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The Mysteries of Carcassonne, France

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got hooked on travel early in life. And for many years, beginning long before my first passport, it seemed to me that one of the transcendent travel experiences must be to walk the grey stone ramparts of Carcassonne, preferably at night and preferably in the autumn. This notion was firmly lodged in my brain when, as a diffident fourteen-year-old, I discovered the books of one of the most popular travel writers of any era, Richard Halliburton.

The Mysteries of Carcassonne, France

In his heyday in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties, Halliburton was a household name in America and one of the most widely-read authors of his time. He had discovered early on that what his audience wanted from him was not culture, not politics and geography but adventure and, above all, the romance of travel. And that is what he gave them. He travelled on a shoestring to the most exotic corners of the globe and when adventure did not present itself, he created it.

We rounded a corner and there, on a rise beyond the river, was a vision for which no photograph could have prepared us. We pulled over to the curb and got out of the car to stand and stare.

One example will give you the flavour: broke in Buenos Aires while writing the newspaper series that was to become New Worlds to Conquer he spurned an easy bail-out from his publisher and instead invested his last few dollars in a trained monkey and a broken down hurdy gurdy. Performing in the city’s parks and streets earned him: a) a night in jail for by-law infractions; b) a memorable yarn for the newspapers and c) enough money for his passage all the way north to Rio. The unfortunate monkey died on the voyage – not to worry, he milked that story too.

The Mysteries of Carcassonne, France

Hôtel de la Cité

Halliburton blew in to Carcassonne late in 1921 on his first trip to Europe as a young Princeton graduate with literary ambitions, and he wrote about it in The Royal Road to Romance, the first of his five, wildly successful travel books. He was on his way by bicycle and knapsack from Paris to Andorra. The air at the foot of the Pyrenees was sharp and clear…

“Late on that glittering November evening I left the modern ville basse on foot, crossed the seven-hundred-year-old bridge over the river that separates the fortress from the modern town, looked up the sharp escarpment, and behold, before my eyes, nine centuries disappeared. I became an anachronism, a twentieth-century American living in eleventh-century France. In one sweep the Middle Ages were revealed. A magical moonlit city of walls and towers and battlements, defiant and impregnable, rose before me… Not a person was to be seen, not a light showed, nor a dog barked as I climbed the path and walked beneath the massively fortified gate, through the double line of enormous walls, into a strange world. Incredibly ancient houses, dark and ghostly, reeled grotesquely along the crazy streets. My footsteps echoed. There was no other sound…”

The Mysteries of Carcassonne, France

Halliburton spent the night exploring the city and eventually watched the dawn break from the battlements:

“A man appeared in the streets, and then another and another. I knew the hours of enchantment were gone. The ghosts of Crusaders and Saracens and Visigoths, which must have been abroad that night, had marched down the shafts of the ancient wells into the subterranean caverns, to watch over the fabulous treasures which any true native of the citadel will tell you lie buried there. With the night departed Yesterday. The real, unromantic present lived again…”

The “real, unromantic present” was where I was, seventy-one years after young Richard had dashed off those breathless lines, and I too was about to see Carcassonne for the first time. My partner Christine beside me, her legs aproned in a large-scale Michelin road map, I was approaching from the north at the wheel of a red, rented Peugeot, purring along undulating roads through the brooding forests of the Black Mountains and then across the flatlands of the River Aude on a narrow, shoulderless highway picketed with two-hundred-year-old plane trees, and finally on through the dusty streets of the modern lower town of Carcassonne.

The Mysteries of Carcassonne, France

We rounded a corner bracketed by grey stone warehouses and there, on a rise beyond the river, was a vision for which no photograph could have prepared us. We pulled over to the curb and got out of the car to stand and stare. Nowhere in Europe has a fortified medieval city been preserved so perfectly, or on such a scale. Despite the sheer mass of its miles of walls and its sixty towers and barbicans, it seemed to float above the surrounding fields and vineyards, like a mirage.

The town site on its rock outcropping overlooking the River Aude has been prized for its strategic importance from ancient times and may have been fortified even before the Romans built the first of the walled citadels there. The final touches to the fantastic, many-towered marvel one sees today were put in place by Saint-Louis and his successor Philip the Bold toward the end of the thirteenth century. It survived virtually intact until the mid-1800’s under the protection of the French military and was in the last half of that century completely and brilliantly restored under the inspired direction of architect Eugéne-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.

There are naturally quibbles about details of the restoration and refinements are continuously being made. Slate roofs, for instance, are slowly being converted to the more authentic baked clay tile. Still, no one denies that the place looks pretty much as it did eight or nine centuries ago when knighthood was in flower, Crusades were in fashion and the stirrup crossbow was the latest and greatest in military hardware.

