The main reason for any visit to Carcassonne is to see La Cité, a huge fortified city, high on a hill overlooking the main town and the canal du midi. I’ve been there many times and I never get tired of strolling around the cobbled lanes and the lises (the wide area between the inner and outer walls).
La Cité began life as a Celtic settlement which was then fortified by the Romans. In the 11th Century, Raymond Bernard Trencavel took possession of the site and built the Chateau du Comtal and the Cathedral of Saint Nazaire. He also allowed the Cathar community to seek shelter there during times of persecution. In the 13th Century, Simon du Montfort initially took control of the city and added more fortifications but when King Louis IX replaced him, he built a new city beside the river below, what is now known as the Basse Ville.
During Napoleonic rule, Carcassonne was struck from the list of official fortifications and La Cité fell into disrepair and a decision was made to demolish it. Luckily, the locals led a campaign to preserve the fortress as a historical monument and in 1853 the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was commissioned to oversee the restoration. After his death in 1879, other architects were able to continue his work, following the numerous notes and drawings that he left behind.
The restoration was strongly criticised during Viollet-le-Duc’s lifetime. He made the error of using slates and restoring the roofs as pointed cones, where local practice was traditionally of tile roofing and low slopes, in a snow-free environment. However, whilst Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration of Carcassonne may not be authentic, it is agreed to be the work of a genius.
In the summer, La Cité is crowded with tourists, squeezing between the overpriced guide books and postcards displayed outside the many souvenir shops and listening to their audio guides as they visit the Chateau du Comtal. Place Marcou is packed with tables, and waiters run back and forth between them and the many restaurants which line the little square.
In winter La Cité is deserted and I see only a dozen people, two of them jogging around the lises. The shops are all closed up, except for a few near to the main entrance gate, and only a few restaurants are open for business. I arrive during lunchtime and, while I wait for Saint Nazaire to reopen, I decide to warm up with a steaming bowl of cassoulet. Several types are on offer but I choose the traditional one, which is also the cheapest. There are some arguments as to where cassoulet originates from but generally, it is agreed that there are varying recipes from the three places along the canal du midi; Carcassonne, Castelnaudry and Toulouse.
Chef Prosper Montagne is quoted as saying “Cassoulet is the God of Occitane cuisine. A God of three people: The Father is the cassoulet of Castelnaudry; The Son is that of Carcassonne; and The Holy Spirit is that of Toulouse.”
My cassoulet is very nice and the restaurant is atmospheric with small windows overlooking the chateau and dark wooden beams. However, I am serenaded by the most awful muzak. Given that the restaurant is named L’Ostal des Troubadours, I would have thought some medieval tunes may have been more appropriate.