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Carcassonne: from medieval city to modern town.

ALMOST every tourist brochure promoting the glories of France has a photograph of Carcassonne's medieval walled town, perched high on a bluff above the River Aude. With its three kilometres of ramparts, 52 towers and turrets, and two concentric rings of defensive walls, this is the largest fortress in Europe and a striking reminder of the past. 'It remains one of the most beautiful and impressive fortifications in France, and has been restored to much the same state as when the Black Prince looked up at it in November 1355. (1)

For fifteen hundred years this citadel, strategically situated on the route from Italy to Spain, stood as a challenge to armed invaders - Romans, Franks, Visigoths, Spanish Muslims, papal Crusaders, an Aragon army and finally England's Black Prince. Today it welcomes peaceful invaders from all over the world, armed only with cameras; they are called tourists and about four million visit the walled citadel every year. They stroll along narrow winding lanes where medieval buildings are stocked with merchandise for today's visitors. Half a million of them queue for a guided tour of the twelfth-century Chateau Comtal, once the feudal castle of the ruling Trencavel family.

As the crow flies, Carcassonne is 400 miles (640 km) due south of Paris, beyond the mountains of the Massif Central but not as far south as the Pyrenees. It is a medium-sized town with a population of around 50,000, surrounded by vineyards, farmed countryside and small settlements. Many civil servants and administrators work here, as Carcassonne is the "county town' of the Aude departement. At the busy rail station trains arrive from Bordeaux and Toulouse to the west and Marseille and Nice to the east. But most of today's tourists arrive by Ryanair at Carcassonne's once pint-sized airport, which has expanded to quart-size since my own arrival as a tourist in 2002. I soon purchased a pied a terre in Carcassonne, and I escape from the English Midlands to the French Midi several times a year.

Carcassonne is really two towns in one. There is, in official parlance, La Cite--the towered and turreted citadel that the tourists come to see. Across the River Aude is La Ville Basse (the 'lower town')--the commercial and cultural centre with its banks, boulangeries, bookshops, museums, galleries and bustling food markets (a covered one daily and an open-air one in the main square thrice a week). The lower town is where people work and shop, go to the cinema or theatre, borrow library books, visit the Musee des Beaux-Arts or catch a train to nearby Toulouse. It is easy to forget that a ten-minute walk away--over the fourteenth-century pedestrianised stone bridge, with its tiny chapel on one end--is the hustle and bustle of La Cite.

To complicate nomenclature even further, Carcassonne's Ville Basse is usually referred to as La Bastide--'bastide' being the word for a fortified purpose-built market town with a large central square surrounded by a rectilinear grid of streets. Throughout southern France, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, several hundred bastides were built in order to provide security and encourage trade. But Carcassonne's bastide also has its origins in the Cathar heresy that spread throughout Languedoc early in the thirteenth century.

The Cathars (from the Greek word 'katharos' meaning clean or pure) were heretical Christians. They believed that God could not have created anything evil, but there is evil in the world, so the world must have been created by the Devil. They therefore rejected all sacraments such as marriage, they discarded Christian symbols and images including the cross, they denied the doctrine of the Eucharist and the Virgin Birth, and they abhorred the Church's opulent buildings stocked with lavish food and wine. Instead, a life of austerity, asceticism, simplicity, honesty and pacifism was practised and preached by the Cathars. (2)

The authorities in Rome, and Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) in particular, felt threatened by the increasing popularity of such anti-clerical beliefs, which found support among the region's troubadours as well as the rulers of Languedoc's then independent fiefdoms (such as the Count of Toulouse and the Viscount of Carcassonne). In 1208 the Count of Toulouse, accused of defending the Cathar heresy, had a turbulent meeting to discuss the situation with a papal legate, Pierre de Castelnau. When the legate was assassinated soon afterwards, the Count was suspected of arranging the murder. The Pope declared de Castelnau a martyr and issued a call to arms for a crusade against the heretics and anyone who tolerated their presence. The King of France, Philip Augustus (1165-1223), allowed his vassals to join in this crusade--the only one ever to take place on Catholic soil. 'The promised pardons of sins, the proximity of the battlefield, and the lure of lands there for the taking incited many a lord to carry his standard into battle against the heretics.' (3) By 1209 several armies of crusaders were sacking and burning their way towards Carcassonne, and 'the death of Peter of Castelnau was avenged by one of the most savage of medieval wars.' (4)

