Need to buy a replica medieval helmet and sword? Fancy flouncing around in costume like a Kate Mosse character? All this can be done whilst visiting the fortified city of Carcassonne, a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s up there at number 20 of France’s most visited sites.
In summer, the main town has a vibrant feel, with plenty of outdoor cafes and a stream of tourists eating ice cream as they wander to and from the fortifications of la cité. Boats will cruise you along the Canal du Midi and I once spent a couple of wonderful days cycling in both directions along the towpath – very bruised from bumping over the tree roots, but happy.
Now, on a Sunday in April, I zigzagged to avoid the dogsh*t as I walked through the shuttered town, and wondered why I’d come back. The town was dead, but did I really want to join the throngs of visitors up in the fortress?
Of course I did. From the Pont Vieux over the River Aude, the outer ring of the concentric fortifications looms up ahead on the opposite bank. There’s little indication that a portion of the 360,000 or so annual tourists are swarming around inside.
As I ducked past the costumed soldier at the Porte Narbonnaise, the atmosphere became transformed from dead Sunday to Disney wonderland. Here almost everything was open, with shops selling souvenirs, jewellery, Marseille soap, furs, and more jewellery. Like many must-sees, Carcassonne is a casualty of what it offers in terms of impressive heritage. These fortifications date right back to the Roman occupation, and fans of Kate Mosse novels will know that the cité has an ominous history as a home of the persecuted Cathars, who were nevertheless expelled from there in the early 13th century. Perhaps some visitors are particularly drawn by whatever lies at the end of the ominous signs that point the way to les tortures.
Of more interest to me was a poster proclaiming that Carcassonne is the only town in Languedoc-Rousillon where Occitan is taught from Primary right through to High School. The term Occitan, or the langue d’oc, came into being in the 14th century to differentiate between the languages spoken in the south and the north of France. The langue d’oc, spoken where oc was the word for yes, is a legacy of the region’s proximity to Spain and Italy.
As a linguist, I view Occitan as an umbrella term, rather than a clearly defined, individual language. There are a number of related varieties within southern France, such as Languedocien and Gascon, all with the same Latin root, and all with few contemporary speakers. As I noted in my book, over 90% of the Ariège population in 1864 were speakers of Gascon, rather than French, yet hardly anyone can speak it there now.
But here in Carcassonne, pupils can choose from an entire curriculum in Occitan. And it’s about more than just maintaining the language of their ancestors. The similarities of Occitan to Catalan, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese mean that it’s a bridge to learning those other languages.
So, with all the crowds and consumerism, is Carcassonne worth a visit? It’s true that the narrow inner streets are crammed with people, but few seem to venture the short distance to the outer ramparts, where you gain a true perspective of the size of these fortifications. From here there’s also a view that stretches across the terracotta rooftops of Carcassonne, and, if you’re lucky, a close-up of a banking Ryanair plane as it prepares to land.
Similarly, if you can pull yourself away from the busy Place Marcon, there are quiet squares where few venture, such as the Place St Jean, with its view across the ramparts. And as the darkness descends, so does the magic; the floodlit ramparts have an eerie quality, and there are restaurants on the side streets that’ll transport you from Disneyland back into gourmet France.
Best of all, responsible dog owners are greeted with free bags on arrival at the fortress. That means clean pavements.