Tuesday, June 26, 2012

France Day 5 - Carcassonne & conspiracies

Up nice and early this morning, but unfortunately the weather wasn’t on our side and was decidedly grey and misty. We decided to go to Carcassonne and scout out a suitable place to get some pictures of the old city walls that evening when they were all lit up. Parked up at La Cité and walked down to the main city to look for that viewpoint. After a bit of wandering about we found somewhere in what I think was the rough end of a hospital car park, but it looked promising and we decided to return that evening.

Walked back up feeling absolutely knackered (me), I hadn’t slept that well the night before so it really took it out of me, I looked like a cadaverous, hollow eyed spectre. We went, well I loomed, into a rather chic café and after terrifying the small madam’s nibbling on their croissants, sat down to recover with an astoundingly priced coffee and pain au chocolat. When I was feeling slightly more human again we bought ourselves a ticket for a tour on the city ramparts.

A view across town to the outer wall

There has been habitation on the site since around 3500BC but it was when the Romans started throwing their weight around and fortified the hilltop about 100BC that things began to get interesting for Carcassonne. Despite the many alterations, and additions that have been added to the walls over the years, as we saw on the tour, the Roman parts are still visible. In fact because of the different technologies in stonework, you can see where each new ‘layer’ has been added throughout the centuries.
View of ramparts and 'modern' city below
View along the ramparts
The guide we had was really interesting and we learnt all sorts of facts about all sorts of things. For example do you know why Languedoc is called what it is? Well it’s because the local populace, who have always been very proud of their heritage, used to speak Occitan, a language whose closest relative is Catalan, and was historically the main language spoken in the southern half of France, and parts of Italy and Spain, unofficially known as Occitania. In fact up until the 14th century Occitan was understood and well used throughout most of educated Europe, but it started to decline after that and was almost wiped out during the French Revolution, when diversity of language was considered a threat. Anyway, this region is central to the Occitan language, the language of Oc, which in Occitan is Lenga d’oc, and in French is Langue d’oc, so, this is the reason it is called Languedoc.

There, consider yourself told.

The wall encircles, among other things, the Theatre Jean Deschamps. It has lots of seats.
After that we strolled back to the car where we ploughed through a tough cheese baguette we’d made that morning, from, you guessed it, yesterdays baguette, we then rolled out from Carcassonne and towards Abbaye de St Hilaire. Founded in the eighth century this was the site where a monk first discovered sparkling wine, a beverage that the champagne region seems to have taken to it’s heart. Took a few pictures in the cloisters, which by now was quite sunny and peaceful, at least that was, until a school group turned up and did their best to ruin it for everyone, so we decided to make our escape, but not before I’d dashed off a quick request to the big man to smite them mightily and without mercy.

The serene cloisters of Abbaye de St Hilaire
Some intriguing steps at the abbey
On the road out we stopped for a very photogenic looking old barn with accompanying vegetation who obliged us with a picture, before arriving in Limoux, a rather busy and frantic town, where we almost struggled to find a parking space. Walking out from the car park I noticed we were getting a few stares from people who had obviously seen better days, or were on their way to seeing worse ones, and I had an uncomfortable feeling that our belongings might be better of with us, rather than the back of the car. This was probably something to do with the fact I’d had my car broken into a couple of weeks before we left, and that we were leaving behind about £4000 of camera equipment, but perhaps I was just feeling guilty about demanding those children be smited earlier and had a inkling that karma was about kick me in the nuts.

A vineyard and an accommodating barn
Either way, we decided to go back and load up with all our belongings, before heading into the main square and getting a coffee. This was quite easily, Toulouse & Narbonne aside, which we just drove through, the busiest place we had been to all week, and it was quite odd to see so many people going about their lives, all together out in the open, crossing this way and that, talking and well, being there. It wasn’t that many of course, but after travelling through so many villages and small towns where you’d see a handful of people at best, and most of the time absolutely no one at all, and this could be at any time of day, it was an odd sight. It did surprise me how empty those places were and made me wonder what everyone does, but I suppose they do what everyone else does, they go to work, come home and sit in front of the TV, there are just less of them to do it.

The coffee was crap by the way, and certainly not for the first time. Which kind of throws out my general theory of how coffee tastes better outside of the UK. But maybe I was being too hard line about it, maybe there isn’t a definite cut off point between good and bad, there are actually gradations of goodness, so because France is near the UK, it’s not quite far enough away to totally evade the bad coffee aura that permeates from blighty, whereas Italy is in fact far enough. As a theory it probably needs more rigorous scientific experimentation to be the accepted standard, but in the mean time it will have to do.

After that it was on to Alet Les Bains a very picturesque medieval village, with a beautiful town square and lots of small winding roads and half timbered buildings, basically all the usual stuff. It probably sounds quite monotonous to read about them, but they are a joy to visit, and not repetitive at all, it’s just difficult to describe half timbered buildings and winding roads in any other way.

As you can see, they haven't got around to taking down the Christmas decorations yet.
I can't resist an old door, and rightly so.
A water fountain in the town square
Then we headed up to Renne le Chateau, in fact quite far up, as this little village is perched high up in the hills and boasts a very scenic road up to it. After threading our way through the village, to the car park at the other end, we got out and admired the view which encompasses both the Pyrenees and Cevennes ranges to the south and northeast respectively. But this tiny place is not just famous for its views, its history is the main draw here. This so called history contains a plethora of conspiracy theories, including such topics as the Knights Templar, the Cathars, the treasures of the Temple of Solomon, the Ark of the Covenant, the Priory of Sion, the Holy Grail, ley lines, sacred geometry, Mary Magdalene, the remains of JC and even flying saucers. When Dan Brown made references to the place in The Da Vinci Code, it bought in tens of thousands of visitors a year, and I have absolutely no idea how they all managed to get in, on the way out I had to wait for 5 minutes behind a small hatchback which had stopped to have a chat, the driver, not the car, because it blocked the entire road.

A view from Renne le Chateau
We rounded off the day by taking a tour of the amazing chateaux that adorn this area. First up was Chateau d’Arques which looked very comely with a waving field of grass in front of it. Next was Chateau Termes, which we didn’t stop to photograph, but it was quite an impressive ruin perched on top of a large hill, got some good views as we drove past, on our way to Chateau de Durfort, a real ruin of a castle, at this time of the evening all the chateaux were shut, but even if we had wanted to go in this one it wouldn’t have been possible, as it was too dangerous. But we stopped to get some pictures of its crumbling fortifications in the evening sun.

Chateau d'Arques
Chateau de Durfort
We then drove into Carcassonne and found our spot from earlier on, unfortunately our timing wasn’t great, as we had just missed the warm sunlight in the city walls, it disappeared just as we were setting up the cameras, we then had to wait around an hour for it to be dark enough for the same walls to be illuminated by the lights placed around the perimeter of the Citè. But eventually the stonework started to glow a warm orange as we busied ourselves with taking an inordinate amount of pictures.

La Cite all lit up
After that we headed into the centre to see if at 10pm there was anywhere that would be willing to serve us, and found ourselves a couple of decent pizzas before driving back to the gite and getting some much needed rest.

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