The crusaders attacked the fortress, took control of its water supply, and eventually the population fled in terror. Simon de Montfort, one of the bravest of the crusading lords, was given control of the Viscount of Carcassonne's land and made leader of the crusade. (5) He continued to rampage through Languedoc, killing Cathars and anyone harbouring them. But even with the support of King Philip Augustus (who sent an army headed by his son, Prince Louis) it took another thirty years of sacking towns and burning Cathars before the heresy was wiped out. The previously independent counts and viscounts succumbed to the royal army and by 1272 the whole of Languedoc became part of the kingdom of France. Thus, an unintended consequence of the Pope's crusade was that 'the power of the French monarchy extended for the first time in four centuries to the Mediterranean.' (6)

When the royal authorities under Simon de Montfort took control of Carcassonne's hitherto impregnable fortress in 1209, they expelled the inhabitants and gave them permission to settle across the River Aude. The settlement began to grow and prosper, so in 1250 a typical bastide town was built, with its grid of narrow streets surrounded and protected by a huge wall with only four entrances. This is how the war against the Cathars led to Carcassonne becoming two towns in one, separated by the River Aude.

Peace in what was now the south of France lasted for only a century. Then the Hundred Years War began (in 1337) and English kings spent the next century trying to gain French territory. In 1355 Edward, Prince of Wales (nicknamed the Black Prince from the colour of his armour), attacked and plundered his way across the south of France. He didn't have enough men or supplies to capture Carcasssonne's citadel above the Aude, so he threatened to burn down the now thriving bastide. When La Bastide's residents 'offered the Prince the enormous sum of 250,000 ecus d'or in return for not setting fire to their town', he refused and burned it to the ground. (7)

By the 1450s the French had recaptured all their land and the Hundred Years War ended. The walled and fortified town was now a defence against attacks from the south, as the border between France and Spain was still being contested. But with the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 the border was settled, and Carcassonne's fortress lost its strategic importance. It was abandoned, and as time passed the lower floors of the massive towers were used as sheds and henhouses, small dwellings were built inside the walls and stones were taken away for use elsewhere.

By the nineteenth century La Cite was becoming a ruin. There were protracted debates on whether to demolish it or rescue it. The rescuers won, and in 1844 France's famous architect and great restorer, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc (1814-79). was brought in to plan and supervise what became a fifty-year programme of rebuilding, renovation and restoration. There has been criticism of some aspects of the restoration. Most controversial is Viollet-le-Duc's decision to top the towers with pointed conical slate roofs--a style and material from northern France. But the restored parts represent less than 30 per cent of the whole. (8) On the inner ramparts there are still marks left by first-century Romans and fifth-century Visigoths, and there are parts of the outer walls that date from the thirteenth century. Viewing La Cite from atop the walls, from the bridge over the Aude, or from 15 miles (25 km) away in the Montagne Noire, I have nothing but admiration for Viollet-le-Duc's vision, aesthetic sensibility and painstaking work.

The American writer Henry James (1843-1916) visited Carcassonne in 1884, forty years after restoration work had started. Despite his usual preference for things ruined rather than restored, James declared that Viollet-le-Duc's work was 'a splendid achievement'. James was bowled over by 'this congregation of ramparts, towers, bastions, battlements, [and] barbicans.' He thought that 'in the warm southern dusk it looked more than ever like a city in a fairy tale ... Viollet-le-Duc has worked his will upon it, put it into perfect order, [and] revived the fortifications in every detail ... In places, as you stand upon it, the great towered and embattled enceinte [wall] produces an illusion; it looks as if it were still equipped and defended.' (9)

The Pope's and King's forces no longer battle against the Cathars and the local nobility for control of Carcassonne. But in the 2008 municipal elections the Socialists battled against the UMP (President Sarkozy's party, Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) and lost by only 40 votes. This raised their suspicions, they investigated voting lists and cried foul ('ils vous ont vole l' election municipale'--they stole the municipal election), citing evidence that some people on the electoral list and others voting by proxy did not live or pay taxes in Carcassonne. The Socialists claimed that many of these people had links with the incumbent UMP mayor and his colleagues. Evidence was taken to court, and in May 2009 the Conseil d' Etat (a supreme court dealing solely with administrative matters) annulled Carcassonne's 2008 election. Quel scandale! Civil servants were brought in to replace the mayor and his team of councillors, until a new election could be held. In September the Socialist candidate stood against the previous mayor who decided to run again. The Socialists won with just over 54 per cent of the vote; so for the first time in twenty-six years a Socialist mayor and his party are now in charge.

