible, blue skies and misty golden sun. We have been unbelievably blessed with weather on this trip. I'm thinking that this is our family's very mild super power and we should exploit it. Perhaps charge for good weather when we arrive and so on.
We managed to leave the house at 11am (almost a record ...) and into the castle we went. When you walk over the bridge (I guess that once it was a draw bridge), you enter a township (a bit like Mont San Michel) where there are shops and presumably once had housing. There are hotels in here too. And then there is another wall that protects the castle. It is now guarded by a cashier and roped areas that organise tourists lines. But once ... once it was guarded by fierce knights with boiling oil and arrows.
We paid our pennies and in we went.
Apparently Carcassonne was close to a ruin in the nineteenth century and there were plans to pull it down. And then, a saviour. Viollet-le-Duc (famous for having restored Notre Dame) took it as a project and decided to bring it back to its former ... not glory so much, as fierceness. It was (is) a symbol of power and strength and is not like the chateaux we have seen elsewhere, which were often about architecture and exquisite finishing. This is more rough hewn (more Spanish I guess, and it did once sit on the border of France and Spain, so that makes sense). The tour of the castle (self guided) takes you through some of the towers that ring the castle and look out over the lands around. It is amazingly high up - kind of shockingly actually - and then you can walk the ramparts and imagine that you are on the watch, with a pot of boiling oil (this somehow appeals to me, who can say why) and what it might be like to see an army coming across the land toward you. This happened quite a few times at Carcassonne - seiges that starved those inside.
It was, in the middle ages, the outpost for the Cathar religion (about which, I know nothing). But in the thirteenth century, the pope decided it was a religion that was becoming too powerful and authorised a crusade against the followers. This involved going to Carcassonne and getting all hot under the collar. In this case, the inmates surrendered (unlike Dame Carcas, about whom I wrote in another blog) and the royal family of France took control of Carcassonne. It became an important outpost for them. But then Carcassonne lost its appeal when the border with Spain changed, and when commerce (the new town, people) became more influential than weaponry. And then the fall into disrepair, and the rescue for history and tourists of the nineteenth century. Everything, at some stage, will become a place for tourists to get a fix on the past.
I kept thinking about The Name of the Rose when walking around. I felt this too at Mont San Michel - these places created to set limits and to keep a selected group of people removed from any surrounding community (and the problems that might breed). There are narrow alleys that take you around the town, from the church to the castle and around the commerical quarter that must be dark (and possibly dangerous in the 12th and 13th centuries) after dark, and where secrets were whispered and deals were done. Small, isolated communities and intrigue - it is inevitable. Of course, no crazy library in this citadel (and not an abbey for that matter) but still, the feeling is there, the click of the cobbles under your feet and the stones that sit at weird angles were you might stow a note or a signal to an accomplice. There was some haunted house tour we could have done - charmingly advertised by a dummy in stocks. We did not partake. Nor did we eat this time. Perhaps Elizabeth David was right about the menu prix. That cassoulet has not yet passed properly through my system.
The church was rather beautiful too, quite gothic with great stain glass windows. On a day like this one, with sun pouring like new milk, the windows were all lit up with the limpid blues and the burning reds. Niccolo decided to have a pray. I had a look at the nativity scene.
At some point, we left the castle and cidadel and headed to the city. We left this walled place, and walked through our part of the old town and across to the new town. We wanted to go from history to commerce - it seemed like the logical progression that Carcassonne herself experienced, and there might be some sales too.
Turns out, while we knew Boxing Day was an English (and her colonies) tradition, so are the Christmas sales. Myles found out later that day while riding the bus out to the airport to pick up our hire car, that sales don't begin in France (and possibly mainland Europe, though this is yet to be confirmed) until January 8. Not that we need a single thing more. As it is, I'm thinking that we won't fit what we currently have in our suitcases. It might be time for another cull.
The other thing planned for the day was a family ice-skate. This was a bust. Zelda refused point blank to put anything on her feet that might have a compulsion for unscheduled darting about, and dashing her into the ice. You could see her point on some level, but you might also think that others might not take that compulsion personally (or seriously). But she did. Paris then wavered, and then Myles said I should go, but I could see that would create a problem between the siblings, so I said I wouldn't, but that Paris should. He threw a bit of a wobbly but didn't go. There was some sulking on the part of several members of the family. Myles and Niccolo hit the ice together (pretty damn good too) while we looked on, and made up stories about the other skaters (there was the nerd family who all had glasses and were trying desperately to learn how to skate; there was the battle to the death between two siblings for one of the chairs you can have to help you skate, there was the show offy types that tore around the ice backwards with very slick hair and often left a wake of split souls on the ice behind them). Then there was Niccolo who didn't so much skate as run across the ice on the tips of his blades.
Back at home, Myles, Paris and I continued the gin rummy tournament. I'm rubbish at this game. I got caught all four times by cannier players.
Off to the laudrette to do washing - another machine that doesn't work. Grind my teeth.
University challenge was on the telly. Say no more.

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