Whenever I told anyone I was going to the South of France, they would talk to me excitedly about Nice, Cannes, and the entire French Riviera…. well, since I didn’t really have much of an interest in watching rich people do rich things (okay okay, I’m sure it’s also beautiful there; but still!)….when I went to the “South of France” I started in Carcassonne, and then made it to the Provence region.
Carcassonne was my negotiation with myself because I was hoping to stay in one of the castle hostels of Europe… but they are all really out of the way (at least for this trip). So, I decided to stay not in a castle hostel, but in a hostel in a castle. Sort of. Do you follow me?
The explanation: the “Cité” of Carcassonne is a tiny medieval walled city on a hilltop. In short, it looks a lot like a castle, and the rambling alleys of the town with their big stone blocks didn’t really make me think anyway otherwise!
My first night I met an American guy on the train (Will, who was Virginian of some sort but had been posted – in the army way – to Germany for a few years. He also told me that only…. 8 percent… I think… of American soldiers had not been to Iraq or Afghanistan. He was of one of the lucky ones who hadn’t). He was headed to the same hostel (there is really only one hostel worth staying in in Carcassonne – the one in the walls!), and then we promptly met a British girl as well (Debbie, or Debs, who had left her desk job in Manchester for a while and had just come off 3 weeks of WWOOFing in a tiny French village [Willing Workers on Organic Farms… you volunteer at an organic farm and get food and lodging in return])…. so we split a taxi and were treated to awesome views of the Cité on the hill all lit up for nighttime. Wow.
It was apparently firmly off season though, because when Debs and I tried to get a drink of some sort at any bar, no one was still serving. And this was a Friday night, and only about 11:30. We did end up getting one at, of all places, the front desk of out hostel, and sat and chatted.
The next day was perfect for me. It was beautifully sunny, and I could barely wipe the smile off my face all day ( did I mention I really really like castles? Not so much palaces…. but castles, oh yes). First I walked out the big stone gate and all the way around the walled part from the outside. It was lovely, I was the only one out there, and it smelled really field-y.
Afterwards, I wandered in the Cité, and checked out all the delightful shops: plenty of typical South of France stuff (like soaps, wine, paté), and then lots of shops selling medieval themed goodies – everything from real metal swords to kids’ shops (this was the first place I thought was actually really good for younger kids! I saw lots fighting with their new wooden swords or wearing their helmets or princess crowns). I was tempted to buy something ridiculous like a chain maille helmet… or bustier; or a floor length sweeping cape. But I restrained myself.
After the cheesiest pizza ever for lunch, I did the actual Castle (almost like a castle within a castle), Chateau Comtal. I got the audioguide and was very interested in the stories of the Albigensian Crusade against the “heretical” Christian sect the Cathars (the first and I think only time a Crusade was called by Christians – Catholics to be specific – against Christians, in Christian lands). Carcassonne was very tolerant at that time, and where the Crusaders really focused on. Béziers, a town nearby (which I had passed through on the train), had been burned to the ground just before the assault on Carcassonne…. and the Catholic Church leader in charge apparently spoke the famous line when asked how to tell whether the inhabitants were heretics or good Catholics….. “Kill them all, God will know his own” And so the entire city was massacred by the Crusaders, even the priest saying Mass and the group of people huddled in the church listening. (All of this was made even more real to me by the book I had just finished that a Kiwi guy back in Barcelona gave me – Labyrinth by Kate Mosse – which; though a bit Da Vinci Code tacky, was perfect for Carcassonne’s history).
The evening I made it out for a drink with Will (Debs had taken a flight home), and we made it in time to actually get served!