The Mysteries of Carcassonne, France

Hôtel du Château & Spa Carcassonne

We had been told that, since we were staying at a hotel within the walls, we would be able to drive our car right inside the citadel, where the hotel had a parking space for us. That sounded reasonable over the telephone from Paris, but when we actually saw the city and its main gate – just wide enough to accommodate a pair of mounted knights in armour – we began to have our doubts. We held our breath as I eased the Peugeot into the gap in the eighteen-foot-high outer wall, across the broad lists to the second, much higher wall, under the portcullis of its massively-fortified gate and then inched our way through the pedestrians thronging the cobbled street inside, which is perhaps ten feet wide from doorknob to doorknob. There were places where neighbours could comfortably have shaken hands across the street from corbelled second stories.

Driving a modern vehicle down these ancient passageways, through the main square with its giant well which provided security from long sieges, past the castle keep to the gargoyle-encrusted cathedral next door to our hotel, was like living a page out of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

No wonder Halliburton was drawn here in his search for the romantic. France has arguably more romance per square mile than any other country in Europe, but the pocket of the country for which Carcassonne provides a focal point is the fountainhead of the very notion itself. The literary form we call romance has its roots in the writings of the troubadours who first appeared here in the region known as Languedoc in the eleventh century. Poets and wandering minstrels to a remarkably open and tolerant society, they wrote of freedom and justice and gallantry and of a kind of courtly love that was entirely new to literature. In troubadour castles throughout the south of France – Puivert and Les Baux are among the most famous – women of the nobility established “courts of love” in which they defined suitable subject matter for troubadour songs, maintained the rules of grammar of the native langue d’oc and provided advice for the lovelorn. Their poetry competitions were the talk of the land and the winners were crowned with peacock feathers.

The Mysteries of Carcassonne, France

From the ninth to the thirteenth century, Languedoc was the social, cultural and political cockpit of France. There was a strong tradition in Languedoc and in the region of Carcassonne in particular, of questioning Christian orthodoxy as represented by a poorly-trained, dissolute and avaricious Catholic clergy. All over Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries groups of the faithful were seeking a return to first principles and a new purity of faith.

But it was in Languedoc that the strongest of these movements took root. Known as Catharism (from the Greek katharos: purity), it held that the world of God was the world of the spirit, while the material world, the world of time, was the realm of the Devil. Thus anything to do with the body – eating, drinking, marriage and procreation, material possessions – was inherently evil. Rules of conduct for the priestly class, the white-robed “perfecti” , were drawn from the Christian Gospels and strictly applied: the taking of life was forbidden and the perfecti were strict vegetarians. Fasting was frequent; celibacy was obligatory.

Pope Innocent III, alarmed at the spread of what the Church referred to as the Albigensian Heresy (for the town of Albi, where a famous debate between Catholic and Cathar clerics took place), dispatched to the region Dominico Guzman, later St. Dominic and founder of the Dominican order. He undertook his mission of preaching against the heresy with relish but was soon forced to admit failure. He was prophetic in defeat: “I have preached,” he lamented, “I have entreated, I have wept…the rod must now do the work of benediction. Towers will be torn down, walls toppled, and ye shall be reduced to bondage. This is how might shall prevail where meekness has failed.”

The Mysteries of Carcassonne, France

Events came to a head in 1208 when a papal legate was assassinated near Carcassonne. Innocent III seized on this pretext to launch a holy war which became known as the Albigensian Crusade. The pattern for the savagery that was to follow was set on a July day in 1209 in Béziers, where ecclesiastic authorities had identified 200 known Cathars. After a brief resistance the town was taken by storm and 20,000 men, women and children were put to the sword or burned to death, including hundreds who had packed the cathedral seeking sanctuary. “Kill them all,” the Crusade’s prelate is said to have urged. “God will know his own.”

Although Carcassonne itself changed hands several times during the Crusade, only once was a siege mounted. Mighty wooden engines that could catapult boulders, rolling siege towers to help storm the walls and other marvels of the military technology of the time were of little use against so well designed a defensive position and the besieging army found its most effective weapon to be mining the walls – tunnelling under them to cause them to collapse. The defenders counter-mined successfully, meeting the invading forces far underground and driving them back before they could complete their destruction. In the quiet of an evening’s contemplation close by the walls, one envisions with a shudder the rat-like ferocity of these desperate, clawing struggles in pitch darkness.

