To end the trip to the Mediterranean, we stopped in the Medieval city of Carcassonne, which is conveniently halfway between Toulouse and the sea.
If I were to recount the history of Carcassone, it would be a thousand page novel, but it’s so fascinating I will try to give a brief overview. The area was inhabited way back in the BC’s, but Carcassonne did not become important until the Romans fortified the hill and made it a colony of Julius Ceasar in 100 BC. In the following centuries it passed through the hands of Romans, Visigoths (who held strong against Frankish attacks), Arabs from Spain, and then a viscount whose predecessors allied alternately with Barcelona or Toulouse.
Carcassonne did not become “French” until after the Albigensian Crusade, a bloody Crusade waged by the French Crown for the Pope to eliminate the Cathars from the region that is now southwestern France. The Cathars were a religious sect considered heretical by the Pope, therefore he felt it necessary to exterminate them. (“Live and let live” wasn’t the dominant philosophy during the Middle Ages.) Carcassonne was a Cathar stronghold with no interest in recognizing the authority of the Catholic Church or the French Crown, and therefore a main target. The Crusaders cut off the water supply to Carcassonne, which was by then overflowing with Cathars and refugees from the surrounding lands. The siege eventually forced the inhabitants to surrender, and Carcassonne fell to the French crown. And that was only in 1209.
Out of all the places I’ve been to so far in France, Carcassonne was the one place I really wished I could have stayed longer in and learned more about. But at my favorite English bookstore there’s a book on the history of Carcassonne and the Cathars, I’ll have to pick it up after my next paycheck!
Climbing up the cobblestoned entrance and clutching my jacket against the strong wind, in spite of, or perhaps because of all the people, it was easy to imagine myself a weary Medieval traveler having crossed the plains below, searching for food and rest in a city that had been on the horizon for days.
Our food and rest came in the courtyard of the church, where we huddled against the wind and ate the picnic we had packed.
We only had an hour more to explore the city, but one day, when I know more of the history, I would love to come back.
It’s hard to imagine the violent and bloody slaughtering carried out here in the now peaceful valley and town below.
I never understood the need for such vicious and grotesque gargoyles on churches.
Until next time Carcassonne, I’m sure you won’t change.