Thursday, 26 July 2012

23. Wonder: Carcassonne

(For the Carcassonne preview, please click here.)

My first view of Carcassonne was from the road. The nine of us in our two-car convoy drove over the crest of a hill to give a sudden view of the lower town and surrounding countryside. Dominating the scene, on the hilltop above, was the irregular mass of peaks and walls that comprises the old city of Carcassonne. In my eleven months of Wonder hunting so far, I’ve realised that first impressions can count for a lot. Angkor Wat, though fabulous, never fully recovered from a slightly deflating first glimpse. The Taj Mahal, on the other hand, never looked back after a first “Wow” moment. That "Wow" moment is hugely important to a Wonder. It doesn’t have to happen instantly (although it’s nice when it does) but it should happen at some stage. The buzz in the car as we first viewed the tight sprawl of turrets and towers told me – if I didn’t already feel it myself – that this first impression was a Wow moment. Carcassonne looked amazing, and for a moment we were all back in time. And that time was the Middle Ages.

Technically authentic or not, to the modern tourist Carcassonne feels like the very epitome of medievalism. It has a castle, a church, loads of narrow cobbled streets, and is enclosed by two layers of turreted walls frequently punctuated with towers, which have narrow arrow-slit windows. It sits on a hill and is very imposing, it looks solid and suitably impervious to invaders, and inside has all the hustle and bustle the imagination conceives a medieval town to have - minus some smells and plus some American accents. Importantly, it is very charming. It avoids the Disney fairytale look (although it is often said the Disney fairytale look has been directly influenced by Carcassonne) by a rambling irregularity of design and its natural strength-over-beauty aesthetic. Walking the maze of streets and lanes is, despite the shops and bars and tourist hordes, appealing and atmospheric. In fact, for me, the shops and crowds actually contribute to the experience – Carcassonne is not a museum piece, it is a living, breathing town. Don’t for a moment think that in its medieval heyday Carcassonne wasn’t full of noise and shops selling tat. We’re not walking around the ruins of a dead civilisation, we’re wandering around and interacting with a town that has directly evolved from its medieval roots, enjoying a few battles, revolutions, and reconstructions along the way. Carcassonne has continually existed for over 2000 years. Just it now sells plastic swords instead of the real thing.

Medieval time capsule it may first appear, but one of the things about visiting Carcassonne is the realisation that it is almost as much a showcase of restoration as it is for its striking Middle Ages charm. Carcassonne is not authentic, not really. It is a town built upon a town built upon a town, then left to crumble before being rebuilt in a fanciful, somewhat romantic form. It is celebrated as a feudal medieval fortified town with pre-Roman origins, but most of what you see dates beyond that period, once the French crown had taken over and flexed their construction muscles. Much of the decorative features belong to the 19th Century, on the orders of restoration maestro Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. But as you stroll through the standard entrance of the Narbonne Gate (La Porte Narbonnaise), is authenticity the first thing on your mind? Hell no; it’s “Well, this is rather grand.”

Yes, Carcassonne is rather grand. Its walls are around eight metres high, and the outer wall has a circumference of around 1.5 kilometres, with eighteen towers scattered. Get through that with your invading army, and you meet something similar, an inner wall, this time with 29 towers. Fight your way through that, and you’re into the town, no doubt able to help yourself to some geese and some flagons of ale, but there’s still a castle to storm. It was more than any invaders were able to manage, by force at least. Fortunately these days the town is far more welcoming. The gates are open and Carcassonne can be wandered around for free. And if you’re willing to part with about €8, the gates to the castle will also open, and allow entry into the defensive core of Carcassonne.

Aside from smatterings of Roman construction in the inner wall, the majority of what see now see in Carcassonne dates from the late 13th and 14th Centuries, built by the French in defensive overdrive to stop the local Trencavel dynasty retaking what was once theirs. They were successful – upon driving out the local population in 1208, and capturing and killing Raymond-Roger Trencavel, viscount of Carcassonne, the French never lost their hold on the town, helped in great deal by the massive new layers of defence they built. The exception to all of this is the castle, which despite some later French additions and flourishes by Viollet-le-Duc, is what remains of the 11th and 12th Century Trencavel dynasty and the spiritual heart of Carcassonne.

The Trencavel dynasty, a local family who ruled for a couple of centuries, captures the essence of Carcassonne, if even the majority of the construction dates from after their time. Upon their defeat, the French turned Carcassonne into a garrison town, manned by soldiers, when Carcassonne was still a border town with the kingdom of the Aragon (now incorporated into Spain). Although it would still have had some kind of life, it would have been very military and regimented, and the picturesque ye olde towne scenes of squealing pigs being chased by impish children running through cobbled streets would likely not have occurred. But during the Trencavel era, squealing pigs, impish children, the slosh of wine in goblets, buxom wenches, and the clank of hot iron at the local blacksmiths would all have been part of daily life. Or so, at the very least, we’d like to think. This is what the modern Carcassonne tourist experience celebrates, this golden age of medievalism. The walls and towers may be too young to remember this lost age, and the more modern shops and bars inside certainly are, but at least the castle is authentic to the age.

Built around 1130, Carcassonne’s castle was a state-of-the-art creation, described as being undoubtedly the most modern in the Western world. In the dangerous world of 12th Century Europe, modern didn’t mean a slick door-entry system or sophisticated temperature control, it was all about defence. The Trencavel’s castle was built to last, and was built to stop others getting in. It pulled together all the best defensive qualities the discerning medieval gent could wish for, to create something mighty, something imposing, and something utterly deadly to invaders. The entrance had a double layer of portcullises (operated from different sides, to avoid treason), with an iron-bar door in between for good measure. To get there, you had to cross a bridge over a dry moat. The castle was built rectangular, with thick stone walls and numerous arrow-slit gaps for archers (these thin windows also avoided weakening the structure). The ten towers, up to 30 metres high, are built likewise, some with hoardings, an overhanging structure allowing the defender to shoot or drop rocks vertically down on the attacker. The overall design was to maximise exposure for invaders, even if they somehow got inside to the large, open central courtyard.

It was a simple water supply problem that enabled the crusaders to defeat the Trencavel dynasty – the defences themselves were never breached. It’s not a stretch to say that the subsequent construction by the French of the three kilometres of inner and outer wall were modelled very much on the castle architecture, creating an impregnable multi-layered fortress. The Trencavels and their supporters attempted two sieges in the 13th Century, but never managed to get their town back. Their own defensive ingenuity was, ironically, their downfall.

Our guide for the day was restorer-extraordinaire Viollet-le-Duc himself, back from the dead. Arriving on Bastille Day, Carcassonne’s busiest day of the year, it turned out the regular guided tours weren’t available. An audio tour therefore, hosted by Viollet-le-Duc, was what our nine-strong group opted for. It was a pretty intensive, sometimes exhausting, sometimes entertaining tour, but the choice of Viollet-le-Duc was a great one. In his own words, he was the “ideal guide”. He began the restoration works from 1844, and after an 1850 government decree to demolish the walls was overturned, threw himself wholeheartedly into a major restoration project, which continued on after his death. About 30% of Carcassonne today is his work, much of which are the more visible decorative elements. This includes the conical “witches hat” tops of towers, much criticised for being inauthentic. Certainly, he used his imagination during the recreation of Carcassonne, but during the tour he gave a rigorous – and sometimes hilarious – defence of himself. Yes, very much in the spirit of Carcassonne, Viollet-le-Duc spent a lot of the tour in defense and attack, defending himself and attacking his critics. The audio tour is eminently quotable, but among the group’s favourites were his long discourse on those that had discredited him before, in 1960, “history has proved me right, which was no surprise as my restorations were scientifically accurate”, and “Press the red button to hear about the one time I made a mistake”. I’m not sure what this 19th Century gentleman was really like, but on his tour he came across as wonderfully pompous, self-confident, and correct, very much like his pictures.

I wouldn’t unhesitatingly recommend the guided tour, as it is over-long, but if you skip out bits of the middle, especially all the sculpture stuff, and focus more on the stories of history, and appreciate Viollet-le-Duc’s own puffed-out chest-beating, there’s quite a lot to enjoy. But simply walking around the castle, free of a constant voice in your ear, is enjoyable too.

As I say, our main visit to Carcassonne was on Bastille Day, and this meant crowds in all their unsubtle glory. It also meant that, sadly, certain sections of Carcassonne were closed off due to preparations for the evening’s celebrations, mostly notably much of the inner wall. We’d visited late in the previous day too, enjoying a wander in light crowds, and a fine meal on the upper floor of a restaurant, with a good view of a small square below. Although the visit to the castle is interesting, and an essential part of the Carcassonne experience, I would have to say that Carcassonne is at its best when simply wandering around. Despite being the height of tourist season, that previous evening and even the morning of Bastille Day, the crowds were entirely tolerable, and didn’t impact on my enjoyment of Carcassonne at all. I rather enjoyed the bustle – although I would like to return during off-season one day, to enjoy the atmosphere of a much calmer town.  However, even during tourist season, step off the main thoroughfares and you could find yourself on quiet or empty streets.

