Carcassonne, Languedoc, France. 2009

Carcassonne looks like the sort of fortified town that I used to think only existed in children’s fairy tale books.

The old part of the town is like a vast sprawling medieval version of Gormenghast. Like most places that have castles in Europe, Carcassonne has been settled and fortified from pre-roman times. In it’s latest incarnation it’s a mix of a 12th century Cathar castle and later 19th century additions in a romantic vein.

Castles interest me far more than palaces because of their functional and defensive purposes as opposed to the later which are nothing more than vulgar displays of selfish cluelessness and naked greed.

Carcassonne was one of the last Carthar strongholds to fall during the Albigensian Crusade.

The Cathars were a religious Christians sect that was similar in belief to the Bogomils of Bulgaria. They believed that all matter was corrupt and the incorporeal human spirit was trapped in corrupt matter. The Cathars accepted that Jesus held the spirit of god but was not god itself because he was material and god was incorporeal. Basically all matter was created by a lesser corrupt deity (like satan) and the Cathar’s aim was to transcend the material much like the Buddhists.

As I’ve been writing this I found myself thinking about how Buddhists see the human body as a basically a sack of puss and guts to trot the spirit around in while we try and attain enlightenment, and we shouldn’t be too attached to pleasures of the fleshy vehicle we travel in.  These thoughts about these old French ideas of the corrupt nature of material life, remind me of a hilarious rabidly anti-French rant (life iz shit; get to know dis!) by Robin Williams.

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Needless to say, killing off a pesky papal legate by Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse (a cultured guy who was sympathetic to the Cathars) after he’d been excommunicated, was all the excuse that Pope Innocent  III (the Americans didn’t invent irony, the Catholics did) needed to call for a crusade against the Cathars.

Crusade is medieval code for “church sanctioned land grab”, peppered with a liberal dose of rape, plunder and extreme violence. Needless to say, such opportunities attract the worst kind of murderous people, that we nowadays call aristocrats. Probably the most infamous of these, outside of the holy lands (that distinction goes to Raynald of Châtillon), was Simon de Montfort and it was he that finally took Carcassonne after he participated in the massacre at Beziers where 20,000 Cathars were slaughtered. Thousands of people hoping for sanctuary in churches were locked inside and burnt to death. The infamous old quote by the papal legate Arnaud-Amaury, “Kill them all, God will recognize his own” is from the massacre at Beziers.

Knowing something of the crimes committed by Simon de Montfort, I found it surprising that his tombstone with his likeness on it is on display on one of the walls in the Basilica of Saint Nazaire in the old part of the town.

It strikes me as extremely odd that such a darkly evil person who had so many of the local’s ancestors brutally murdered, is accorded any kind of respect in a place that is supposed to be the house of a loving god. I think that tombstone should be laid flat, have the face removed and be used as a toilet set.

Naturally such a picturesque old town like Carcassonne attracts a lot of tourists, but we found that in the early autumn when we were there, the crowds weren’t so bad and we spent a whole day just wandering around the cobbled streets.


Of course cute touristy places like Carcassonne will be derided by those who see themselves as “travellers” (code for backpackers who think they are doing something original…… not!) but I’d say it has a lot to offer those with an interest in history and architecture.

As for those who consider themselves “travellers”, all I have to say to them is that, “if you want an authentic medieval experience for all your senses, check out the public toilets in Carcassonne”.

Because Carcassonne is an actual town, most of it is accessible at night so I’d also recommend having dinner there and wandering around at night.

A word of warning though, make sure if you are wanting to eat the local dish, cassoulet de canard (duck and bean stew), you don’t do what we did and eat at a place run by Moroccans.

To be honest, most of the time, I couldn’t care less where the cook’s ancestors came from, but what I didn’t realise was, that cassoulet de canard has pork in it and that being Moslems, the Moroccans don’t taste it as they make it, so of course it tasted awful. My wife has been permanently scarred by the experience and now refers to cassoulet de canard as lard stew and will never eat it again. Another thing about eating in a place run by Moslems is that they don’t drink wine and therefore can’t really make suggestions about what wine to drink with the same knowledge that a wine drinker can.

Until this experience, I’d never really thought about taking a person’s religious background into account before eating in their restaurant. It just goes to show how secular the little world I live in, is. I guess the lesson here is, that just because a restaurant looks like a traditional French restaurant and has traditional French food and wine on the menu doesn’t mean that their food is going to be automatically authentic.

All I can say, is that I wish I had a movie camera going when I called over our waitress to send back a bottle of wine that was very sour (yep, sour, not corked), and I suggested she have a taste for herself (as is customary in such cases). The look of disgust on her face was priceless but much to her credit the bottle was replaced by a different brand of equally nasty wine. Obviously the restaurant management don’t taste the wine before they buy it and their wine supplier is probably taking advantage of them.  It was such a pity because the staff at the restaurant were very nice people trying to make a living with products they had no idea about.

A catch 22 situation if I’ve ever seen one.