The French roadtrip revolved around three potential wonders on Niall’s candidate list. In the end we only saw two of the three – Carcasonne Old City and Millau viaduct. There wasn’t time or energy in the end for the papal palace at Avignon this time, but we did stumble across somewhere quite impressive that Niall immediately added to his list for a later visit and proper review. More on that in a later post.
Part of Niall’s approach to his wonder-reviewing has been to draw not only upon his own extensive research but also take on board the thoughts of travel companions, whose lack of research and reliance on face value “wow” factor can provide a good contrast and counterbalance.
Luckily for Niall on this trip, he had eight others in support, and he asked me to blog my comments specifically on the two wonders that I was fortunate to take in. The second is the Millau viaduct, which I’ll write about in a forthcoming post.
First, though, Carcassonne’s old city.
I’ve relied very much on Niall’s preview and review of Carcassonne for my background knowledge of the old city. While I’ll not attempt to retell what Niall has already written, I’ll summarise my own understanding as being that the city has since Roman times been used, occupied, inhabited, attacked, defended and, later in time, slowly abandoned and left to ruin.
Then in the 1800s it was rescued from a state of neglect and an uncertain future by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, a French architect who had the vision and determination to restore many of France’s historic wonders. His fingerprints are on a great many notable landmarks across his native land, and Carcassonne is one of his crowning glories.
First impressions of Carcassonne as you drive towards it are good, and you instantly learn something about the importance, and perhaps success, of its location in that it creates a seemingly impregnable fortress viewable from miles around. It sticks out for some distance and is a remarkable sight. It catches the eye and makes you decide it’s well worth a visit.
As you arrive, though, you discover that many thousands of others have also made the same decision. And here I must confess to a real struggle. Because Carcassonne was groaning with tourists, I found it hard to stop my exasperation and disappointment at the crowds from clouding my judgement of the city itself.
It’s not the old city’s fault, of course, that it is a hugely popular tourist attraction, nor was it any choice of Carcassonne that I was visiting on Bastille Day, perhaps its busiest day of the year.
And as Niall persuasively argues, it doesn’t matter if the crowds are there: they have always been a part of its story. Carcassonne has never been a museum piece (except perhaps in its period of abandonment, a state not to be recommended for somewhere like this).
Throughout its history it has been lived in, defended, attacked and treated as a home, a place of work, study and worship. Just like in the past, many people today scour its cute lanes, intriguing shops, tasty restaurants and ornate buildings and churches. Why I should greedily demand the city all to myself today, when I probably couldn’t have been alone there at any point in its history?
I did my best to close my eyes to the crowds and focus on the city itself, and I’m glad I tried because it is a truly spectacular place. The first thing to say is that with its wide ramparts, high walls, tall turrets and myriad streets, Carcassonne is built almost like a textbook, fairytale castle. Viollet-le-Duc did, it was alleged, take a few liberties with his modifications and rennovations, but if his work could be claimed to be a little tasteless or contrary to original styles in places, he’s probably far less guilty of such crimes than the waves of governments and authorities over the centuries who less sensitively stamped their marks on the city.
In fact, Carcassonne is claimed to be one of the inspirations for the look of Disneyland, and if you imagine away the tourists you could almost pretend you’re in a real-life game of Assassin’s Creed.
I was glad to spend nearly a whole day in the old city. I walked as much of the walls as I could (much was closed off due to the forthcoming fireworks), explored various shops, admired the views inward and outward from key vantage points, took in the lovely basillica, ate in one or two great establishments, and undertook the extensive and informative audio tour.
It’s clear to the casual visitor that Carcassonne is a wonderful place, and surely a national wonder. It’s beautiful, you can spend hours there wandering its nooks and crannies, it has centuries of history lurking under its surface, and the crowds – while detracting from it a little – are ultimately a testament to its fame and allure.
It’s a place to return to, perhaps at a quieter time of year, and I am not at all surprised that it sits – for the time being – just outside Niall’s top seven.
You can see more of my photos from the old city, plus the spectacular fireworks, here.