I have always wanted to go to Carcassonne! I’ve seen pictures of its impressive walled medieval city (the “ville haute” or “cité”) topped with pointy round towers, and we’ve decided to make a huge detour to see it, sweeping right to the South-West corner of France before going up to Dordogne to meet up with Rhea and Will. Heather has found us an AirBnB option in the “ville basse”, i.e. the real, everyday Carcassonne, and miraculously James the Satnav behaves and we turn up at the correct time, find parking pretty much in front and meet up with the host, an ex-military guy turned physiotherapist. The apartment is simple and functional, it will do very nicely! We venture out towards the city centre in the ville basse for lunch; it’s only a few minutes’ walk away across a wide boulevard, and soon we’re in pleasant pedestrianised streets lined with high street shops, bars and bakeries. It’s a bank holiday weekend in France, though, so much of it is closed, and we end up in a tiny restaurant selling savoury crepes, along with a retired Englishman who’s lived here for seventeen years. He seems delighted to be talking in English and we cannot escape his constant conversation, so we give in, and learn how Brexit is already having a major impact on his life, because his pension from the UK is suddenly worth much less than it was a year ago, and he’s had to change his shopping habits and lifestyle quite a lot to compensate. Eventually, him and his dog Bobo leave us to finish our meal (the dog is French, so must only be spoken to in French, you see), not before giving me some detailed instructions on how to find the post office that we need to send off Heather’s proxy voting form.
And find the post office we do! The ladies behind the counter are falling over each other to greet and speak to Zaza; but they don’t sell envelopes for international mail, they inform me. I should go to the supermarket or the craft shop for those. Grumbling slightly, I exit towards the supermarket, leaving Heather to deal with the continued cooing onslaught in the blissfully air-conditioned post office. In front of the supermarket is a man begging for some coins; in front of him is a group of five or six teenagers. A girl drops something on the floor as they are walking away and the homeless guy calls to her to alert her to this. Her friends turn around and disdainfully inform him that she only dropped a chocolate bar wrapper; why, does he want to eat it? They all guffaw. The man shakes his head and says nothing. I’m disgusted, but as I go to shout at the kids they’ve all jumped on bikes and are gone already. I give all my change to the guy, it doesn’t seem enough.
En route back to the post office with envelopes in hand, I somehow accidentally purchase three sleepsuits for the baby (the ones she’s got are too small or too warm!). By the time we’ve posted the forms, I’m boiling hot and irritated. Then it’s time to walk to the medieval city! It’s not far, but the heat combined with very strong wind (apparently Carcassonne is well known for being super windy) make it fairly hard going with the baby on my front. When we reach the foot of the cité, I’m already feeling slightly sub-par, and the throngs of people surrounding us are not making things better. The city walls are really impressive, though – the medieval city is perched on a rocky hill, its massive fortifications crowning the top.
The history of the city is interesting; it was a stronghold of the cathars (Catharism was a sort of Christian sect who believed in two separate Gods – that of the New Testament as a God of good, and that of the Old Testament as a God of evil / Satan; it was popular in the South West of France in the Middle Ages, but persecuted by the Catholic church as heresy) in the thirteenth century. Viewed as a heretic city, it was targeted by a crusade, fell under siege and was given to the dude who led the crusade to rule. He installed an inquisition court there, with all the joyous results you can imagine. In 1240 the inhabitants rioted and were vanquished – the King ordered them to be banished from their city on the hill, but allowed them to settle the other side of the river, and that was the birth of the “ville basse”. Over the centuries, the new city actually fared much better economically than the fortified one, until the medieval fortress city was almost a ruin, a shell of itself. In the nineteenth century the French became suddenly more enthusiastic about preserving their cultural heritage, and a vast salvaging operation was launched under the leadership of architect Viollet-le-Duc, a guy who made his name with several major restoration projects of medieval bits all over France. He is known for restoring major French monuments including the Mont-Saint-Michel and Notre-Dame-de-Paris; but his name is also associated with somewhat controversial visions of “restoration”, in that he kind of rebuilt stuff according to his interpretation of how they should look, rather than with scrupulous accuracy. Nevertheless, the restoration of Carcassonne is pretty epic, and the city is magnificent to behold.
However, as we climb the hill, cross a drawbridge into the fortified city and find ourselves immediately assaulted by tourist tack all over the street, I feel like I need an immediate break, so we sit down for a drink under some imposing stone walls as we watch the incessant flow of tourists go by. I feel bad being in such a bad mood, poor Heather is just trying to enjoy the sights, but the thought of staying here for three more hours in the heat and crowd before we can contemplate dinner is making me sad. We compromise with a stroll through the streets, and a plan to return to the cité tomorrow closer to the evening – for tonight though, we’ll have dinner in the ville basse. We have a gander inside the medieval church, we wander all over the little streets, and we enjoy a great slow descent through a long staircase going down over the hillside through the layers of fortifications. We are unfortunately accompanied by a family who have made the fatal mistake of purchasing a “medieval calling horn” for their children, who are blowing it continuously (you can tell it was the grandmother who did the deed, and her son-in-law follows far behind gritting his teeth and glaring at her the whole time).