The heretical beliefs of the Cathars proved remarkably persistent despite the eventual defeat of the last of their military strongholds, and to effect a final solution Pope Gregory IX set up the infamous Inquisition, presided over by the Dominicans. Its ruthlessness is well-known: in Carcassonne there is, in an out-of-the-way alley, a horrifying museum of the implements of torture used by the inquisitors.There are other reminders: the Inquisition Tower, where suspects were “questioned” before being sent to a prison outside the city walls; the Justice Tower, where it is believed the secret archives of the Inquisitors were stored.

The Mysteries of Carcassonne, France

Hôtel de la Cité

It is the Inquisition Tower which overlooks the fairy tale garden of one of the most romantic hotels in the world, and one of the friendliest and most accommodating in our experience. Hôtel de la Cité’s twenty-three immaculately-detailed rooms are contained within the renovated interior of the old Bishop’s palace, next door to the cathedral. One of three small hotels within the citadel walls and unquestionably the best, its public spaces are worth a visit whether or not you stay there. Especially interesting is the breakfast room/bar with its enormous paintings showing Carcassonne as it must have looked at various stages of its history, from neolithic times through its Roman, Visigoth and medieval French incarnations.

We had asked for a room with a double bed when we’d reserved, always a wise precaution unless you prefer the twins that are much more common in French hotels. None was available, but rather than disappoint us, the hotel staff had upgraded us to a corner suite. We could scarcely believe our eyes. Leaded casement windows opened on to the tiny plaza in front of the cathedral and a breeze billowed tapestry-like curtains in the bedroom and sitting rooms. There was a huge, fragrant bouquet in the foyer. The marbled bathroom featured a walk-in shower the size of a horse stall. The furniture was antique and immaculate and there was art on every wall.

The Mysteries of Carcassonne, France

Hôtel de la Cité

That night, out of gratitude but against our better financial instincts, we ate in the hotel dining room. Our suspicion that his was not a room for triflers was confirmed by the wine list, which had the heft of a big-city phone book. Entrées were priced to suit the budget of someone who could actually afford the suite we’d been given.

We dined more modestly the following evening, in a boite called l’Ostal des Troubadours, a tiny Gypsy café on the main square. The tables were cheek-by-jowel but the cassoulet was rich and fragrant, the wine was cheap and, beside us, a small fenestration through three feet of hewn stone looked out onto the castle keep. In a corner of the room, a classically-trained guitarist entertained. We applauded enthusiastically and our appreciation did not go unnoticed; ours was the first table he visited with outstretched hat when his set ended. He was replaced by a boozy singer-guitarist who announced in heavily accented French that he was a purveyor of Irish love ballads, then blithely launched into Leonard Cohen’s Sisters of Mercy.

In the morning there was a wedding in the cathedral for us to watch from our private lookout onto the square and we were late for service in the hotel breakfast room. The staff cheerfully set a solitary table for us outdoors beside the deserted swimming pool and served us croissants, brioche, boiled eggs, fresh orange juice and café au laît on starched linen and silver. We wore our straw hats against the sun. A scented breeze riffled the dazzling white table cloth. We were starring, fantastically, in our own movie, a romance that Halliburton might have written had he lived long enough to acquire a taste for the more sybaritic pleasures of travel. Poor Richard, instead, died trying to cross the China sea in a leaky junk, on the eve of World War 2. He was on his way to San Francisco, creating another adventure, and he vanished without a trace. He wasn’t yet forty. But he’d made that enchanted moment in Carcassonne possible for us, a gift for which I’ll always be grateful.

Wade Rowland is ranked among Canada’s leading literary journalists. Publisher of the award-winning Rowland Travel Guides, he regularly writes for North America’s top magazines and newspapers (such as the New York Times) and specializes in travel and culture articles. Wade Rowland, PhD, has written more than a dozen books on subjects ranging from travel and culture, television journalism, philosophy, organized crime and international environmental law, communications technology, the philosophy of science and the sources of human values.

73 Comments

  1. Linda Collie

    Thanks for another Well Written, Descriptive & Enticing article.

  2. Richard Armendariz

    My wife wanted to go to Paris because it’s very romantic place, but for me, this is the best one.

  3. Kelly Gonzales

    It looks like I’m living in the old age. Wow! I will ask my mom if she wanted to go here. Is this far from Paris?

  4. Evelyn Harris

    There are actual people inside of that? They live there for real?

  5. Henriett Bond

    I asked my girlfriend if she wanted to go to Carcassonne, and she throws a pillow at me. I guess it’s a no.

