Thursday, September 23, 2010

Carcassonne's Market in mid May

On Saturday, May 15th (our final full day in Carcassonne) the main market was in full swing.  By the time we stumbled upon it, most people had completed their shopping and were leisurely talking with friends, sipping yet another espresso, or tucking into lunch.  The clothing they were wearing reveals that the weather was unusually chilly and breezy, in spite of being that far south in mid May.

I begin with a display of my favourite Aude dish, cassoulet, that wonderful combination of white beans, duck and spices.  These jars were made by Le Ferme, one of the finest food outlets in Carcassonne, a specialty store gourmets seek out.

And this brings me to my absolute favourite meat in the south of France, canard (duck).  Here we see duck legs which have been slowly and lovingly cooked for hours in pure duck fat.  The fat keeps the dark meat unbelievably moist and tender.  Duck fat is, as far as my reading indicates, more healthy than almost any oil for cooking, partly because it melts at such a low temperature and heat does not change the molecular carbon chain.  The French discovered centuries ago that it also seals out air and preserves unexposed duck for months without refrigeration.  Most importantly, the taste is superb.  Duck legs are a bit difficult to find in North America, but our local store in Vancouver now sells them regularly.  Nevertheless, I resolutely I get my organic ducks privately from Walter and Tony out in Chilliwack.  Here, as in Carcassonne, duck is not cheap . . . but it is truly a delicacy.  

If you prefer to avoid all the cooking while in Carcassonne, you can purchase cassoulet already fully baked in earthen casseroles.  Just reheat and you will have a truly hearty meal--all the protein you could possibly require for the next few hours.  You can see the ends of the duck legs protruding from the beans. 

The next several pictures, like the one above, were taken in Les Halles in Carcassonne, which I believe used to be where grain was sold, a majestic open market structure constructed in the 1700s and refurbished in recent years.  This type of market contains many individual "stalls", compact areas having display cases with refrigeration or shelves for ice to keep fish properly cooled.

While Les Halles would be open daily, the open market stalls in the square were set up only weekly.  I enjoyed observing the individual merchants and farmers lovingly look after their displays, wait on customers, many of whom were obviously recognized by sight and even by name.  The produce was local, for the most part, the vegetables were deep green and looking very fresh and healthy.  Other tables offered jars of things preserved or honey.

And while you wait for business, keep warm with the ever-present scarf,wool sweater and coffee.

Markets are family affairs, with children often joining parents on the Saturday morning outings.

Some farmers sold plants ready to be planted that weekend, provided the moon was in its correct phase.

Other people sold hard goods such as CDs, DVDs, clothing, shoes, underclothing (especially for women), toys, or handicrafts.  This young lady offered a wide variety of vegetables.

Hard as it may seem, it is possible to be bored at this bustling market, although it likely beats going to school.


Once shopping is concluded, the cafés are crowded, particularly the outside tables if the weather permits.  One quickly gets the impression that the French love sunshine and will take any opportunity to bask in it while enjoying conversation and an espresso.

Finally, one trudges home, often going down a narrow street with sidewalks even more narrow, stepping aside to let cars pass.  'No parking' zones seemed to be ignored during market hours, and this surely let more people drive in from the countryside to take advantage of the market's prime offerings.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Carcassonne's Cité's Walls

Carcassonne's medieval Cité is a favourite tourist destination for one main reason--its spectacular medieval walls.  Even the most determined and best armed military forces of the middle ages found these walls to be formidable. The walls were so unusual that in 1997 the old Cité was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The double walls (the higher inner and the lower outer walls) circle the Cité for just under 2 km and have more than 50 watch towers.  The city's roots go back into the mists of antiquity, but we know that the Romans constructed substantial fortifications in the 1st century BC, naming the location Julia Carsaco.  The name later became Carcasum.  Most websites thoughtlessly repeat, as if it were fact, the apocryphal story of the city being named on account of the sounding [sonne] of the bells by the châtelaine Carcas (Carcas sonne), announcing that the enemy troops had raised their siege after being fooled into thinking the cité had a great supply of food (according the the legend, the cité fed all of its remaining food to a pig and tossed it over the wall).  Like most stories too good to be true, this one is lore, and of more modern invention.

At one of its high points in history, Carcassonne was an important stronghold of those permitting the Occitan Cathars to exist, a group deemed heretical by the Roman Catholic hierarchy.  In 1209, the north launched the so-called Albigensian Crusade against the south, essentially a land grab which crushed the economy and culture of the south, both of which were then outshining anything encountered in the north.  The cité's next role was to be a crucial military fortification keeping an eye on Aragon (later becoming part of the present-day Spain).  Throughout the 1200s, extensive construction extended the walls considerably, both inner and outer, making them seemingly impregnable to the weapons then available.  The Cité could not be captured, not even by England's Black Prince during the Hundred Years' War in the 1300s.  However, once gunpowder became a common part of warfare in the early 1600s, the design of the medieval walls became obsolete.  However, they were never destroyed, seriously dismantled or quarried for stone.  In the 1800s, Propser Merimée (author of the novel Carmen) convinced the government of France to restore the walls, a task handed over to Viollet-le-Duc.  Some say that he added too many crenelations and slate roofs in the style of northern France, but the walls were saved.

Let's begin with several photos showing the medieval walls towering above the western hill, laden with poppies.

 These days, workers living in the lower city sometimes take a more direct route to and from Cité, via a steep path.

