Come join me in my long-winded series recapping our recent visit to France.
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Please come in. You're invited to make yourself at home! Join us beneath the doodle...
After leaving the beautiful Dordogne behind, we set our wheels towards the ancient walled city of Carcassone. More on that in a moment.
The one stipulation we both agreed on before taking this drive through France is that we would avoid major roads and large cities as much as possible. We were pretty successful skirting around cities until we came to Toulouse. In order to get to where we needed to go in the amount of time we had to get there, we had to go through Toulouse. It's large and confusing. We planned to join a smaller road just south of the city but took a wrong exit and got hopelessly lost. So lost in fact, that after driving around a sketchy neighborhood half in the process of being torn down, we turned down a wrong street and ended up here. Twice.
By all accounts, Carcassonne has a seriously long and fascinating history. The sprawling city is separated into two parts with the fortified Cité de Carcassonne commanding the area from its perch atop a hill. With its 53 towers and two concentric walls, it is the largest complete fortification in Europe. First signs of settlement in the region date to about 3500 BC. During its long history, it was used as a strategic fort by the ancient Romans, fell into the hands of the Visigoths and later became a stronghold for the Cathars until their overthrow during the Albigensian Crusade. In the 13th century the region then known as the Languidoc was absorbed into the Kingdom of France. Carcassone kept on ticking as an important fortress and played a crucial role during The Hundred Years' War. By the mid-17th century, its usefulness as an important military post began to wane and the city slowly began to fall into ruin. As happened during this period at many ancient sites, stones were pilfered and reused for other building projects. By 1849, the city had decayed to the point that the French government declared it would be razed. Fierce outrage by the public made the government rethink the boneheaded move and a group of concerned preservationists set about to restore it. Theorist and architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was chosen to lead the project and work began in 1853. Much controversy remains surrounding the reconstruction with some maintaining that the restoration was too perfect, turning it into a sort medieval theme park. The biggest complaint is the reconstruction of the roofs as pointed cones covered in slate, rather than the flatter, tiled roofs customary to the region. In spite of offending purist sensibilities, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 and is still provokes a powerful reminder of the region's Roman and medieval past.
Photo courtesy of Capucine et Ludovic
The sight of the walled city is, in a word, impressive. It seems to float above the new city around it, turrets and towers and massive walls all combine to awe you with its strength. We excitedly parked the car below the hill and climbed the hill to the city. It was our plan to find a room within for the night. As soon as we passed through the two massive fortifications and entered the citadel,
waives throngs mobs of tourists hit us like Disneyland on a Saturday in July. It was the only place during our entire trip we experienced anything like that. After a week of idyllic country villages and quiet country roads, the shoulder-to-shoulder swarms of people was maddening. What had we gotten ourselves into? It was getting late and we had pretty much committed to staying the night. The only place we could find was truly fancy schmancy and our feet told us we were in the mood to splurge. The room was absolutely gorgeous, and what a view we had.
We settled into the room and steeled ourselves to go back into the streets. Then something remarkable happened. As we stepped out of the hotel into the fading daylight, everybody was gone. The restaurants were full and lights were popping up around us, but the streets were basically ours and all of a sudden it was magical. After a fantastic dinner, we strolled through the nearly empty streets. With the hoards of people gone and the shops selling tacky crap closed, we were able to focus on the structures and see the tell-tale signs of where the original buildings ended and reconstruction began.
By 10:00 a.m. the tour buses were beginning to dump people off at the drawbridge and we knew it was time to get on the road. We decided we would head towards Nimes, the capital city of the Languedoc-Roussillon département bordering Provence. It was a pleasant drive, with the Pyrénées in the distance separating France from Spain. Our route would take us past Sète with her oyster and muscle farms and our first glimpse of the Mediterranean.
Photo courtesy of Michel Seguret
We arrived in Nimes in the mid-afternoon. We really did want to see the city, with the best-preserved Roman amphitheater in France. Nimes, however, was not very excited to see us. Try as we might to get to the city center, the one-way streets kept spitting us out to the outskirts of town. Just when we thought we were making progress, Nimes would foil us yet again. I've never seen anything like it. At one point we saw the amphitheater just a few blocks away and we thought we had made it until we realized we were going down a one-way street the wrong direction. We managed to get ourselves turned around only to be escorted out of town again by the never-ending one way streets. This went on for nearly an hour as our frustration mounted. We finally saw a road sign for Avignon, and after flipping Nimes the bird, we were outta there.
Within 15 minutes we found ourselves on a small road driving through Dr. Seussian hills covered in stunning vegetation. It was like entering a dream.
We had arrived in beautiful Provence.
Next Sunday, the final installment of Vive la France.
Now on to Tops!