From Issue #1
The Charm of a Medieval French Town
an excerpt from the novel Ockham's Razor
By Wade Rowland (visit www.waderowland.com)
Photos by Christine Collie Rowland
got hooked on travel early in life. And for many years,
beginning long before my first passport, it seemed to me
that one of the transcendent travel experiences must be
to walk the grey stone ramparts of Carcassonne, preferably
at night and preferably in the autumn. This notion was firmly
lodged in my brain when, as a diffident fourteen-year-old,
I discovered the books of one of the most popular travel
writers of any era, Richard Halliburton.
his heyday in the 'twenties and 'thirties, Halliburton was
a household name in America and one of the most widely-read
authors of his time. He had discovered early on that what
his audience wanted from him was not culture, not politics
and geography but adventure and, above all, the romance
of travel. And that is what he gave them. He travelled on
a shoestring to the most exotic corners of the globe and
when adventure did not present itself, he created it.
example will give you the flavour: broke in Buenos Aires
while writing the newspaper series that was to become New
Worlds to Conquer he spurned an easy bail-out from his publisher
and instead invested his last few dollars in a trained monkey
and a broken down hurdy gurdy. Performing in the city's
parks and streets earned him: a) a night in jail for by-law
infractions; b) a memorable yarn for the newspapers and
c) enough money for his passage all the way north to Rio.
The unfortunate monkey died on the voyage - not to worry,
he milked that story too.
Halliburton blew in to Carcassonne late in 1921 on his
first trip to Europe as a young Princeton graduate with
literary ambitions, and he wrote about it in The Royal Road
to Romance, the first of his five, wildly successful travel
books. He was on his way by bicycle and knapsack from Paris
to Andorra. The air at the foot of the Pyrenees was sharp
on that glittering November evening I left the modern ville
basse on foot, crossed the seven-hundred-year-old bridge
over the river that separates the fortress from the modern
town, looked up the sharp escarpment, and behold, before
my eyes, nine centuries disappeared. I became an anachronism,
a twentieth-century American living in eleventh-century
France. In one sweep the Middle Ages were revealed. A magical
moonlit city of walls and towers and battlements, defiant
and impregnable, rose before me....Not a person was to be
seen, not a light showed, nor a dog barked as I climbed
the path and walked beneath the massively fortified gate,
through the double line of enormous walls, into a strange
world. Incredibly ancient houses, dark and ghostly, reeled
grotesquely along the crazy streets. My footsteps echoed.
There was no other sound...".
spent the night exploring the city and eventually watched
the dawn break from the battlements:
man appeared in the streets, and then another and another.
I knew the hours of enchantment were gone. The ghosts of
Crusaders and Saracens and Visigoths, which must have been
abroad that night, had marched down the shafts of the ancient
wells into the subterranean caverns, to watch over the fabulous
treasures which any true native of the citadel will tell
you lie buried there. With the night departed Yesterday.
The real, unromantic present lived again...".
"real, unromantic present" was where I was, seventy-one
years after young Richard had dashed off those breathless
lines, and I too was about to see Carcassonne for the first
time. My partner Christine beside me, her legs aproned in
a large-scale Michelin road map, I was approaching from
the north at the wheel of a red, rented Peugeot, purring
along undulating roads through the brooding forests of the
Black Mountains and then across the flatlands of the River
Aude on a narrow, shoulderless highway picketed with two-hundred-year-old
plane trees, and finally on through the dusty streets of
the modern lower town of Carcassonne.
rounded a corner bracketed by grey stone warehouses and
there, on a rise beyond the river, was a vision for which
no photograph could have prepared us. We pulled over to
the curb and got out of the car to stand and stare. Nowhere
in Europe has a fortified medieval city been preserved so
perfectly, or on such a scale. Despite the sheer mass of
its miles of walls and its sixty towers and barbicans, it
seemed to float above the surrounding fields and vineyards,
like a mirage.
town site on its rock outcropping overlooking the River
Aude has been prized for its strategic importance from ancient
times and may have been fortified even before the Romans
built the first of the walled citadels there. The final
touches to the fantastic, many-towered marvel one sees today
were put in place by Saint-Louis and his successor Philip
the Bold toward the end of the thirteenth century. It survived
virtually intact until the mid-1800's under the protection
of the French military and was in the last half of that
century completely and brilliantly restored under the inspired
direction of architect Eugéne-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.
are naturally quibbles about details of the restoration
and refinements are continuously being made. Slate roofs,
for instance, are slowly being converted to the more authentic
baked clay tile. Still, no one denies that the place looks
pretty much as it did eight or nine centuries ago when knighthood
was in flower, Crusades were in fashion and the stirrup
crossbow was the latest and greatest in military hardware.
had been told that, since we were staying at a hotel within
the walls, we would be able to drive our car right inside
the citadel, where the hotel had a parking space for us.
