A healthy lunch of a great big salad and crêpes with ham and cheese – comfort food à la Française – did the trick and lifted our spirits. Our lunch spot’s free wifi and the fact that we spent the good part of a sunny afternoon exploring the storybook walled city of Carcassonne also helped. People-watching in the largest fortified city in Europe was excellent -- the best we’ve had in weeks. We were expecting to see lots of tourists at this haunting but breathtakingly beautiful monument to the past but didn’t expect it to be such an international crowd. People and languages from around the world surrounded us all day and in fact, it was the first time we’d heard anything other than French and English since we left Paris. We were so happy to no longer be alone as we explored this masterpiece of a walled city. Carcassonne boasts its share of the griffins and other medieval beasts whose ghastly faces had helped dampen our mood over the past week, but there’s a difference between having them glare at us when we’re all by our lonesome in deserted villages and experiencing them with lots of other happy people around. Joe and I enjoy our own company as well as each other’s, and generally do just fine on our own. But after so many days of isolation, even natural introverts like us need the company of others, if only to see them eating, drinking, laughing and interacting. The weekend crowds at Carcassonne fit the bill perfectly.
My first starry-eyed imaginings of Europe were of a turreted fairytale walled city just like Carcassonne. Growing up, our family had a multi-volume set of orange-covered Child Craft books and each had a name like, The World Around Us, Folk and Fairytales and Poems of Early Childhood. I loved each and every one and read them over and over (and before we could read, my Mom and Dad read them to us) but my absolute favorite volume was Life in Many Lands. It included stories of children in Mexico, Holland and China and of course, the one I remember most is of a young French girl -- Nanette -- in an embroidered dress and lacy headdress who lived in a medieval chateau with her grandmother. As we approached Carcassonne from a distance, with its 52 turrets and double walled fortifications, the romance I felt when I’d read Nanette’s story came flooding back and I was reminded of why and when I’d first fallen in love with France. The pictures we took of this enchanting walled city, looking at it from afar across golden autumn vineyards, are some of my favorites of our trip so far. Perhaps it was the perfect afternoon light or maybe it was my childlike love for my subject, but the photos I took captured perfectly the uniquely dreamlike quality of Carcassonne. We could have sat there all day and just looked at its impossible beauty.
In one of my earlier posts I’d mentioned Carcassonne and my visit there 33 years ago as a student. Joe has often heard the story about my arrival in a blustery January snowstorm clad in flimsy white sneakers and how a nun at a closed youth hostel housed in a convent opened the padlocked doors and gave me a bunk in a large unheated stone chamber. We were both anticipating our visit to this fairytale bastide so that we could revisit the site of my snowy stopover so many years ago. Memory is a funny thing. I could have sworn that the approach road curved up along the outer city wall to the left to reach the huge Porte Narbonnaise drawbridge and entry. But when we retraced my steps from my arrival at the train station to the walled city’s gate a mile or so away, it was clear that the approach I remembered so clearly only existed in my mind. It was actually a straight shot from the SNCF gare over the Aude River with just a slight curve to the right and under the arch in through the gate. Perhaps it was the blizzard that altered my memory. Once inside the city gate, reality agreed with what I remembered and Joe and I made our way on the winding path, uphill but not steep, past the plastic sword and brightly colored knight costume hawkers followed by the artisan workshops and cafes housed in the ancient stone arcades. En route to the top of the town before finding the convent that saved me years ago, I had briefly stopped in the one tiny bar I’d found open for a chocolat chaud to thaw my frozen fingers and warm my insides. We found it! The little place was still there, tucked on the left of the twisting cobblestoned street and still in business. We had less luck finding the convent as we wandered back and forth and around the church at the summit’s square. Just where I thought the dorm of my memory stood was a gilded, 4-star establishment, Hôtel de la Cité. While it would certainly make a good story to claim that the frigid hostel of my youth had been transformed into a luxury chateau hotel, I’m afraid that the Hôtel de La Cité has been in that spot for almost 100 years and has never been a convent. We finally gave up looking for what apparently no longer exists and I decided that I would preserve my memory of that snowy night in Carcassonne exactly as I remember it and not let the reality of today interfere.
Having rallied with the memory of a lovely lunch and afternoon in Carcassonne to keep us going, we decided our constitutions could handle a true Cathar experience, with all its ghosts of blood and brutality. We planned a hike for the next day to the hilltop Cathar bastion of the nearby Chateaux Lastours and crossed our fingers that our sunny moods would prevail.
Pictures of our adventures: