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.

15 thoughts on “Carcassonne, Languedoc, France. 2009”

  1. I think you should do something with your castle-love and cathedral-disdain and your knowledge about both. You love angles, both structural and editorial, and both these structures appear to appeal to both sides of you. These photographs are stunning and the knowledge and the amount of thought you’ve given to the two C’s make a companion set!

    That one of the inside of the cathedral is simply fabulous AND to think it gives homage to the likes of Simon de Montfort is game set match for your ironic view of these structures.

  2. Wow, this is really spectacular.
    But like in all European farirytales, there is a brutal/dark side to the beauty.

    Social science books really should have more images!! I read of this as one of Europe’s nastiest internal crusades, including the Bogomil comparison (linking it to the Bosnian ones) etc. but images would bring the whole thing to another level. Especially if there were like yours.

    BTW, did you think about the Williams gig on the airplane going back home?

  3. another thought – following your proposal (I don’t think local tourist boards would be too enthusiastic to adopt it) we could make lots of splendid toilet sets. Think what that would do to the tourist experience, people would go around saying “I had the most spectacular pee in….” or “Augh, not the marble seat again, they are so cold” hehehe

  4. Pat

    Thanks.

    I’m not really against cathedrals, but I’m against the glorification of evil people using “god” as a front. The biggest thing about the whole religious issue for me when I travel, is that there is so much of it as a theme and subject for artistic expression. I’m over it all. It fills me with despair that such artistic skills can usually only be seen in horrible vulgar palaces or churches.

    The Prado bored me to tears because much of the art there is religious in nature.

    I know, I know, I’m a jaded piece of iconoclastic meat!

    Grasswire

    When I was reading about the persecution of the Bosnian Bogomils (before I went there) it was interesting to note that many of the Islamic converts in the area were Bogomils. I guess after all the oppression by the Christians, the general consensus would’ve been, “my enemy’s enemy, is my friend”.

    I’d seen the Williams thing a while back and it came to mind as I was thinking about his thoughts on what he thinks the French are like and how the concept of “life is shit” isn’t that different to Catharism.

    I wasn’t thinking funny thoughts on the flight back home.

    As for the toilet seat idea, that came from memories of old British chamber pots that used to have political characters painted in the bottom that one could piss on.

    Ryan

    Welcome and thanks for dropping by.

    Don’t make offers like that unless you mean it because I’m the kind of guy that will take you up on it.

  5. Some stunning photos in this post. But more important are your reflections on the many atrocities that have been committed in the name of religion. And how religious beliefs are twisted to justify those atrocities as being good and godly. That practice is clearly not just historical, and it’s application today is truly mind-bending.

  6. I began researching Carcassonne because we are studying the short stories of Willima Faulkner at Wash. U. in St. Louis. One of his stories is named “Carcassone.” What a marvelous treat to find this site and your terrific pictures! The story is about death and letting go and how man leaves part of himself on earth. Thank you. Jane in St. Louis, MO

  7. Donald

    Thanks and yes, we as a civilisation seem to be slow learners.

    Pat

    Not holding a camera straight is just one more way of breaking the rules, or should I say, smashing icons?

    Jane

    Thanks for dropping by and I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  8. I like castles … because I don’t live in one … unless we are talking about the sky.

    Your posts have too much meat to chew on. They always leave me thinking … and possibly chewing. I’m envious.

    note: when I visited Komoda Island in Indonesia there was an Italian group there who said they came there every year for fishing. I think lost all my travelling illusions/allusions there.

  9. Religion certainly has a lot to answer for if you look at both historical and present day issues. But I’m more intrigued by your mention of medieval sensory experiences in Carcassonne’s public conveniences. Smelly, perchance?
    As for your cassoulet experience, what a shame. Wouldn’t it be wiser for people to serve things they can taste and therefore critique? You see? Forget wars; religion has even had a negative impact on your gastronomic experiences. That’s FAR more important (I would do a smiley face here but I fear you and Pat might kill me.)

  10. Ross

    I wouldn’t want to live in a castle either. Way too cold and far too many stairs.

    Epic

    “Carcassonne’s public conveniences?”

    Dark, smelly, filthy and old fashioned.

  11. Beautiful shots and good writing, Raz. I too was rather dumbfounded by the tomb of “good ole’ Simon.” They guy was a butcher and a mercenary, but then again, that wasn’t anything out of the ordinary in that region back then. Some just took their work more seriously. The history that surrounds these odious figures somehow does not seem to strip them of their burial finery. Strange, isn’t it?

    For al the tourists and such, just like you, I loved Carcassonne. It is unlike anything else in the world. I think I could live as a lock keeper on the Canal du Midi with no problems at all… except for the whole “not being able to speak French” part.

    -TP

  12. Turkish

    Thanks. One of the strange things about “history” is how aristocrats are portrayed as somehow better that the normal person when in fact they were just thugs with the biggest gang who made everyone around them miserable. A pox on their houses!

  13. From what I’ve seen, a pox generally does come and the payback is almost universally, a bitch. Part of the, “bigger they are, the harder they fall” rule. It’s not often that a true benevolent despot ever burps to the surface, and when they do, it rarely lasts. The lesson that I’ve tried to keep in mind when doing research is that history is written by the winners. Trying to remember that what we learn has been fired through the personal spectrum of whatever power dictated it does make one a more suspicious person, I believe, but I think it’s vitally important to anyone who wants to try and piece together a more accurate picture of those whom came before us.

    -TP

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