As the morning turned to afternoon though, Carcassonne on Bastille Day began to get very busy. Unless you like crowds at the level of a music festival, crammed into small medieval streets, I would urge you to stay clear of Carcassonne on Bastille Day. There was no room to move, and the experience became distinctly unpleasant. Queues for toilets became rather large, sending Danielle spinning off into a five hour rant. I wondered why anyone would ever choose to visit on such a day, taking a long hard look at myself in the process. But there is an answer to this question, and that answer is the main advantage of visiting Carcassonne on Bastille Day: Fireworks.

Carcassonne has become famous in France for its annual Bastille Day fireworks display. I’d read about it during my researching, but French Claire and her family had also keenly expressed that it was a good time to visit. They were right. Some others had also reckoned similarly.

These were the crowds that began amassing from about noon – the fireworks began at 10.30pm. Our group was lucky that early on we secured a good spot just across the river, with a good view of the old city, and took it in turns to guard it while others went for a wander. There were a few grumbles that no fireworks could justify ten hours of waiting, but these grumbles were soon silenced when the fireworks began.

(French Claire)
Photos or video footage can only hint at the half-hour spectacle, but I can assuredly say that this was the best fireworks display I have ever seen. The group agreed with me. It began, after a few booms and bursts, with the lingering effect of Carcassonne burning, some slow fireworks giving the effect of fire. It was an eerie sight, lasting minutes. It was followed by an absolutely epic series of explosions, that just seemed to get bigger and better, or just plain cute, such as heart-shaped explosions, and smiley faces. Towards the end, the deep booms seemed to go right through us, and the lights filled the sky, and we were laughing in a state of astonished delirium, before our minds were scrambled by a five-minute finale of improbable proportions. Visiting on Bastille Day might mean crowds, it might mean parts of the city are closed off, and much of the city is closed or closes early, but when you see the fireworks it all becomes worth it.

Leaving Carcassonne however to return to the campsite... wow. For one hour, we made no progress whatsoever in our cars. Most drivers had simply given up, and turned their engines off. But a gamble with the sat-nav on Claire’s car saw us take a strange road, which led into the depths of countryside vineyards, on dusty single-landed dirt-tracks. I don’t know how these tracks were on the sat-nav system, and following in the second car we all thought those in the lead car had taken leave of their senses. But after ten minutes of the weirdest, most unlikely route I’ve ever taken we found ourselves back on the main road, close to our campsite, and going in the other direction from a neverending queue of stationary vehicles. Put simply, if you visit Carcassone on Bastille Day, do not drive. Do not intend leaving the city that night. Have accommodation booked well in advance and walk back there, and save yourself many hours of frustration. Or take a gamble with the tiny backroads and drive though some vineyards.

Visiting any Wonder, it is always good to see it at its best. Visiting Carcassonne on Bastille Day saw it at both its best and worst. The crowds became pretty ghastly, but I’m very glad to have been able to witness the fortified city on the hill above as it was lit up with a crescendo of lights. Even without this display, Carcassonne is a pleasure to behold from a distance. It spreads itself across the hillside, a compact bundle of towers and walls, and looks suitable evocative as a medieval fortress. Inside, the impression is a more intimate one, and it’s very easy to imagine medieval life taking place in the cobbled lanes and winding streets. Sure, the whole thing has been heavily restored, but the restoration is now an intrinsic part of Carcassonne – celebrated by UNESCO, no less – and likely no such thing as the “real” Carcassonne ever existed. It’s very difficult to know – twice in the town’s history, the archives have been lost to fire. Piecing together Carcassonne’s history is a mixture of detective work and a jigsaw puzzle, one begun in the 19th Century by Viollet-le-Duc.

You can give all this serious thought, or you can simply stroll around and take in the atmosphere. Carcassonne may have lots of fairly tacky tourist shops, but it also has lots of pleasant outdoor bars and cafes, that are lovely to spend some time in with a glass of wine. Go off-season and remove the crowds, and it is an awfully charming way to spend a day.

