Thursday, October 29, 2015

Cathar country continues: The siege of Montségur

When I told one of my colleagues we were planning a trip to the Cathar châteaux, his response was, "you know it's all ruins, right?" I did know, but was also pretty much caught up in the romanticism surrounding the sites. They've definitely done a good job of playing up the Cathar connections, even if in many cases they were apparently substantially renovated in the centuries after the crusades, by the conquerors. In the case of Montségur, an archaeological inspection in the 20th century concluded that "no trace" remained of the castle that was besieged during the crusades. The ruins that are there are still old, but 17th-century old, a far cry from the 13th century of the crusades. This is not prominently referred to on the tourist websites... However, there do still remain the ruins of some of the Cathar houses clinging to the current fortress wall.

Despite this, Montségur is perhaps the most evocative of the Cathar sites, at least by reputation. Seen as the last (major) stand of the Cathars, it was beseiged for nine months by the crusaders, who were unable to cut off supplies to the castle due to its naturally-defended location (walking up there, the mind boggles that they were able to haul supplies and building materials and so on up there, but apparently they did). Finally, though, they found a spot where they could build a catapult in range of the castle's defensive barbican and subsequently the castle itself. Finally, the besieged fortress surrendered, and while those who agreed to give up the Cathar faith were allowed to leave, around 215 Cathars gave themselves up and were burned alive at the foot of the mountain.

Myths and legends swirl around the castle today, such as that some of the Cathars escaped with a secret treasure, rumoured to be the Holy Grail. It is even often said that the Nazis were obsessed with finding the Grail, and someone hunted for it at Montségur on Himmler's orders, although it appears that this is as historically dubious as the original Grail story.

So while the castle as it is today might not be as old or mysterious as legend would have it, it still boasts impressive views of the surrounding countryside from its 1,200 metre perch. From the carpark, it's a vertical ascent of 250 metres to get to the castle, but it's all worth it when you get up there.

Before starting our climb

On the way back down

Inside the ruins

I love the layered look of each chain of hills stretching to the horizon

We didn't have the place quite all to ourselves, but it was pretty quiet up there

Photo taken by a friendly Australian

Monday, October 26, 2015

In Cathar Country: Carcassonne

Carcassonne is one of those magical names that you come across one day and then dream of visiting ever after. I'm not sure when I first heard of the city, famous for its ancient citadel enclosed by three-kilometre-long double walls, but it's definitely been on my bucket list for some time. Back in 2010, when I was living in Nice, I read a book about the Cathar crusades which opens with dramatic scenes of the siege of Montségur, another destination on our trip, which further piqued my interest in visiting the region. So way back in January, when Jules and I were discussing our travel plans for the year, I suggested a Languedoc roadtrip might be perfect, especially since he loves a good castle.

We drove down early from Beaune, with an unscheduled detour to the Pont du Gard, a large and allegedly beautiful Roman aqueduct. We had just wanted to stop off for a quick selfie, since we were running on a schedule to meet the people at our AirBnb and get the keys, but once we got there we found out you couldn't see the aqueduct from the road at all, and it cost 18€ to park the car, which seemed pretty excessive for what was meant to be a five-minute stop.

So, disgruntled, we were back on the road, arriving in Carcassonne around midday. As you can see, for the most part we had pretty moody weather, which was setting the pattern for the rest of our stay. In fact, it rained every place we stayed on the trip at least once (Beaune, Carcassonne, Albi and Lyon), which isn't really what you have in mind for the south of France.

We spent the first afternoon walking around the walls - as I said, they stretch around 3 km, so that took up quite some time - and then wandering through the streets of the citadel mostly looking for somewhere to have dinner. We managed to find a great place, with a delicious starter of beetroot and goat's cheese salad and then a yummy cassoulet for the main. I love a good cassoulet. I think we struck it lucky (or the careful consideration of the options paid off), because in general I imagine the Cité is probably too touristy to have good food as a rule.