  6. Dawn Katz

    If I’m going to travel in Europe, I’d rather choose this than Paris. Paris is too mainstream, but this place isn’t

  7. Ani Hoker

    Just seeing the pictures gives me the feel of the old age, and what else if I am in that place?

    • Kimberly Holder

      I’ve been asking myself too with that. Am I going to be scared, or amused?

  8. Eloisa Clay

    It’s much better if you give us information about the prices of accommodation and the tourist spots in this place.

  9. Artur Piterson

    My girlfriend is now freaking out because I told her about Carcassonne. She said that she wants to be a princess for five days, so we should go there.

    • Oscar

      My girlfriend had the same reaction and I somehow regret showing her this article

  10. Marjory Brooks

    I didn’t enjoy my trip to Carcassonne, not because the place is not attractive, but I got sick.

  11. Katherine Donnelly

    I’ve been to Carcassonne!!! That was an amazing experience, and the people there are great too. The food, are delicious and don’t worry about shopping center because they have that too.

    • Maria Rapier

      Really? Thanks for the good feedback! Planning to visit later this year.

  12. Oxi Harger

    Wow! That’s a classy hotel. How about its price? Is it affordable, or only elite people can afford it, huh? Lol

  13. Florence Frederick

    I find it amazing, and scary because of the look of the castle. I don’t think I can walk alone at night in this place.

  14. Zerin Martin

    I don’t know about Halliburton, but in this article, I admire him. I love traveling and sharing it with other people. It’s not bragging out the place you’ve been, but sharing the beauty of it to other people who can’t afford to go there.

    • Joyce McAllister

      Halliburton was a traveler and an author. He was an amazing writer in his generation.

  15. Helen Boone

    What’s the mystery in this? It’s just the history of the place, and what is the mystery?

  16. Edna Badillo

    Based on the pictures, the village is inside the walls of the castle? Am I right?

  17. Joss Butler

    Thanks, Urbanette for posting this article. My girlfriend is now asking me to bring her in Carcassonne. Thank you, a lot. #Sarcasm

  18. Marina Josef

    There’s a lot of cheap accommodations in Carcassone, and you just have to research for it. Spend a few hours on researching will help you on your budget.

    • Francis Vest

      A little research can help you on your tight budget. That’s what I’m doing in my travels.

  19. Luthi Sanders

    Thinking about what’s inside that castle and going there by night and what are the creepy things inside! hahaha

  20. Jossen Row

    I’ve heard this Carcassonne from my fiancee, and here where she wants to get married. Now I’m having hesitation after reading this.

    • Jeweli Prater

      Are you having hesitation to marry your fiancee? Lol

  21. Jesse Wyss

    You checked-in in this room? WOW! It’s like you’re living in the castle.

  22. Marina Bozek

    I remembered Beauty and The Beast here in this place. Going there would make me feel like I’m a princess from a Disney fairytale.

    • George Sumanta

      Same here. I’ve thought of beauty and the beast here.

  23. I played a board game named after this place! Yay! I want to bring that board game there, and I can say that I played Carcassonne, in Carcassonne. Lol

  24. Jessie Fernande

    Whoa.. This. Is. Amazing. I can’t wait to get a job and travel to this city.

  25. Cries Moris

    Holy War? Never heard of that before! The Church before during that time looks very strict, IMO.

  26. Martin Juyes

    That’s something that you’ll learn in history that’ll help you appreciate historical sites like this even more.

  27. Yuliya Bruce

    What about the cost of living there? Is it expensive, or not expensive? It is within Europe, so I guess it’s pretty expensive.

  28. Lana Wiliam

    I do love going to places that remind me of the medieval era, but I don’t think I can spend nights in a place like this knowing that a lot of people died in here.

  29. Nataliya Smith

    How far is it from Paris? I checked a flight straight to Carcassonne, and there’s no direct flight going there. Can you tell us how to go there

  30. Jurik Smith

    I can’t stay with that kind of ambiance. The place is too old, and a lot of people died there. I’m afraid of ghosts.

  31. Angelo Henderso

    Did you went inside the castle? How does it look like? I wanna knooow!

  32. Robert Patel

    My girlfriend wanted to go to a place where she can feel that she’s a princess. I guess we can act like beauty and the beast here in Carcassone.

  33. Richard Halliburton was a traveler, and an author at the same time. Whoa, he live with a very good life. Sadly, he died at the age of 39.

  34. Britni Baynes

    The way you describe Carcassone, it feels like I’m in it too. I can imagine the beauty of it by just reading your description, and staring at the picture.

  35. Juli Woods

    I only know Carcassone in a board game. It’s an enjoyable board game, and my friends and I used to play them when I was a kid.

