Apparently a zoo of tourists by day, Carcassonne, France is a fortified medieval walled city and we found it in the dark with no one out but the cats keeping watch. Rick Steves describes La Cite’ (the old city) as a “13th century world of towers, turrets, and cobblestones.” Strategically shouldered against the Pyrenees mountains, Carcassonne is a UNESCO World Heritage site and doesn’t disappoint, if you can get to it...
The labor strike during our visit to France this past summer affected the train schedules throughout the country. The Parisian sanitation workers joined the cause to similar effect in Paris and there were the beginning rumblings that the airline pilots union would also soon be involved. Our journey by train delayed us but we still made the destination. The half hour, uphill walk from the train station through Ville Basse (the new city) had us coming in late and nearing dark, the full moon growing large over the horizon. The walk from the train platform to La Cite’ was longer than anticipated, our backpack luggage bearing us down and our stomachs growling.
After riding the comfortably prompt and efficient high speed train from Paris, our travel schedule started to unravel in Toulouse where we were met by customer service agents explaining, in French of course, that all afternoon trains had been canceled. The schedule board was covered with delayed and canceled changes. Getting from Point A to Point B was no longer a possibility. Many of the high speed trains had been spared the outright cancellations the local trains faced but the ripple effect included delays, cancellations and route changes across the board and we found we were lucky to have made it as far as we had. Carcassonne remained a mere hour further away from the Toulouse train station platform from which we stood and yet we felt the distance growing as the clock continued its march toward nightfall.
We briefly considered a rental car, something I initially hoped to avoid. The Airbus factory is in Toulouse, we could hunker down and take the tour the following morning. The nearby micro-country Andorra was on our first draft itinerary until we found that trains don’t even run there and if we weren’t driving, I couldn’t come up with anything creative enough to make that happen. We were running out of options. Prayers answered, we were finally assigned a slow train to Carcassonne, one that passed through beautiful vineyards and rolling hills the rest of the way to our destination.
Every new town we visited or that passed us by through the windows of a train was a sight to see, a setting to admire the architecture and an attempt to understand the layout of the land. Every town offered more people and faces to meet, more delicious foods to enjoy. This late in the day however, Carcassonne had simply become a place to crash for us. Crossing a pretty little flower lined canal, the small bridge led us up the street and into this new town. The kids weren’t yet tuned into what was to come and medieval wasn’t the first description any of us would have used to describe our walk ahead. Better than medieval, more impressive than the Eiffel Tower, more appealing than the cute French girls, the boys found a Subway restaurant on the way, one of the few remaining shops or eateries still open this late Sunday evening. The journey stopped there, at least briefly, until they had time to eat.
It had been a long day since we woke up in Paris to a light morning rain. The summer days stretched longer than our imagination and the sun was not fading until about 10:00 those nights. We were hot, cranky, hungry and tired. We spent a little time that morning before we left Paris at a laundromat a block from our hotel, always fun for the kids. We bought sandwich ingredients (sliced meats, fresh cheeses and breads - my mouth still waters for these heavenly flavors) and a variety box of macaroons from the Rue Cler storefronts before we checked out and found a quick cab (because at least that one bus route wasn’t working either) to the Gare Montparnasse station and the rails to take us to the south of France.
Emerging from the Subway franchise and hooking a left, we continued our straight shot walk up the hill. All hills are mostly uphill when you’re carrying your body weight on your back and thirty minute walks somehow take longer than thirty minutes. We grabbed another hard left through a beautifully flowering park and followed a bend in the road at another river (or was it the same river tracking back on itself?). From the flower park, probably a park of more civic significance than we were prepared to absorb at the moment, we continued across the bridge, the fortress ahead coming into focus and looming large on its precipice.
My wife realized at about this time that as beautiful the sight before us was, there was still a lot more walking to do, so we soldiered on, crossing another bridge. These bridges, we read later, do in fact contain their own significance of age and construction and history that, like the flower park, we were unable to process at the moment. We passed closed sidewalk cafes and tight little buildings on up to and then through the gates of the fortress Carcassonne.
Narbonne Gate is the main drawbridge gate through which the cobblestone walk spans a dry moat and leads you into the small village center. We stood at the gates of this fortified city in the sky, virtually impenetrable to anyone with roller wheeled luggage. We were grateful now for our back packs. The gate bridge serves as the door to the town and so we walked in. Beyond the gate a small village of hotels and restaurants wait, protected behind the encircling great walls. The rampart walls were massive stone glowing golden amber under the floodlights just starting to take back the castle from the cooling darkness of night.
We expected a medieval castle. We imagined Renaissance Faire flags and princesses and street entertainers. My wife wanted to see the castle dining chamber behind monstrously thick doors and flanked by armored knights (like what we saw in Napoleon’s Tomb & Army Museum in Paris the previous day), and flickering candles lighting the way.
We never got into the castle, cathedral or amphitheatre, so I can’t tell you if that’s what we would have seen. We couldn’t even find our hostel. So close, it must have been right under our noses. It had to be, and yet we wandered, no longer interested in the sights or even capable at this time of sitting down to eat the rest of our sandwiches. We were lost and disoriented in the small maze of streets and quickly running out of time. Street signs made no sense and no one had ever heard of where we were going. Circling our hostel about seventeen times before we found our way in, we found the entrance mere moments before the place was to close an hour before midnight.
