Friday 5: Carcassonne

Happy Friday! Today we’re taking a quick look at Carcassonne, one of the most iconic fortified cities in the world.

It has been on my “must-see” list for awhile and I think we’re finally going to have the opportunity to drive there on the honeymoon. It’s located in the southwestern part of the Languedoc-Roussillon, about 2 to 2.5 hours from where we are staying in Uzès. I figured it was a good time to do some research and post a Friday 5 on it. That way I can come back, follow-up on my research, and give you my “been there, done that” two cents. 

La Cité and Chateau Comtal

The double-walled medieval town is the eye-catching main attraction for most travellers who visit Carcassonne. Thanks to its strategic hilltop location, it has a long history, as far back as the Celts, as a fortified settlement.

It was the Cathars, an ascetic Christian sect, who drew attention to Carcassonne in the 13th century. They strongly opposed what they saw as a corrupt, power-hungry Catholic Church. As Catharism began spreading across pockets of Europe, including southern France, the threat became too great for Pope Innocent II. 

This was the era of Papal power and brutal crusades. So, what did the Pope do? He had King Augustus of France send a crusade in to lay siege to the Cathars of the Languedoc. In 1209, Carcassonne fell to the Catholics, led by Simon de Montfort. The Cathars were expelled and ruthless inquisitions followed to rid the city of any remaining heretics.

More fortifications were added over time to protect the town from any other attacks. So when Edward, the Black Prince, and his army came knocking in 1355, during the Hundred Years’ War, Carcassonne was nearly impenetrable. 

Like many cities and towns in history, Carcassonne peaked and then fell into disrepair. Napoleon took it off of his official list of fortifications and the town languished further. It was almost destroyed completely until Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, an architect, came along in the mid-nineteenth century with a plan. In 1846, he began a massive restoration project  that brought La Cité to life. Today it is a UNESCO world heritage site and an incredibly popular tourist destination. (video link for email subscribers)

Besides walking the ramparts, visiting the great Narbonne and Aude gates, and wandering the cobblestone streets shopping for souvenirs, the Château Comtal is another major attraction. Tickets are €8.50 per person (as of today's writing) and visitors can get an audio guide for another €4.50.

I highly recommend taking a look at Creme-de-Languedoc’s fantastic Carcassonne guide for an in-depth look at the history and suggestions on how to plan your day. 

Everything I’ve read or watched about Carcassonne suggests that visitors go in the morning, just after it opens, or later in the afternoon, just before closing. I’ve also read plenty of warnings about how touristy it feels, almost like a theme park, but that the hordes of people and the shops full of cheap trinkets don’t spoil the amazing sites.

Basilica of Saint Nazaire and Saint Celse

A beautiful gothic church within the walls of La Cité. In 1096, Pope Urban II visited Carcassonne, blessed the church’s foundation, and ordered the cathedral to be built. In 1801 it was downgraded to a basilica and St. Michaels, another church outside of the walled city, was upgraded. 

Canal du Midi

The canal, built between 1667 and 1694, was created by Pierre-Paul Riquet to link the Mediterranean with the Atlantic. At 360 km long, Carcassonne is just one of many towns it meanders by on its journey. The best ways to enjoy the canal are by boat or walking. There quite a few options for boat rides, from half day trips to multi-day trips. Here is an example of what one company offers. Cycling is another option, but there seem to be a few caveats about the terrain and safety.

Based on what I’ve read, the most picturesque route is eastward from Carcassonne toward Narbonne. To get away from some of the crowds, Creme de Languedoc recommends taking the eastward trip hoping off to explore the next town over, Trèbes

Bastide Saint Louis

Carcassonne’s lower town, Bastide Saint Louis, is about a 15-20 minute walk from La Cité over the River Aude via the pedestrian bridge, Pont Vieux (which can be seen in the first photo above). A nice bonus to the walk is the stunning view of the walled city on the hill from the bridge. While Bastide Saint Louis is not as impressive as La Citê, it has a number of shops and restaurants to explore. Its grid system makes it fairly easy to navigate and the pretty main square, Place Carnot, holds a big Saturday morning market. It might make a good getaway from the crowds.

Bonus: Labyrinth by Kate Mosse

One of my favourite things to do while traveling is to read a novel set in the area I’m visiting. Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth is a perfect choice for visiting Carcassonne.

Labyrinth is historical thriller that revolves around the Cathars and the mystery of the true Grail (yes, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code comparisons are everywhere). Alice Tanner is an archeologist on a dig outside of Carcassonne in 2005. She discovers a tomb with two chilling skeletons and the pattern of a labyrinth scrawled on the walls. What she will come to find out is that in 1209, on the eve of the Crusades, a young girl named Alaïs was entrusted to protect a book and a ring inscribed with that labyrinth. Together these two items hold the key to the true Grail, a mystery that that will change both women’s lives. 

I’ve actually had this book sitting on my bookshelf for years and just haven’t found the right time to read it. It’s going in the honeymoon carryon!

