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A castle hard to crack

The fortress city of Carcassonne in southern France withstood enemy assaults for centuries. Happily, the doors are open to tourists

Published on January 19, 2008



A castle hard to crack

Fortress in the city of Carcassonne gives visitors the mediaeval atmosphere.

Standing in front of the great wall of Carcassonne is akin to being on the set of a Hollywood sword-and-shield epic like "Troy". You can almost picture the massed army in position for an assault.

My imagination gets to the point where the order to fire is heard and thousands of flaming arrows fill the air and catapults launch their hefty shells - when my tour guide, Elsa, reads my mind.

"There were no flaming arrows in the battles of the Middle Ages. What you see in the movies is just spice added to make the stories fancier."

I'm flabbergasted, but she's rational.

In mediaeval Europe, Elsa explains, the oil produced - mostly olive oil - was needed to maintain fires and preserve food. No one was going to waste it by turning an already lethal arrow into a flaming torch.

"People in the Middle Ages made good use of everything," Elsa says. "It's modern technology that has made people careless and wasteful."

More than 2,000 years old, Carcassonne is a fortified city flanked by Toulouse and Narbonne. It remained independent of France until the early 11th century, and since 1997 has been on Unesco's World Heritage list.

Its defences made Carcassonne famous in its own time. The Romans began the process by fortifying a hilltop, and the settlement became known as Carcasum. The Visigoth king Theodoric II built new battlements and held off a Frankish invasion, but somehow the Spanish Saracens found their way through the ramparts in 725.

Viscount Raimond Bernard Trencavel became the ruler of Carcassonne in 1067 when he married the sister of its last count, and subsequent political alliances with Barcelona and Toulouse saw the Chateau Comtal and Basilica of Saint-Nazaire built. In 1096 Pope Urban II blessed the foundation stones of the new cathedral, a Catholic bastion against the Cathar heretics.

It was these upstarts, however, who brought down upon Carcassonne the scourge of the Albigensian Crusades, which will be familiar to fans of "The Da Vinci Code".

In 1209, Simon de Montfort and his crusading army forced its citizens to surrender. Montfort became the new viscount and added to the fortifications, repelling a Trencavel descendant's bid to reconquer the city in 1240.

Finally in 1247, Carcassonne submitted to the rule of King Louis IX of France. He and his successor, Philip III, built the outer ramparts, and the city did prove impregnable during the Hundred Years' War when Edward the Black Prince was spurned.

By then there was a deep moat and two gigantic walls with 53 towers, and inside them the barbican, a crenellated wall with hoarding on top.

By the mid-17th century Carcassonne's military significance had ebbed, however, and it became instead an important hub for the woollen textile industry.

If the city withstood numerous enemy assaults, today's tourists face no such obstacles. The castle now houses a museum filled with statuary, sarcophagi and stone crosses collected from the surrounding area, most still in good condition.

A permanent exhibition describes how architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc restored the city in the mid-19th century.

The streets of the city preserve something of the mediaeval atmosphere, with venerable houses and shops making a stroll quite romantic.

There are few choices in terms of souvenirs. Most are plastic weapons - axes, swords, bows and arrows - and all are expensive. Expect to pay 15 euros (Bt665) for a trinket you could buy in Bangkok for Bt15.

The Basilica of Saint Nazaire, a mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture and a national monument, was Carcassonne's cathedral until 1801. The highlight is the colourful stained glass windows, which Elsa calls the most beautiful and complete set in Europe.

My trip to Carcassonne taught me two lessons.

First, the best defence in those days was to stay in your well-protected capital and let the invader come knocking on the door. Compare that to the modern defensive tactic of sending troops to the border - or simply firing a rocket at your enemy.

The second lesson: Don't believe Hollywood war films.

Watchara Saengsrisin

The Nation

Toulouse, France

The writer travelled in Toulouse as a guest of Thai AirAsia.


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