The front desk was closed. The friendly girl at the counter wasn’t initially at the counter and the common television room held three or four polite but drunken Irishmen solemnly watching their losing team play in the EuroCup 2016. The attendant finally appeared, having been off making other arrangements for herself for her own trip to Barcelona the next morning. The trains had called her earlier to cancel her tickets so now she was working on scheduling a Lyft or Uber or whatever they run in Europe and invited our family to join her and the other three passengers in the compact car that would be picking her up come morning. She meant well.
We raided the lobby vending machine for drinking water - cold, wet, comforting agua. One of the boys used to have a their own synonym for “thirsty and dehydrated” and we had always thought it a made up word until I looked it up - “thirstation.” That’s how we felt, but after picking up our sandwich and candy wrappers, our multiple empty water bottles, our time spent in the lobby energized us and we were starting to catch our second wind.
Checked in, we found our family hostel room upstairs and the shared bathrooms down the hall. We just about had the entire place to ourselves. All the places in La Cite’ that we might normally have been able to afford could not be afforded in La Cite’. After the hostel membership, reservation fee, and a spacious bunk room for the family, we couldn’t well afford this one either. The Best Western across the cobble however, with its candlelit fine dining room beckoning hungry passersby, was not your run of the mill roadside motel found off many highway exits throughout the States. Staying in the old city doesn’t come cheap.
Living large as best we could, we swung open the rooms massive windows for fresh air but drew the curtains closed to keep the bats from blowing in. From our room we could see the moss covered roof tiles below us and the turrets of our imagination forming in the darkness beyond.
After eating and washing up, The night now dark and cold, we went back out at half past midnight. We were all ready for our pajamas but the village beckoned and we would have no time in the morning. Technically it was already morning, but by daybreak we’d be moving on and now was our one moment of opportunity. We would have been in bed by hours had we remained home and every night in Paris we ate our dinner at times approaching midnight, so on vacation and in our medieval fairy tale world, we had one last chance to roam the shadows and see what we could see.
We explored the narrow cobblestone streets with the comfort that we had a key and we knew where to use it. The streets were made for walking and the one or two vehicles that we encountered were generally service vehicles. A single car could pass through the single lane narrowness if everyone on the street would step back into a shop doorway to let it pass. There weren’t that many pedestrians or vehicles to make it an annoyance, it just added to the appeal.
Fortress walls, nearly two miles around, encircled the village. An inner wall and the outer set of walls offered a rampart that can be accessed via worn steps and through small end-of-street doors at various points around the circumference. The inner Roman walls were built more than a thousand years before the newer outer walls, a time before Christ. The more fortified outer wall was built during the 1300’s and the city itself went through a contentious restoration during the mid 1800’s. Mind boggling.
Something that we liked about France was the fact that the French smoke anywhere and anytime they want. We don’t smoke but you can’t in California if you wanted. Same with driving. Sirens all day long in Paris and a death defying commute into the city from the airport, but you deal with it. In Carcassonne there are no railings hundreds of feet above the sheer drop of the garrison walls. Someone might find you in the morning if you get too close to the parapet edge. It’s just the way it is. The kids loved it.
A couple stray cats shadowed us in the moonlit streets within the walls. Great bright amber floodlights gave away our clandestine movements on the outside. Our visit was short. We didn’t stay long. We saw no other ‘tourist’ sights. We missed the cathedral, the castle, the amphitheatre and whatever else the town offered, but we had our own quiet walk in the night.
Six hours later we checked our key, checked our bedroll, ate a quiet breakfast at the buffet and easily found our way back to the Narbonne Gate a mere block away from our lodging.
We took a cab back down to the train station that next morning, a light mist slowing us down. The morning trains out of Carcassonne were delayed again this new day as promised but we were prepared to keep pushing forward. We sat amongst a pile of luggage and kids and eagerness to go and watched outside the station windows as the same cab driver deliver five more fares curbside, more train passengers who would soon be competing for space on the next train. The trains weren’t running, on time, or at all, and we sat in the station and watched and waited, no trains approaching, no trains departing.
We had not a single complaint for Carcassonne outside the fact that we didn’t plan enough time to be there and then that time was stunted further by the travel delays. We dealt with it and put it on our list of places to return to someday, then moved on. This was the stepping off place for us from France into Spain and we weren’t going to be discouraged. There are common French words that we all know, words like ‘bouquet’ ‘bon voyage’, and places like ‘Bordeaux’ and ‘Champagne’. ‘Carcassonne’ is our word for magical.
The Rick Steves' selection of tried and true travel books have gotten us to and from Europe more than once and are highly recommended. In this example of Rick Steves' France related books, there is a comprehensive France book, a highlights of France book, Paris specific and a phrase books. Essentials.
I have not read the other four but throw these out as suggestions. You are welcome to share your recommendations here. The Lauragais Story apparently shares the history of the region. The Master Builders book features European architecture of the era. Lonely Planet is another very popular travel guide and A Castle In The Backyard is fiction and encourages one to dream.