However, for a more safe approach in the middle ages, one might rather use either this route, which has 13th-century fortified walls on both sides.  These walls were once part of the system of fortifications designed to prevent intruders from camping between the Aude River and the Cité's outer walls.

Today, one can also take this more open road which is often used by tourists approaching by foot from the lower city.

Another paved pathway for pedestrians takes one through one of the buttresses supporting the high outer wall.

This road leads to another entrance way, large enough for horse-drawn carts.  Again, citizens, farmers and workers would have been well protected from arrows.

The principal entrance to the east needed additional fortifications because the more gentle slope of the hill offered less protection.  The Narbonnaise Gate is consequently the most impressive entrance, featuring two very large towers.  A portcullis gate (made of wood, iron or both) could be lowered relatively quickly to keep out unexpected troublemakers, and various holes above the gate would let guards drop or shoot things while defending the entry. Now tourists can stroll through this gate and simply look around in amazement, cameras in hand.

 The stone work of the walls varies.  This shows the inside of the walls which could typically use local stones and cement rather than the type of finely chiseled rectangular stones required for constructing corners, arches,  doorways or the more sturdy outside facing of outer walls.

 Once inside the outer walls, one still needs to climb in order to gain access to the Cité proper.  Here we see someone starting up a stone ramp (drained to the centre).  When the ramp becomes too steep, we switch to steps.  Even though the ramp and its final steps are well within the outer wall (on the far left), a shorter wall was still thought necessary to protect one from stray arrows which may fly over the outer wall.

A closer look at the same entrance and its protective wall, from the ramp itself.

As the walls were expanded, new passageways were required.  Here we see where defenders and watchmen could stand on the outer wall.

Various buttresses still help retain the walls from various angles.

I was told that there are 52 towers around the walls.  Some were essentially five-story living quarters for guards or soldiers, complete with their own wells, latrines, dormitories, food storage and ovens.  The oldest well is the Cité is 36 meters deep (some of it cut through solid rock in Roman times).  Good wells were absolutely essential for sustaining life at any time, but particularly while the Cité was under siege.  Other towers doubled as living quarters for a variety of people, including the inquisitors during their brutal 13th-century attempts to purge the south of all possible heretics.  One tower served as a holding place for those to be questioned, or those awaiting death.

The roofs were 'modernized' in the 1800s by Viollet-le-Duc, who insisted that the northern spiked roofs were superior, particularly when covered in slate.  Purists realize that this imported design destroys the original look. 

At times, the space between the inner and outer walls on the western side is rather narrow.  On the right you can just see the crenelations.

Crenelations at the top of the walls offered at least some protection to defenders attempting to keep an eye on armed intruders.  The additional and more narrow slits offered excellent protection from incoming arrows, while allowing one to shoot outgoing arrows at various angles.

One final shot will lead nicely into the following blog showing how these walls look at night.  I believe that this is the jousting "field", the widest and reasonably protected area between the inner and outer walls in which knights could practice jousting daily, keeping both horses and bodies in shape for future battles, and training preteens for a military life.  Tournaments could also be held which would provide winners substantial prizes, some of which were the equivalent to a year's wages, but they could also cause serious injury or even death, though the term "friendly fire" had not yet been coined.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Carcassonne's Cité's walls at night

The Cité of Carcassonne, perched on the hill overlooking the valley and the modern city of Carcassonne is still beautifully fortified by stone walls which have either been preserved or were carefully restored in the 1800s.  The site for the medieval Cité was already inhabited in the first century BC.  In the 8th century BC, people lived in the oppidum of Carsac, about 2 kms south of the present city. This was clearly one of several important fortifications, population centres and places for trade in the Languedoc.

Today, it is nearly impossible to imagine just how dark a city could be at night in the 12th century.  The occasional window might emit light from a fireplace, or a brave pedestrian might carry a burning stick in order to see his way home, or he might prefer to grope his way in the darkness, hoping to elude the ever-present troublemakers working under the cover of darkness.  Guards were posted above the inner wall and between the inner and outer walls throughout the night, and the city's doors would have been firmly closed throughout the night.

I photographed these walls on the evening of May 10th.  As night fell, the electric lights were lit, often casting a decidedly orange hue over the walls, something nobody would have witnessed in the middle ages.  I felt sorry for all the tourists I saw throughout the day, sorry that, in their hurry to see far too many things, they had to move on before nightfall. 

I begin with a photo I took on the way home that evening.  As the weather reporters predicted, the sky became overcast, quite possibly filled with some of the fine dust of the volcanic eruption in Iceland as its contents drifted southwest.

But in the early evening, the western walls would be lit by the setting sun, with an occasional waning ray reflecting off a window to those of us standing far below in the old stone bridge commuting between the modern and medieval cities.

Walls which looked severely formidable in daylight, were transformed turned into magical towers and archways as darkness descended, pierced by electric lights.

It is difficult to see in the photos above that there were two walls, the lower outer wall, which offered the first line of defense, and the higher inner wall which was the final defense for the Cité's citizens and rulers.  But once you are walking between these two walls, you can start to imagine what it might have felt like to be a nightwatchman or night guard keeping lookout while others slept.


 On the more steep side of the hill, the distance between the outer and inner walls is less wide, yet it offers an excellent view of the valley and modern city below.

The space between the two walls and their respective towers is considerably wider on the higher eastern side, now offering a stone road and a lovely grassy area, perfect for leisurely strolls as evening falls.  You can hear the throbbing of the Cité's nightlife as sounds drift over the high inner wall from the inner street cafés.