A Travellerspoint blog

day 9: carcassonne, s'il vous plaît!

in which your author explores an out-of-the-way destination

sunny 40 °F

On Saturday morning I successfully make it to the airport and am pleased that my underpacking has paid off – no extra fees on RyanAir, who I’d been warned is infamous for making their money this way. I catch up with sleep on the 2 hour flight to Carcassonne, and after landing take a shuttle bus to the train station, close to where I’m told there will be a hotel where I can leave my bags for a few hours. I’ve chosen to fly to Carcassonne (a town I had actually never heard of!) because it’s the closest RyanAir stop to Toulouse, where I will meet Marie, girlfriend of my mother’s college friend’s son. (Which in terms of Americans traveling in Europe makes us practically brother and sister?) Although I made it to Paris on my trip last summer, I opted to explore mostly Northern Europe, and didn’t make it down to the south of France, so it’s lucky and thrilling I’m able to tack on a trip at the end of the development week in Ireland.

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I stop into the tourist office where a friendly rep gives me directions to a hotel where I can drop off my bags for a few hours, and advises me to see the medieval city. I lug my bags through busy commercial streets to the small hotel, which is locked and seemingly unoccupied; I ring the bell and a man answers, who charges me 3 Euro to leave two bags. Walking around the “low” part of Carcassonne, it seems like most other cosmopolitan Europeans cities, rife with shopping, teenagers. Many of the residential buildings, however, seem to date from the 17th century or earlier; with multi-colored shutters and wrought iron balconies adorning their windows, it's easy to see the history of a place like this.

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I stop at a tea house, hoping to find un crèpe au fromage, but no luck, and the bargirl and I are having a comically good time trying to understand each other. Not wanting to be rude, I order an Earl Grey tea and sit for a few. I return to my walking and notice an open exhibit in the Museum of Fine Arts, where I take a few photos of sculptures.

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After walking for about 25 minutes and turning the corner onto a bridge, under which some men are laying a game which looks like bocce, my jaw drops when I see the medieval fortress city lying off to my right. UNESCO recently named the medieval city of Carcassonne as a World Heritage Site and I immediately see why.

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I walk up to the castle walls and wander up the windy paths, entering a city within the walls, with restaurants, cafes and hotels dotting the neighborhoods inside. Due to the off-season timing, the streets are mainly empty, which lends an almost ghost-town quality to the medieval architecture. I come upon the fortified castle, open for another hour, pay the admission fee and walk across the moat into the area which once hosted brutal battles. Prior to touring the castle I stop into the gift shop and find an impossible-to-find-in-the-US, 6-CD box set of the French early music ensemble A Sei Voci singing Josquin, on discount. (In hindsight there were two sets and I should’ve bought them both. The individual recordings are wicked rare, some of them +$100 each rare! Ah well, less to pack.) I walk around the ancient, restored castle, which even more than the town I have almost completely to myself, and take lots of photographs. It’s fairly clear out and from the distance, one can see the enormous Pyrenees; apparently this region has been on the cusp of French and Spanish control for thousands of years.

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After leaving I stop into the “Museum of Medieval Torture,” a bit of a gimmicky tourist-trap, but the Wikipedia article on Carcassonne mentions it, so I figure it must be legit. It’s gory stuff, and contains many original instruments used in the Inquisition led by the medieval Catholic Church. (Though I don’t imagine the plastic mannequins date to that period.)

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I’ve agreed to meet the hotel proprietor at 6:30 to get my bags, so I start heading back to the low town. The setting sun looks gorgeous from the descent from the castle; I’ve found this a really unique and unforgettable place which I wouldn’t have thought to visit had my travel plans not enabled its accessibility.

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The streets are now dark, and the hotel guy isn’t there at 6:30, causing a bit of temporary worry, as the neighborhood seems a bit unsteady and I have to catch a train. A few minutes later he comes to open the door (phew!) and I walk up to the train station, where the employees give me somewhat confusing directions about a bus to Toulouse, which appears to be late; they point vaguely to another area where the bus picks up; I don’t see it, and resign myself to waiting until the later train arrives.

On the train I sit across from two delightful French women (mother and daughter, I assume) who give me tips on Toulouse. (Thanks again, Pauline and Martine, if you ever see this, and I very much enjoyed San Augustin!)

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Marie comes to the platform to pick me up, and I’m surprised that rather than being out in the country, Toulouse is actually a major metropolitan city and also that Marie is my age! (Because she’s the head of the English department at the University of Toulouse, I guess I was expecting someone older?) Marie recommends that we bike to her apartment, and kindly sets me up with a weekly ticket to use the Toulouse bikeshare system, which I would find extremely convenient over the next few days. (Do we have this in DC yet?) We pile my bags into the bike baskets and whirr through the streets to where she lives about 2 miles away. Marie whips up a French favorite, baked camembert cheese with slices of warm and crusty whole grain baguette, and we down a bottle of excellent local red wine.

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We get to discussing literature; Marie is a renowned expert on Nabokov, and she pulls out books from the shelves (including Lolita, her major focus of study, which I have to read now) to illustrate various points. Given the isolated conditions of my current college teaching jobs, it feels really nice to engage with a peer on matters of art and expression. Marie brings out some fine Armagnac, a locally-produced fine liquor comparable to Cognac, though far less commonly found in the US. Armagnac is aged for years, and we finish a bottle from 1988, which was impressive enough, but then Marie breaks out a bottle from 1976, given to her as a special gift after having defending her PhD. The aroma of this stuff is so complex and glorious I almost don’t want to sip it, but when I do it’s warming and layered with many notes. I’m also drawn to the ritual which surrounds drinking Armagnac; one must warm the liquid by cupping the glass in one’s hand, swirling it for a few minutes to release the flavors and free the alcohol. I find the idea that this liquid has been trapped in this bottle for 34 years outrageously cool.

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Marie sets me up with keys and a map of Toulouse to explore the next day, and so far am feeling very welcomed in France!

Posted by coolmcjazz 02:07 Archived in France

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