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Chris Sayer’s Travel Diary

Thursday, 06 Sep 2007

Location: Carcassone, France

MapToday – Carcassonne. Less than an hour’s drive from Mirepoix, this is really two cities in one. Firstly the modern city has all the hallmarks of a provincial French town, with narrow cobblestone streets and large shopping centres, but the most intriguing part of Carcassonne is the Old City, La Cite. Viewed from afar, the Old City looks like a fairytale castle, with two high surrounding walls and dozens of turrets all around the entire perimeter. Sitting high on a hill just accentuates its prominence. Once again, the history of this place is overwhelming, having been built by Gauls, Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Franks over the last ten centuries. This was one of the major Cathar strongholds in the 13th century, and much of the history of this region of southern France (De Pays Cathar) is dominated by this strange religious sect of the 13th Century (I suggest you look up the Cathars in Wikipedia – a fascinating and terribly sad story). Further research tells you that only the lower walls are original – the conical-shaped roofs of the turrets are actually 19th century.
Once you’ve marveled at La Cite and walked through its front gate and over the now-dry moat, you enter a totally unexpected world. Disappointingly, the place is rife with outright commercialism – restaurants, bars, hotels, clothes shops, galleries, and souvenir shops selling real and plastic swords and armour. Very very tacky, and it almost seems a crime to taint the centuries of history with this blatant grab for the tourist Euro. Still, with a little effort, we found various quiet streets and courtyards where the crowds weren’t and the stone craftsmanship and age could be appreciated. La Cite also has a huge church, and the stained glass windows are magnificent when viewed from the inside-out.
Driving back to Mirepoix, we braved the back-roads instead of paying the toll on the motorway (although the cost was only 1.40 Euro). We have found the road signs in France (cities and countryside) to be exceptionally good and easy to follow. Much of this road ran beside the Canal De Midi, as it wound its way down to the Mediterrenean, making very pretty shady spots beside an altogether artificial river.