That sounded reasonable over the telephone from Paris, but
when we actually saw the city and its main gate - just wide
enough to accommodate a pair of mounted knights in armour
- we began to have our doubts. We held our breath as I eased
the Peugeot into the gap in the eighteen-foot-high outer
wall, across the broad lists to the second, much higher
wall, under the portcullis of its massively-fortified gate
and then inched our way through the pedestrians thronging
the cobbled street inside, which is perhaps ten feet wide
from doorknob to doorknob. There were places where neighbours
could comfortably have shaken hands across the street from
corbelled second stories.
a modern vehicle down these ancient passageways, through
the main square with its giant well which provided security
from long sieges, past the castle keep to the gargoyle-encrusted
cathedral next door to our hotel, was like living a page
out of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
wonder Halliburton was drawn here in his search for the
romantic. France has arguably more romance per square mile
than any other country in Europe, but the pocket of the
country for which Carcassonne provides a focal point is
the fountainhead of the very notion itself. The literary
form we call romance has its roots in the writings of the
troubadours who first appeared here in the region known
as Languedoc in the eleventh century. Poets and wandering
minstrels to a remarkably open and tolerant society, they
wrote of freedom and justice and gallantry and of a kind
of courtly love that was entirely new to literature. In
troubadour castles throughout the south of France - Puivert
and Les Baux are among the most famous - women of the nobility
established "courts of love" in which they defined suitable
subject matter for troubadour songs, maintained the rules
of grammar of the native langue d'oc and provided advice
for the lovelorn. Their poetry competitions were the talk
of the land and the winners were crowned with peacock feathers.
From the ninth to the thirteenth century, Languedoc was
the social, cultural and political cockpit of France.There
was a strong tradition in Languedoc and in the region of
Carcassonne in particular, of questioning Christian orthodoxy
as represented by a poorly-trained, dissolute and avaricious
Catholic clergy. All over Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth
centuries groups of the faithful were seeking a return to
first principles and a new purity of faith.
But it was in Languedoc that the strongest of these movements
took root. Known as Catharism (from the Greek katharos:
purity), it held that the world of God was the world of
the spirit, while the material world, the world of time,
was the realm of the Devil. Thus anything to do with the
body - eating, drinking, marriage and procreation, material
possessions - was inherently evil. Rules of conduct for
the priestly class, the white-robed "perfecti" , were drawn
from the Christian Gospels and strictly applied: the taking
of life was forbidden and the perfecti were strict vegetarians.
Fasting was frequent; celibacy was obligatory.
Pope Innocent III, alarmed at the spread of what the Church
referred to as the Albigensian Heresy (for the town of Albi,
where a famous debate between Catholic and Cathar clerics
took place), dispatched to the region Dominico Guzman, later
St. Dominic and founder of the Dominican order. He undertook
his mission of preaching against the heresy with relish
but was soon forced to admit failure. He was prophetic in
defeat: "I have preached," he lamented, "I have entreated,
I have wept...the rod must now do the work of benediction.
Towers will be torn down, walls toppled, and ye shall be
reduced to bondage. This is how might shall prevail where
meekness has failed."
came to a head in 1208 when a papal legate was assassinated
near Carcassonne. Innocent III seized on this pretext to
launch a holy war which became known as the Albigensian
Crusade. The pattern for the savagery that was to follow
was set on a July day in 1209 in Béziers, where ecclesiastic
authorities had identified 200 known Cathars. After a brief
resistance the town was taken by storm and 20,000 men, women
and children were put to the sword or burned to death, including
hundreds who had packed the cathedral seeking sanctuary.
"Kill them all," the Crusade's prelate is said to have urged.
"God will know his own."
Carcassonne itself changed hands several times during the
Crusade, only once was a siege mounted. Mighty wooden engines
that could catapult boulders, rolling siege towers to help
storm the walls and other marvels of the military technology
of the time were of little use against so well designed
a defensive position and the besieging army found its most
effective weapon to be mining the walls - tunnelling under
them to cause them to collapse. The defenders counter-mined
successfully, meeting the invading forces far underground
and driving them back before they could complete their destruction.
