Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Walled City of Carcassone: The Langue d’Oc Diaries, Part I

It felt really good to be back in France—we hadn’t been there since our sabbatical in 1999. Before that we went almost every year concentrating on one small region at a time. Southwestern France was one of regions where we had spent relatively little time. We were in Toulouse sometime in the mid 1980’s, but it was so hellishly hot we fled after one day. During our working years we could only travel during the summer or the winter holiday break. One of the great pleasures of retirement is the ability to travel off-season, when the prices are lower, the crowds fewer, and when it’s much easier to snag an airline upgrade.

We decided to combine Barcelona with Southwestern France—-once one cultural region before there were such entities as France and Spain. I had planned to read Montaillou, a social history of a small town in the region during the Middle Ages. No surprise, I never got around to it, despite Rick’s owning a copy. Fortunately Rick knows a lot about the history of the region and filled me in on the key points. I had also planned to review some French grammar before the trip, but never got around to that either. Rick speaks French really, really well and since he’s so good with languages, it’s very easy for me to fall into the trap of linguistic laziness.

The French are trying to revive the old language of the region and I was surprised to see all the street signs in Carcassonne in Langue d’Oc. The old walled city of Carcassonne is definitely worth a day and also worth staying overnight to see the castle and ramparts illuminated at night. Unfortunately, you have to walk through a gauntlet of gift shops as you enter the old medieval town, but then tourism pays for the preservation of the site. Carcassonne had been a major political /cultural center in the Middle Ages, but had been abandoned and in a state of disrepair until one of my heroes, historical preservationist Eugene Violet-Le-Duc, convinced the French government to allocate funds for its restoration. Every time we visit a medieval historical site in France– a cathedral, castle--the guidebooks always tell us that Violet-Le-Duc preceded us. Lovers of the Gothic cathedral (and I count myself among them) owe a great deal to Violet-Le-Duc.

L'Eglise Saint Navaire

The bad news about Carcassonne is that it has the high hotel prices that come with a major tourist attraction. We found an acceptable small hotel in a great location—-right outside the city walls. And although the hotel was nothing special, thanks to the hotel staff we found a great restaurant with the best cassoulet I’ve ever had!

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