No longer do the Pope's and King's forces massacre people as they did in the thirteenth century. But in 2009 the Conseil General for the Aude departement, with its headquarters in Carcassonne, sent its workers to massacre over 900 healthy plane trees bordering many of the roads that lead into Carcassonne. A British resident organised a lively campaign with the slogan 'Save the Plane Trees! Arretez l' Abattage! (Stop the Felling!). When he and two Frenchmen daubed this slogan on some threatened trees, with a harmless mixture of chalk and water, they were taken to court for 'degrading' the trees. The judge exonerated them completely. The Conseil General subsequently felled these trees and hundreds of others, but presumably this doesn't count as degrading them.

As well as using environmental arguments, the plane tree campaigners pointed to the negative effects on tourism of denuding the tree-lined roads that visitors find so attractive. This argument shows how important tourism has become, especially over the past two decades. La Cite was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Huge numbers of Britons began buying homes or second homes in the area in the 1990s. Ryanair (a low-cost airline) began direct flights from London to Carcassonne in 1998; today it flies direct to Carcassonne from several British and Irish cities, and the enlarged airport has been re-branded Aeroport de Carcassonne en Pays Cathare.

Thousands of visitors, however, arrive in a more leisurely fashion, steering a boat through the lock at Carcassonne's basin on the Canal du Midi. I often jog along the canal's tree-lined towpath and marvel at its construction. It was built in the 1660s and 1670s, across the south of France, to provide an inland waterway route from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Pierre-Paul Riquet (1604-1680), a collector of taxes in the Languedoc, was the genius who solved the problem that had baffled everyone, including Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519): how to provide an adequate and reliable supply of water for a navigable route.

The answer was to collect water from the many streams in the mountains north of Carcassonne, the Montagne Noire (Black Mountains), and construct a 20-mile (34-km) channel using gravity to bring water to the canal at its highest point. Riquet found the perfect place for a massive artificial lake that would store 6 million cubic metres of water. This was at Saint-Ferreol, 30 miles (50 km) north-west of Carcassonne. According to one expert, 'In its day the Saint-Ferreol dam was the greatest civil engineering work of its kind in Europe. (10) Riquet supervised the building of the canal's locks, pounds, bridges, culverts, weirs, sluices, plus one aqueduct and one tunnel (the first canal tunnel in the world). He employed 12,000 workers, 600 of them women. He died in 1680, a few months before the canal opened, after struggling for fifteen years with enormous technical, physical and logistical problems. The Canal du Midi became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, and in 2008 an excellent Canal du Midi museum opened at the Saint-Ferreol reservoir. It took four years to build the dam. Almost 350 years later, and with few repairs, it is still the crucial structure guaranteeing a year-round water supply for the canal. The Saint-Ferreol reservoir is now an official recreation site, with people swimming, sunbathing, boating and picnicking at Riquet's utilitarian structure.

While he was the United States Minister to France, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) spent three months touring the south of the country, and travelled the entire length of the Canal du Midi. He wrote to his secretary back in Paris that he had been on the canal for nine days,
  one of which was spent in ... the Montague Noire to see the manner in
  which water has been collected to supply the canal; the other eight
  on the canal itself. I dismounted my carriage from its wheels, placed
  it on the deck of a light bark, and was thus towed on the canal
  instead of the post road. That I might be perfectly master of all the
  delays necessary, I hired a bark to myself by the day, and have made
  from 20 to 35 miles a day, according to circumstances, always
  sleeping ashore. Of all the methods of travelling I have ever tried
  this is the pleasantest. I walk the greater part of the way along the
  banks of the canal, level, and lined with a double row of trees which
  furnish shade. When fatigued I take a seat in my carriage where, as
  much at ease as if in my study, I read, write, or observe. My
  carriage, being of glass all round, admits a full view of all the
 varying scenes thro' which I am shifted - olives, figs, mulberries,
 vines, corn and pasture, villages and farms. (11)

To commemorate Jefferson's passage along the canal, a 'Thomas Jefferson Promenade' was opened in August 2009 at the Musee & Jardins du Canal du Midi. (12)

Funding for the canal came partly from King Louis XIV, partly from Riquet himself, and partly from the inhabitants of the towns and villages the canal would pass through. Carcassonne refused to help with the construction costs, so the canal's route was originally about a mile north of La Bastide. At the start of the nineteenth century Carcassonne realised that it was missing out on the commercial benefits of moving goods by canal, so it paid for a diversion to be built. Today's visitor finds the canal, a capacious basin and quay are situated beside the Bastide and the town's railway station. For those holidaying on a canal boat, Carcassonne is the perfect place to stock up on supplies; walk across the Bastide to La Cite where medieval tournaments are re-enacted; attend an event at summer festivals celebrating music, theatre, opera and dance; sample local vintages at the autumn wine festival; or learn about bull fighting at the Semaine Espagnole (Spanish Week). Those who arrive for Bastille Day, July 14, see the best firework display in France as well as un embrasement spectaculaire (a spectacular, dazzling illumination) during which the medieval city appears to go up in flames (commemorating Simon de Montfort's attack in 1209). No wonder 700,000 people come to Carcassonne every July 14th.

