In the land of the Cathars
19.09.2007 22 °C
Hello friends. At the end of the last instalment we had just arrived in the elegant city of Toulouse and, after a frustrating two hours driving around the city finally found a hotel. Although it was late we still headed into the centre of town to wander and find something to eat. At the heart of the city lies an enormous public square, dominated by an extravagent 19th century opera house. The square was relatively quiet at night though so we wandered down one of the many narrow winding streets that lead to the canal front with their numerous hole in the wall bars and cafes. In the daylight the canal front had looked warm and inviting, but at 11pm it seemed just a little too dark to wandering aimlessly. So we turned around and headed back towards the centre. Eventually we found a place to eat and then crashed back at the hotel.
We had planned to be up early, wander the town and then head off to Carcassonne early, but like all our plans it didn't really happen that way. Once again we slept in and could barely drag ourselves out of the hotel before 11. Then we had to find somewhere to park the car. This proved surprisingly easy in the end. I parked in a motorcycle bay with two wheels up on the pavement - done! I had a good impression of Toulouse from our drive through the city the afternoon before. The city is very lively, old and attractive. Many of the buildings are in red or pink brick with touchs of marble facing here and there to brighten their facades. Toulouse was once a very important city, home to the Counts of Toulouse who were virtually independent of the French crown. They built plenty of monuments (mostly magnificent churches) to advertise their power, wealth and independence. In fact, during the Middle Ages the entire south of France was virtually a separate country (or more correctly a series of independent countries) as we would see further on our travels.
"Kill them all..."
We set off to Carcassonne later than expected but were pleasantly surprised to find that the city was only some 80kms away so we arrived early and did not get lost. We found a little hotel on the outskirts of the new town - with its own private carparking - and then drove in to the old town. Carcassonne is a fortress city situated upon a small hill. It was abandoned in the 16th century (ok, by abandoned I mean an invading army came and burnt it down and killed everyone) leaving the original double rows of fortifications intact. It was restored in the 19th century and is now a stunning and fairly accurate example of a medieval city. From the car park in the lower town the looming walls and battlements looked very impressive - the kiddies carousel at the city gate however looked a trifle out of place. Funny thing really, but almost every city we've visited in France has had an old fashioned carousel or circus - and they're always very popular. Another feature of almost every French city seems to be the petite train - a little electric car (shaped like a train) pulling carriages of tourists around. The Lonely Planet bagged Carcassonne as a typical tourist trap swamped by hordes of day trippers and crappy souvenier stalls. Okay, well there were a lot of tourists and the shops did sell crappy souveniers, but you get that everywhere tourists go. It wasn't as busy as Mt Saint Michel and as the city was much bigger it was pretty easy to escape into some quiet sidestreet and avoid the crush.
Every city in Europe has a bloody history to tell but Carcassonne has more than its fair share. In the 11th century it was an important city in the Langue D'Oc, the Occitan speaking provinces of the south (Occitan is a little like a mixture of French and Catalan and is still an official language - the bilingual signposting in Toulouse threw us initially). Independent and proud, the Langue D'Oc strenuously expressed its separateness from the northern French heartland through its language, culture and religious leanings. In the 11th century a heresy known as Catharism spread through southern France. This didn't mean most people were Cathar, but the Cathar clergy were widely respected because they led lives of such outstandingly high morality that the Catholic clergy - who didn't - began to fear they were losing contol of southern France. In 1208AD Pope Innocent III decided to sort the problem out with a crusade. All the crusades were bloody affairs but this crusade against other Christians was especially brutal. When the crusaders reached the city of Beziers (population 17,000) they demanded the citizens surrender all the Cathars. There were probably only a thousand or so Cathars in the city but the citizens refused and so the crusaders sacked and destroyed the city. Thousands of citizens fled to the fortified cathedral for protection. The papal envoy ordered the army to burn the cathedral to the ground. Some crusaders objected to the wanton slaughter of fellow Catholics, to which the papal envoy replied "kill them all, God will recognise his own." And that's the origin of a phrase that has been repeated down the centuries ...
In 1209AD it was Carcassonnes turn. Carcassonne's massive fortifications held the crusaders off some time but the city eventually fell. The slaughter was so terrible that many crusaders began to question just what they were doing here. The crusaders then attacked Toulouse but were defeated by a coalition of the southern counts (Toulouse would be besieged three times). The crusade dragged on until 1271AD, by which it had degenerated into a war between the north and south, with the south eventually acknowledging defeat and the overlordship of the French Crown. The story of the Cathars, the injustice, cruelty and bloodsheet is still a living issue in the Langue D'Oc. The Cathar story is told everywhere with sympathy, especially their final stand at Montseguer in the Pyrenees. There, the last Cathars were forced to surrender after a lengthy siege and then walked voluntarily into an enormous pyre prepared by the besiegers.
In the late afternoon, the day trippers and the tourist buses all left town and we had the city much to ourselves. We had cassoulet - a traditional stew of white beans and pork. It was excellent but it probably delayed us getting to our next destination - Avignon - as its very hard to drive at full speed on the motorway with the windows down.
PS - Shelly would like it made very clear that she did not have the cassoulet.