In the quiet of an evening's contemplation close by the
walls, one envisions with a shudder the rat-like ferocity
of these desperate, clawing struggles in pitch darkness.
heretical beliefs of the Cathars proved remarkably persistent
despite the eventual defeat of the last of their military
strongholds, and to effect a final solution Pope Gregory
IX set up the infamous Inquisition, presided over by the
Dominicans. Its ruthlessness is well-known: in Carcassonne
there is, in an out-of-the-way alley, a horrifying museum
of the implements of torture used by the inquisitors.There
are other reminders: the Inquisition Tower, where suspects
were "questioned" before being sent to a prison outside
the city walls; the Justice Tower, where it is believed
the secret archives of the Inquisitors were stored.
is the Inquisition Tower which overlooks the fairy tale
garden of one of the most romantic hotels in the world,
and one of the friendliest and most accommodating in our
experience. Hôtel de la Cité's twenty-three immaculately-detailed
rooms are contained within the renovated interior of the
old Bishop's palace, next door to the cathedral. One of
three small hotels within the citadel walls and unquestionably
the best, its public spaces are worth a visit whether or
not you stay there. Especially interesting is the breakfast
room/bar with its enormous paintings showing Carcassonne
as it must have looked at various stages of its history,
from neolithic times through its Roman, Visigoth and medieval
had asked for a room with a double bed when we'd reserved,
always a wise precaution unless you prefer the twins that
are much more common in French hotels. None was available,
but rather than disappoint us, the hotel staff had upgraded
us to a corner suite. We could scarcely believe our eyes.
Leaded casement windows opened on to the tiny plaza in front
of the cathedral and a breeze billowed tapestry-like curtains
in the bedroom and sitting rooms. There was a huge, fragrant
bouquet in the foyer. The marbled bathroom featured a walk-in
shower the size of a horse stall. The furniture was antique
and immaculate and there was art on every wall.
night, out of gratitude but against our better financial
instincts, we ate in the hotel dining room. Our suspicion
that his was not a room for triflers was confirmed by the
wine list, which had the heft of a big-city phone book.
Entrées were priced to suit the budget of someone who could
actually afford the suite we'd been given.
dined more modestly the following evening, in a boÎte called
l'Ostal des Troubadours, a tiny Gypsy café on the main square.
The tables were cheek-by-jowel but the cassoulet was rich
and fragrant, the wine was cheap and, beside us, a small
fenestration through three feet of hewn stone looked out
onto the castle keep. In a corner of the room, a classically-trained
guitarist entertained. We applauded enthusiastically and
our appreciation did not go unnoticed; ours was the first
table he visited with outstretched hat when his set ended.
He was replaced by a boozy singer-guitarist who announced
in heavily accented French that he was a purveyor of Irish
love ballads, then blithely launched into Leonard Cohen's
Sisters of Mercy.
the morning there was a wedding in the cathedral for us
to watch from our private lookout onto the square and we
were late for service in the hotel breakfast room. The staff
cheerfully set a solitary table for us outdoors beside the
deserted swimming pool and served us croissants, brioche,
boiled eggs, fresh orange juice and café au laît on starched
linen and silver. We wore our straw hats against the sun.
A scented breeze riffled the dazzling white table cloth.
We were starring, fantastically, in our own movie, a romance
that Halliburton might have written had he lived long enough
to acquire a taste for the more sybaritic pleasures of travel.
Poor Richard, instead, died trying to cross the China sea
in a leaky junk, on the eve of World War 2. He was on his
way to San Francisco, creating another adventure, and he
vanished without a trace. He wasn't yet forty. But he'd
made that enchanted moment in Carcassonne possible for us,
a gift for which I'll always be grateful.
Although Carcassonne is one of the most-visited tourist
sites in France, we found that even during the "season" it
is not difficult to find a little peace and quiet. The site
is so large (the outer wall is more than a kilometer and a
half long) and its streetscape so varied that even when the
main tourist alleys are clogged, much of the site remains
quiet, and this is particularly true in the the early morning
and late evening. A guidebook of some description is absolutely
essential to an adequate appreciation of the city and its
battlements, and a variety of them are available at any number
of shops within the walls. The best of them is Carcassonne
in the Days of the Siege, published in English and French
by the French government Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques
et des Sites, and you can find it at the excellent book shop
next to the cathedral.
passage you just read was an excerpt from a chapter in Ockham's
Razor by Canadian author Wade Rowland. For more information
about the author, or to read more on this topic, visit his
Web site at: www.WadeRowland.com
Wade Rowland is also the father of our Hilary
Rowland, the model turned web designer, our Spring
2000 Cover Story.