Just as the two parts of Carcassonne--La Cite and La Bastide--sit comfortably side by side, so do the residents and the visitors. The residents have had over a century to get accustomed to the visitors, for in 1902 Carcassonne opened one of the first tourist offices in France. Half of today's four million visitors to La Cite are French, so there is not much point in the Carcassonnais (as residents are called) adopting an 'anti-tourist' stance. And it is probably true that some of the money spent by the visitors helps to fund improvements in the Bastide. Since my time in Carcassonne these include a summer arts festival, fabulous Christmas decorations and an outdoor ice-skating rink in December, a renovated Les Holies (the covered market), the introduction of cycle routes, communal underground rubbish bins and a huge underground car park.

Ah, car parking places. For Carcassonne's residents and visitors alike there are never enough of them, they are never in the right place, nor are they at the right price (i.e. free). The only time I have heard Carcassonne residents revile visitors was when bulldozers suddenly started digging up a field beside the River Aude to create an additional car park for visitors to La Cite. A residents' association was immediately formed to protect the grassy banks of the Aude, described as le poumon vert de Carcassonne (the green lung of Carcassonne). Despite camping out on the site the protestors failed to stop the car park's completion. Of course the conflict between green-lungers and visitors' vehicles pales into insignificance when compared to the bloody battle that took place at the fortress above the Aude in 1209. Still, it is a reminder that Carcassonne's mighty fortress has been the centre of attention for over a thousand years, and will continue to be so.


(1) Emerson, p.95.

(2) The Cathars are also called Albigeois or Albigenses because early attempts to crush the heresy took place near Albi in the 1160s. Albi is 50 miles (80 km) north of Carcassonne.

(3) Aue, p. 7.

(4) Sumption, p. 15.

(5) Simon de Monfort (1160-1218) was an Anglo-French nobleman and the 5th Earl of Leicester. Although in Britain he is honoured for calling the first Parliament, in France he is remembered for being cruel, sacking cities and sometimes burning Cathars and Catholics alike. The king rewarded him with titles and land. De Montfort was killed in 1218 while battling to re-take Toulouse and was buried in the Saint-Nazaire Basilica inside Carcassonne's walled city.

(6) Sumption, p. 16.

(7) Emerson p. 95.

(8) Panouille, 1999, p. 55. He also says that 'Viollet-le-Duc's work has been judged with far less severity over the past few years' and that some earlier restorations have now been altered to reflect the work of royal architects in the late-13th and early-14th centuries.

(9) James, chapters 22 and 23.

(10) Roll. p.47.

(11) Letter to William Short, May 21, 1787, in Boyd, vol. 11, pp. 371-73.

(12) Musee & jardins du canal du midi. Boul. Pierre-Paul Riquet. Saint-Ferreol Le Lac 31250. See


Michele Aue. The Cathars, MSM 2001.

Jean-Louis Bonnet. La Bastide de Carcassonne en poche, 2007.

Julian P. Boyd et al. eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1955.

Barbara Emerson. The Black Prince, 1976.

Henry James. A Little Tour in France, first published 1884.

Roy and Alma Moore. Thomas Jefferson's Journey to the South of France, 1999.

Stephen O'Shea. The Perfect Heresy: The Life & Death of the Cathars, P2000.

Jean-Pierre Panouille. Discovering Carcassonne, 1992.

Jean-Pierre Panouille. Carcassonne; History & Architecture, 1999.

L.T.C. Rolt. From Sea to Sea, 2nd edition revised and updated by David Edwards-May, 1994.

Jonathan Sumption. The Albigensian Crusade, Faber & Faber 1999.

Rene Weis. The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars 1290-1329, 2001.

Rupert Wright. Notes from the Languedoc, Domens 2003.

Websites for Carcassonne:; www.monuments-nation (for La Cite);;

Linda Hart grew up in America, and was a university lecturer in politics while living in New York City. After completing a post-graduate thesis on environmental politics at Oxford University, she worked for several conservation organisations campaigning to protect the English countryside. Linda Hart is now a freelance writer and lives in Worcestershire. Her edition of Once They Lived in Gloucestershire: A Dymock Poets Anthology (Green Branch Press, Gloucestershire) includes poems by Robert Frost, Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke, John Drinkwater, Wilfrid Gibson and Lascelles Abercrombie.
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Author:Hart, Linda
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Travel narrative
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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