  36. Hena Taylor

    The books that were mentioned sounds interersting! I would look up to it when i hit the bookstore some other time.

  37. Lusi Martin

    Sitting on a porch with you eating your falafel and drinking a glass of Citron Pressé while looking at this castle is perfection.

  38. Jessi Agusta

    Where can you recommend to eat when we visit there?

  39. Honey Smith

    Wonder who’s prince and princess lived there before.

  40. Paul Daiz

    Wow. That’s some history about a castle! What does that castle called?

  41. Maria Bruce

    I like the location of your hotel! It was really beside of the castle. Good choice!

  42. Quin Meri

    There are also a lot of other beautiful castles in France like Chateau de Foix, Chateau Rocher, Chateau de Dourdan, and the list goes on. Really worth to take a tour in.

  43. My daughters would love and enjoy if I bring them here.

  44. This was like a fairytale! Castles with history. It was my dream to live in castles like those.

  45. How romantic that you were able to watch a wedding at these kind of place! That was a cherished moment!

  46. Brett Lee

    That hotel room was gorgeous! Checking their schedule and rates now… Thanks for the suggestion!

    • Zerin Martin

      Yeah. looks like you’re living from the old times.

  47. Arlen Given

    Wasn’t it scary going there at night? Knowing from the story that there were a lot of people were killed. 😲

  48. Susan Rice

    Reading this bring out my inner princess!

  49. Ida Reeves

    Good story about the history of Carcassonne. Very informative!

  50. Kath Brantley

    Castles! I feel like a princess going here 💕

  51. Debra Whaley

    This is incredible! I love how you described the place! Made me fall in love with it.

  52. Thanks for taking me to this majestic and impressive destination! I super love your article! Your photos reminded me of the “medieval times of knights in their shining armor.”

    I wonder, are there shopping destinations too?!

  53. Great article and wonderful photos! I was reminded of fairy tale books I had when I was a very young girl!

    Am I right to believe that this is part of UNESCO World Heritage sites?

  54. Jenny Austin

    Correct me if I’m wrong but feels like the place is “not the ordinary” travel destination?! Outstanding photos! Just a look at them brought me that special feeling! Will surely check out Carcassonne once I have the time!

  55. Brooke Tyre

    Seems like the place is very magical! And the photos you shared are very attractive and inviting!

  56. Mmmm…. Feels like Carcassonne, France is a very mysterious BUT magnificent place to visit and explore!!! I’m really attracted to check Carcassonne for myself because of the pictures you shared!!! Once I have the time (and money), I’m surely going to book a flight to this majestic place!

  57. Courtney Watson

    I love travelling and Carcassonne is one of the items in my “to-visit” list. I’ve read somewhere that Pont-Vieux, the oldest and prettiest bridge spanning River Aude is worth paying a visit. Do you have additional info for me about this bridge?!

    • An interesting fact I can share with you on Pont-Vieux bridge in Carcassonne is that this “twelve, full-centre arches have opening diameters of unequal lengths ranging from 10 to 14 metres. This is evidence that the work was completed arch after arch, depending on the resources. The bridge was divided in two by a stone arch based on an upstream and downstream cutwater, which marked the limit between the two communities of the Cité and the Lower Town.” 🙂

      Source: http://www.odeaanaude.eu/catalogaude2/carcassonne-le-pont-vieux-p-359.html?language=en

  58. Sarah Evanston

    I love this article! It triggered my desire to travel more! I appreciate the pictures you attached, it made me felt like a princess 😉 I really hope to visit Carcassonne soon!

  59. Wow! Carcassonne! I missed croissant!

    For that special treat and special “feel” of Carcassonne, I would recommend Hôtel Donjon, very welcoming and cozy hotel where you’ll find suit of armor guards the medieval walls 🙂

  60. I remember staying at Hôtel de la Cité! If you aim to experience the old town Carcasonne, then this is the place to stay. It is within the palace and offers very beautiful sights. The hotel is very good with excellent facilities, the room where I stayed is simple but amazing. They have very good food but limited options for vegetarians.

  61. Francis Woods

    Wow!!! The first few pictures reminded me of Harry Potter!!! Great photos! You made me excited! I wish to visit Carcasonne soon!

    • Agree! Harry Potter movies also came in to my mind when I saw the pictures! And yeah, they made me want to travel to Carcassonne, as in the soonest possible time!

  62. I wonder how much travel time from Paris to Carcassone?!

  63. Nice travel article! Feels like visiting Carcasonne will give me a memorable trip back to medieval France 🙂 Hmmmm… Now I’m saving for my Carcasonne journey…

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