Thursday, 18 October 2012

Varwell Corner: Carcassonne

In a change from the usual guest appearance from the ever-delightful Burness, we have a new guest appearance, this time from another former travel companion, Varwell  - or just "Simon" to those who prefer using first names. Simon travelled with me during the second half of 2001, through Eastern Europe and some of the Middle East, and without me has travelled round the globe for a variety of causes and motives. Most notable among these, his love-hate relationship with the mullet hairstyle has seen him travel the globe in search of places called "Mullet", which has seen one book published and another on the way. These days he is becoming increasingly preoccupied with trains and Esperanto, as lovingly chronicled in his mammoth blog.

In July, with a group of us, Simon fully visited two Wonders with me, Carcassonne and the Millau Viaduct. In today's Varwell Corner, we see his views on Carcassonne, both from his blog and in a short interview.

Lost Horizons

[Carcassonne] has since Roman times been used, occupied, inhabited, attacked, defended and, later in time, slowly abandoned and left to ruin.

Then in the 1800s it was rescued from a state of neglect and an uncertain future by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, a French architect who had the vision and determination to restore many of France’s historic wonders. His fingerprints are on a great many notable landmarks across his native land, and Carcassonne is one of his crowning glories.

First impressions of Carcassonne as you drive towards it are good, and you instantly learn something about the importance, and perhaps success, of its location in that it creates a seemingly impregnable fortress viewable from miles around.  It sticks out for some distance and is a remarkable sight. It catches the eye and makes you decide it’s well worth a visit.

As you arrive, though, you discover that many thousands of others have also made the same decision.  And here I must confess to a real struggle. Because Carcassonne was groaning with tourists, I found it hard to stop my exasperation and disappointment at the crowds from clouding my judgement of the city itself.

It’s not the old city’s fault, of course, that it is a hugely popular tourist attraction, nor was it any choice of Carcassonne that I was visiting on Bastille Day, perhaps its busiest day of the year.

And as Niall persuasively argues, it doesn’t matter if the crowds are there: they have always been a part of its story.  Carcassonne has never been a museum piece (except perhaps in its period of abandonment, a state not to be recommended for somewhere like this).

Throughout its history it has been lived in, defended, attacked and treated as a home, a place of work, study and worship.  Just like in the past, many people today scour its cute lanes, intriguing shops, tasty restaurants and ornate buildings and churches.  Why I should greedily demand the city all to myself today, when I probably couldn’t have been alone there at any point in its history?

I did my best to close my eyes to the crowds and focus on the city itself, and I’m glad I tried because it is a truly spectacular place. The first thing to say is that with its wide ramparts, high walls, tall turrets and myriad streets, Carcassonne is built almost like a textbook, fairytale castle. Viollet-le-Duc did, it was alleged, take a few liberties with his modifications and rennovations, but if his work could be claimed to be a little tasteless or contrary to original styles in places, he’s probably far less guilty of such crimes than the waves of governments and authorities over the centuries who less sensitively stamped their marks on the city.

In fact, Carcassonne is claimed to be one of the inspirations for the look of Disneyland, and if you imagine away the tourists you could almost pretend you’re in a real-life game of Assassin’s Creed.

I was glad to spend nearly a whole day in the old city. I walked as much of the walls as I could (much was closed off due to the forthcoming fireworks), explored various shops, admired the views inward and outward from key vantage points, took in the lovely basillica, ate in one or two great establishments, and undertook the extensive and informative audio tour.

It’s clear to the casual visitor that Carcassonne is a wonderful place, and surely a national wonder.  It’s beautiful, you can spend hours there wandering its nooks and crannies, it has centuries of history lurking under its surface, and the crowds – while detracting from it a little – are ultimately a testament to its fame and allure.

It’s a place to return to, perhaps at a quieter time of year, and I am not at all surprised that it sits – for the time being – just outside Niall’s top seven.


Had you heard of Carcassonne before the holiday?

I don't think so.  It was probably one of those names that would have rung a bell upon hearing it, but I don't remember that particular bell ringing very often.

What were your expectations?

Quite high.  Your preview was enticing, as the pictures made it look like most people's idea of a textbook fairytale-style walled city.  So I was expecting something that conceptually is quite predictable but at the same time inevitably beautiful and interesting.

What was your first impression?

Assassin's Creed, with tourists.

What did you like most about Carcassonne?

Its completeness, I think.  There's something rather nice about a city where there are coherent boundaries, and where its expanse through time and space can thus be contained and examined without blurring into other stories - as would be the case with a more conventional world-famous city centre.  The buildings were lovely, the audio tour was interesting, and the streets and layout were wonderfully mazy and you could imagine getting easily lost but in a good way.  The setting, a hilltop visible for miles around, was also stunning.

What didn't you like about Carcassonne?

I'm tempted to say the tourists and the consequences of them on crowds, prices and atmosphere.  However, that's not something that's inherent in the wonder - and in any case the crowds were mainly a consequence of the famous Bastille Day fireworks, themselves of course not an integral part of the city itself.  The only other grounds for criticism would be the nineteenth century modifications made as part of its restoration because I understand they were criticised for being inauthentic - but then throughout its history it had been modified and expanded by various rulers, so actually the work done by Le-Duc was therefore quite in keeping with that continual process of change.  Those two invalid criticisms aside, then, there's really nothing about the city I disliked.

Would you regard Carcassonne as a World Wonder?

Yes, and while it doesn't seem to be top 7 material in the light of your other reviews and the few other candidates I have been to over the years, I'd put it in a solid just-above-mid-table position.  If this was football, Carcassonne's probably a safe bet for a Europa League spot.

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