The main streets inside the second wall were pretty busy, but I imagine not nearly as bad as it must be in July and August. According to the latest statistics I found, between 4 and 4.5 million people visited the citadel of Carcassonne in 2011, and I can only imagine it's increased since then. On the second day, we went inside the castle of Carcassonne, another layer of fortification inside the double walls. Since you have to pay to get into this part, only about half a million people visit each year, thus it's a lot less crowded. You also get to walk on portions of the walls which are otherwise inaccessible and there's a free guided tour, so it's worth doing if you have the time and inclination.

Of course, the citadel has been much restored over the years (apparently 30% is restored i.e. rebuilt and the slum-like dwellings dating back to the Middle Ages were razed), beginning with the intervention of Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century, but you still can't help but be amazed by the size and completeness of the city and walls and by its turbulent (and confusing) history. In a nutshell, the fortified town was founded by the Romans, and some Roman walls and towers exist to this day. It used to stand on the border between France and Aragon, hence the need for its strong fortifications. It became the property of the Trencavel family in the 11th century, who built the castle inside its walls, and who would later shelter the Cathar heretics. Thus it got caught up in the Crusades, beseiged, and brought under the control of the French King. Much later on, the border moved and it became strategically unimportant, going into decline and ruin until Viollet-le-Duc intervened.

At the gate of the castle inside the citadel

A very nice lady took a nice photo of us, but failed to get anything interesting in the background

Between the two walls by night

Panoramic view of the walls and basilica

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Beau Beaune

I have been very neglectful of you, blog. I blame Microsoft Windows for this. I made the mistake of saying that I was looking forward to switching to Windows 10, because nothing could possibly be worse than Windows 8. Turns out the design of Windows 10 is a bit better, but that doesn't help me much because it has turned my Wifi to absolute crap. And, more importantly for blogging purposes, I couldn't manage to download any of the photos we took on holiday onto my PC.

So anyway, how to hook readers back in? Probably a paragraph wibbling on about computer issues. Check.

Anyway, far too long ago now we went on an awesome roadtrip to and through Southwest France, which I will try to catch up on herewith. We didn't quite get the amazing weather you might hope from southern France in September, but that was actually probably a blessing in disguise since we spent a lot of the time clambering up hillsides to look at various "Cathar" châteaux, so we probably would have sweated to death if it had been really hot.

First stop was Beaune, partly because we were looking for somewhere convenient to break our journey between Luxembourg and Carcassonne, and partly because I have been wanting to visit the Hospices/Hotel-Dieu, with its amazingly beautiful roofs. It started pouring down basically as soon as we got to Beaune, and continued the whole time. This had one big advantage - Jules tried to take a slow-mo of the rain coming through the roof spouts at Beaune and this happened:

This never fails to crack me up

At least the rain meant the courtyard was empty for photos

The outside is really pretty, but the inside is interesting as well. The different rooms tell the history of the place, which it turns out was founded by Chancellor Rolin of van Eyck fame. This almost felt like a celeb spot for me, ha ha

C-Rolls himself
It was set up in 1443, when Burgundy was a separate dukedom, and was intended as a hospital and shelter for the poor, a role which has continued up to the present day. They also make some pretty good wine here - we tasted some later on in the day.

Inside the great hall of the hospital, with beds lining the walls

Another feature is artworks including fine tapestries and an altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden.

Love a nice millefleur tapestry

As I said, it continued raining for the rest of the day, so we holed up in a wine bar and watched it pour down. The set up in this place was that you bought a "credit card" which allowed you to taste a certain number of wines, which were dispensed from taps when you inserted your card into the corresponding slot. There was a tasting guide which took us through the different appellations of Burgundy wine, such as Chablis and Nuits Saint Georges (my favourite). I didn't know a lot about Burgundy wines, so it was fun to discover!

We passed the night in a very cheap and not very cheerful hotel room (everything in Beaune seemed to be expensive, they must all be living high on the hog from wine money or something) and in the morning, it was off to Carcassonne...