Zaza is awoken from her nap by the medieval horn, too, and that is never good. She is grumpy, and her mood is not improving. We end up having dinner on the main square in the ville basse, Place Carnot, a lovely tree-line d space with little cafes and restaurants; but the going is hard with a grumpy baby, and our little family meal consists mostly of one of us walking Eliza around outside and waving through the restaurant window at the other one who’s trying to finish her food alone so she can take her turn. Not the most successful evening ever.
The next day we take th morning easy. It’s Saturday, so it’s market day on Place Carnot, and Hev is suitably excited, so we have a lovely time checking out all the stalls and buying our breakfast / lunch. The strawberries are unbelievably pricy! But we somehow end up buying two punnets anyway after a stall holder makes us taste his production, a variety called ruby of something, which is honestly the best strawberry I’ve had in my life. We are trying to recreate a salad which Hev had at a restaurant in Pitigliano: strawberry and mint salad with ricotta. There is no ricotta to be found anywhere (although many cheese shops are visited), but we find a local equivalent, and finally we return home with our arms laden with produce and a very asleep baby: it’s hard work looking at a market!
In the afternoon, I take a cabin-fevered Zaza for a stroll along the Canal du Midi, the canal between Toulouse and the Mediterranean; it’s very hot, it’s very windy, and people keep looking at me weird for walking my baby in this weather – but they don’t know the wrath of the cooped up Zaza, clearly. She’s having a blast. There are ducks, there are people fishing, it’s all brilliant.
After a while we turn back, and I spot a pile of “nomad books”, these books that people leave lying around to be taken, read and then left somewhere else to circulate. I pick up a 1970s copy of the Hobbit, settle down on the grass near the water and start reading it to Zaza. She’s not feeling it, though. Her eyes are on a man wearing an orange djellaba, who is smiling at her from afar; he has one plastic bag with him and looks a bit worse for wear. He approaches us smiling, and I smile back; he settles on the grass about twenty feet from us and I’m keeping an eye on him as I read. Suddenly as I’m turning a page, I see something being placed in the grass on Zaza’s lap! It takes me completely by surprise and I jump with a little startled noise; the guy jumps back at the noise, then I discover that he’s given Zaza the contents of his bag: a plait of garlic gloves, and a small phial of perfume with Arabic writing. As I glance up I see that he’s stepped back to his spot where he’s now sitting with his empty bag. I get up and go to him to explain that he doesn’t need to give us his things. His speech is very garbled and he’s struggling with French, but he tells me his name is Miloud; we shake hands and I introduce myself and Eliza, he seems very moved by her and keeps putting his hand over her head and kissing his fingers, grinning. Suddenly, he starts pulling at his clothes and I prepare to make a hasty retreat – but he only wants to show me a small handmade tattoo on his shoulder; it’s a heart with Arabic text inside, “Zara”, he says, his daughter. He repeats the name, touches the heart and kisses his fingers. He looks so sad I feel tearful. I ask him how old she is but he doesn’t understand. I try again to give him back his garlic, I explain we’re driving, we’re not likely to use it – I don’t want it really but I don’t want to be rude. He asks if I believe in God, I say no, unsure what’s going to happen now. He shrugs and smiles, points up and then kisses his fingers. He tells me he’ll take the garlic but I must keep the perfume. He says he’s sorry I stopped reading, so I read a bit more for him, and then I give him the book and he’s smiling a lot, it’s the best possible destination I can think of for this nomadic book. Eliza and I leave Miloud stroking the book and kissing his fingers. I regret not taking a picture with him, but I remember his kind face and that will do.
Reunited with Heather, in the evening we return to the cité – the light is golden and although the wind is still strong, our spirits are high. There are much fewer people today, we stroll around buying souvenirs for our friends and family, and distractedly looking out for a restaurant. A beautiful terrace catches our eye and we ask for a table; they don’t have one… But seeing our disappointment they rejig things a bit and find us a spot! We enjoy a delicious dinner of cassoulet (had to be done! It’s the regional dish, pork sausages, confit duck in butter beans cooked in duck fat – not good for your wasteline) and farm chicken, followed by the most spectacular pudding: a dark chocolate sphere which is melted away by pouring hot chocolate sauce on it to reveal a core of berries. AMAZING.
On the way back from the cité, as we’re crossing the wide boulevard near our accommodation, a car which was stopped at a garage on our side of the road randomly starts speeding towards me, and before I have time to compute what’s happening, it’s hit me! I sort of half squat instinctively for impact (thanks, roller derby!) and it hits me square across both knees before stopping, thankfully without hitting Heather who’s carrying the baby, or knocking me down! The guy parks his car on the side as we walk off, and he runs behind us offering apologies and babbling how he hadn’t seen us and are we okay, and do we need driving anywhere; the dude is so shaken by having hit me with his car that I end up having to pat him on the back and make sure he’s okay!
Well, Carcassonne, you’ve been a place of many emotions.