That’s all for this week! Our plans right now are to celebrate Cinco de Mayo a little early with my dad’s homemade tamales (so good!) and do wedding things. The to-do list seems to be growing despite doing wedding things everyday. Funny how that works! Silly weddings! 

By the way, if you like board games, Carcassonne has inspired its very own.  I couldn’t go this whole post without at least mentioning that it existed!

I hope you have a great weekend and enjoy some beautiful weather.

Friday 5: The Icy Niagara Falls

I planned on writing a post about spring jackets, but I had a change of plans after my parents sent me pictures from their visit to Niagara Falls this week. I thought they were beautiful and my dad told me I could share them on the blog. (Thanks, dad!) Spring jackets can wait, these pictures are too pretty not to share!

February was very cold here in Ontario—in fact, it was the coldest February on record in the city of Toronto. You know what happens when it gets really, really cold for a month? Stuff freezes! For example: pipes, car locks, my brain, and waterfalls. Well, as you can see above, big waterfalls only partially freeze but the result is gorgeous. 

Looking towards New York

Looking towards New York

The frigid temperatures in Niagara Falls cause the mist freeze into giant ice formations at bottom of the falls. Nearby railings and trees get their own icy crust. It’s something that happens often around February during cold winters and it brings in plenty of tourists to see the frozen wonder for themselves. 

I know that was 5 pictures for the day, but I love history too much to not mention the February 1912 tragedy. 

In the 1880s it became popular to walk and play on the ice bridge that sometimes formed across the river. This usually happens when ice from Lake Erie breaks up, floats downriver and freezes into a giant mass at the base of the falls. 

By Barker, George, 1844-1894 -- Photographer [Public domain], via  Wikimedia Commons

By Barker, George, 1844-1894 -- Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On February 4, 1912, the fun ended when the ice started rumbling and cracking. It quickly broke into chunks and began rushing down the river. Eldridge Stanton, his wife Clara Stanton, and Burrell Hecock got stuck on a fast-moving ice floe. Hecock nearly made it to safety, but when he saw that Clara Stanton was struggling, he went back to help the couple. Attempts were made to save the trio by lowering ropes from bridges, but they ultimately failed and all of them perished. It's a famous tragedy that lives on as a reminder that the falls are not just beautiful, they are powerfully dangerous. 

I can't end today's post on that note, though so I thought I would at least post this video of Will Gadd's recent historic climb up Niagara Falls. I find it inspiring and terrifying all at once. I don't think I'll ever have the guts to be an ice climber!

That's it for this week. We're supposed to get above freezing soon, so things are starting to look up (and hopefully heck of a lot less icy). I hope you have a wonderful weekend!

Versailles: Dull and Ungrateful?


Today I've been working on the Vignette Guide: Versailles a bit and wanted to share one of my favorite vignettes. The whole idea for the guide is that you can read a little or as much as you would like, so each room or part of the tour will have a section of fast facts and a fun vignette or ancedote that somehow relates to the room and helps bring it to life.  

This vignette is the first of the tour and serves as a something of an introduction. 

“Dull” and “ungrateful” are not the words you normally hear associated with Versailles. 

Before it became the magnificent building you see today, the palace began as a relatively small hunting lodge. Although it was worthy of being the king’s hunting lodge, the original plot of land was no place for a court. It was a mixture of swamp and sand. The water was stagnant and unhealthy, which often made workers sick throughout the years of construction.

None of this mattered to Louis XIV. He was The Sun King, after all, and this was his chosen land. It was tamed and moulded to fit his desires, whatever the cost and in spite of anyone else’s opinion. 

As The Duc de Saint-Simon wrote in The Memoirs of Louis XIV, His Court, and the Regency :

[. . .]nobody ever approached his magnificence. His buildings, who could number them? At the same time, who was there who did not deplore the pride, the caprice, the bad taste seen in them?[. . .]Saint-Germain, a lovely spot, with a marvelous view, rich forest, terraces, gardens, and water he abandoned for Versailles; the dullest and most ungrateful of all places, without prospect, without wood, without water, without soil; for the ground is all shifting sand or swamp, the air accordingly bad but he liked to subjugate nature by art and treasure.⁠1 

So the will of a king as powerful as the sun created this magnificence at the great cost of money and time, yes, but also of lives. 

 Louis de Rouvroy, Duc de Saint-Simon, Memoirs of Louis XIV, His Court and the Regency, accessed November 17, 2014, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3875/3875-h/3875-h.htm.

I love this vignette for a couple of reasons. Saint-Simon was not afraid to lampoon the king (or anyone else for that matter) and I love that he pulls back the mask of the  Versailles. I also love it because I think it helps set the stage for understanding just how powerful Louis XIV was and just how unpleasant Versailles could be. Louis XIV not only built one of the most magnificent palaces in history from what many thought was nothing, but he forced his entire court to move there. He took them out of the comfort and bustle of Paris to live in his vision, literally and figuratively. That vision was not always pretty or comfortable for them.