But my judgement ultimately is not on Carcassonne as a tourist experience, it is as about its grandeur, its Wow factor, and its status as a World Wonder. And although its medieval history is a key part of its story, with its golden age rooted in the Trencavel dynasty and the Cathar heretics associated, I’m not judging it on what was once there, I’m judging it on what I can see now. And what I see now, except for the castle, is the subsequent French layers of fortifications, and the 19th Century restorations, all given a modern tourist twist to evoke the Trencavel dynasty. And – it works. The overall area of Carcassonne is a little over 30 acres, which is about the size of three bases of the Great Pyramid. For a town, this is pretty small and compact, which is reflected in the cosy maze of streets. But for a single entity, this is pretty big, and although Carcassonne is a hodge-podge of constructions and eras, it all comes together as a single experience. Grand and imposing on the outside, cosy and intimate on the inside. It’s a sprawling but compact entity, and a restored celebration of a medieval world that still lives on, in some form, in streets that have simply swapped their commerce from trade to tourism. I am, in a word, impressed.

Some criteria then.

Size: Big from the outside, cosy on the inside. Carcassonne sprawls across the hillside, and looks very imposing, especially when approaching the main entrance of the Narbonne Gate. But once inside, you disappear into a medieval world of narrow streets and small shops, and the grandeur only returns when you reach some of Carcassone’s set-pieces, the basilica, the castle, or the huge walls and towers.
Engineering: In its day, the castle was state-of-the-art, and a defensive powerhouse. The walls and towers that followed were likewise. Carcassonne was designed to be solid, and the quality of construction ensured it was never compromised. However, it never pushed the limits of engineering and construction knowhow. 
Artistry: Finesse was never the objective of Carcassonne, it was always about size, sprawl, and strength. Much of the fine details have also been lost over the years. Nonetheless, the basilica especially is an attractive Romanesque-Gothic edifice.
Age/Gravitas: With over 2500 years of history, and Roman walls from over 1500 years ago, and the main bulk of what we visit today being at least 600 years old, there is no doubt Carcassonne is old. A walk about the streets instantly evokes a different age. Even the 19th Century restorations, while not entirely authentic, are sympathetic enough to not seem anachronistic.
Fame/Iconicity: It’s the most visited attraction in the south of France, with a massive three million visitors a year, a significant percentage who visit on Bastille Day. It has a board game named after it. But it doesn’t have a great deal of global recognition. Famous in France, but not really elsewhere.
Context: Its position on a hill greatly adds to its sense of dominating its surroundings. But Carcassonne is such a size and sprawl that it makes its own context.
Back Story: Carcassonne doesn’t seem to have played a significant role in history, being more a bit part on a greater stage. But having so much history, it has gathered plenty of tales, with the Trencavel dynasty and the Cathars, and Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration the two mostly associated. If not for the destruction of the archives, it would surely have many more,
Originality: A terrific example of a medieval fortified town, but hardly unique in its execution.
Wow Moment: It packs in a few. On first sight, from a distance, it looks tremendous, and then the size of the Narbonne Gate towers impress upon entry. Wandering about the small streets is also very appealing. And if you're lucky enough to visit on Bastille Day and witness the fireworks then, indeed, Wow.

If I was to return to Carcassonne, I’d definitely time my visit for the off-season, and arrange to stay in a hotel within the old city. At night, I’d take a little walk down quiet cobbled lanes. The peak-time crowds definitely get in the way: I don’t judge Carcassonne on this – it is just a by-product of its popularity – but I know I would get a great deal of enjoyment walking these same streets in peace and quiet. But it is a testimony to Carcassonne that, except for peak time, it is able to soak up the crowds, and testament to much I enjoyed it that I actively hope to revisit in the not-too-distant future. Because although it may not be to everyone’s taste, with the crowds, the shops, the tourism, and the po-faced turning up of the nose about the inauthenticity, Carcassonne is very much to my taste. It is grand. It looks great. It is an unmistakeable landmark. My expectations had been fairly low, to be honest, before visiting, as I’ve seen a lot of city walls in my time, and plenty of towers, and wasn’t sure how Carcassonne would rise above these to give it a Wonder status. But it does. It is large but not without form, and compact enough to be a single experience. Sure, the Bastille Day crowds might be a bit much, but I love how it continues to be a living, breathing town (around 100 people still live there) and not just a museum to itself. Carcassonne is refreshingly unpretentious, as anywhere that sells plastic swords must be. It’s fun. And I rate it very highly, in the top  seven of  the 23 Wonders I’ve seen to date, just a little behind Borobudur but certainly ahead of Kailash Temple in Ellora.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Angkor Wat
4. Sydney Opera House
5. Borobudur
6. Carcassonne
7. Kailash Temple in Ellora

Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Forbidden City
Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Shwedagon Pagoda
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces

Interesting Places
Ananda Temple in Bagan
Marina Bay Sands
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

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