Carcassonne – France And The Netherlands

When I say the town, I mean the towns; there being two at Carcassonne, perfectly distinct, and each with excellent claims to the title. They have settled the matter between them, however, and the elder, the shrine of pilgrimage, to which the other is but a stepping-stone, or even, as I may say, a humble doormat, takes the name of the Cite.

You see nothing of the Cite from the station; it is masked by the agglomeration of the “villebasse,” which is relatively (but only relatively) new. A wonderful avenue of acacias leads to it from the station-leads past it, rather, and con-ducts you to a little high-backed bridge over the Aude, beyond which, detached and erect, a distinct medieval silhouette, the cite presents itself. Like a rival shop, on the invidious side of a street, it has “no connection” with the establishment across the way, altho the two places are united (if old Carcassonne may be said to be united to anything) by a vague little rustic faubourg. Perched on its solid pedestal, the perfect detachment of the Cite is what first strikes you.

To take leave, without delay, of the “ville-basse,” I may say that the splendid acacias I have mentioned flung a summerish dusk over the place, in which a few scattered remains of stout walls and big bastions looked venerable and picturesque. A little boulevard winds around the town, planted with trees and garnished with more benches than I ever saw provided by a soft-hearted municipality. This precinct had a warm, lazy, dusty, southern look, as if the people sat out-of-doors a great deal, and wandered about in the stillness of summer nights. The figure of the elder town, at these hours, must be ghostly enough on its neigh-boring hill.

Even by day it has the air of a vignette of Gustave Dore, a couplet of Victor Hugo. It is almost too perfect—as if it were an enormous model, placed on a big green table at a museum. A steep, paved way, grass-grown like all roads where vehicles never pass, stretches up to it in the sun. It has a double enceinte, complete outer walls and complete inner (these, elaborately fortified, are the more curious) ; and this congregation of ram-parts, towers, bastions, battlements, barbicans, is as fantastic and romantic as you please. The approach I mention here leads to the gate that looks toward Toulouse—the Porte de l’Aude. There is a second, on the other side, called, I believe, Porte Narbonnaise, a magnificent gate, flanked with towers thick and tall, defended by elaborate out-works; and these two apertures alone admit you to the place—putting aside a small sally-port, protected by a great bastion, on the quarter that looks toward the Pyrenees. .

I should lose no time in saying that restoration is the great mark of the Cite. M. Viollet-le-Due has worked his will upon it, put it into perfect order, revived the frtifications in every detail. I do not pretend to judge the performance, carried out on a scale and in a spirit which really impose themselves on the imagination. Few architects have had such a chance, and M. Viollet-le-Due must have been the envy of the whole restoring fraternity. The image of a more crumbling Carcassonne rises in the mind, and there is no doubt that forty years ago the place was more affecting. On the other hand, as we see it to-day, it is a wonderful evocation; and if there is a great deal of new in the old, there is plenty of old in the new. The repaired crenellations, the inserted patches, of the walls of the outer circle sufficiently express this commixture.

Carcassonne dates from the Roman occupation of Gaul. The place commanded one of the great roads into Spain, and in the fourth century Romans and Franks ousted each other from such a point of vantage. In the year 436, Theodoric, Sing of the Visigoths, superseded both these par-ties; and it is during his occupation that the inner enceinte was raised upon the ruins of the Roman fortifications. Most of the Visigoth towers that are still erect are seated upon Roman substructions which appear to have been formed hastily, probably at the moment of the Frankish invasion. The authors of these solid defenses, tho occasionally disturbed, held Carcassonne and the neighboring country, in which they had established their kingdom of Septimania, till the year 713, when they were expelled by the Moors of Spain, who ushered in an unillumined period of four centuries, of which no traces remain.

These facts I derived from a source no more recondite than a pamphlet by M. Viollet-le-Duea very luminous description of the fortifications, which you may buy from the accomplished custodian. The writer makes a jump to the year 1209, when Carcassonne, then forming part of the realm of the viscounts of Beziers and infected by the Albigensian heresy, was besieged, in the name of the Pope, by the terrible Simon de Montfort and his army of crusaders. Simon was accustomed to success, and the town succumbed in the course of a fortnight. Thirty-one years later, having passed into the hands of the King of France, it was again besieged by the young Raymond de Trincavel, the last of the viscounts of Beziers; and of this siege M Viollet-le-Duo gives a long and minute account, which the visitor who has a head for such things may follow, with the brochure in hand, on the fortifications themselves.

The young Raymond de Trineavel, baffled and repulsed, retired at the end of twenty-four days. Saint Louis and Philip the Bold, in the thirteenth century, multiplied the defenses of Carcassonne, which was one of the bulwarks of their kingdom on the Spanish quarter; and from this time forth, being regarded as impregnable, the place had nothing to fear. It was not even attacked; and when, in 1355, Edward the Black Prince marched into it, the inhabitants had opened the gates to the conqueror before whom all Languedoc was prostrate. I am not one of those who, as I said just now, have a head for such things, and having extracted these few facts had made all the use of M. Violletle-Duo’s pamphlet of which I was capable.

My obliging friend the “mad lover” [of la Cite] handed me over to the doorkeeper of the citadel. I should add that I was at first committed to the wife of this functionary, a stout peas-ant woman, who conducted me to a postern door and ushered me into the presence of her husband.

This brilliant, this suggestive warden of Carcassonne marched us about for an hour, haranguing, explaining, illustrating, as he went; it was a complete little lecture, such as might have been delivered at the Lowell Institute, on the manner in which a first-rate “place forte” used to be attacked and defended. Our peregrinations made it very clear that Carcassonne was impregnable; it is impossible to imagine, without having seen them, such refinements of immurement, such ingenuities of resistance. We passed along the battlements and “chemins de ronde,” ascended and descended towers, crawled under arches, peered out of loopbbles, lowered ourselves into dungeons, halted in all sous of tight places, while the purpose of something or other was described to us.

It was very curious, very interesting; above all, it was very pictorial, and involved perpetual peeps into the little crooked, crumbling, sunny, grassy, empty cite. In places, as you stand upon it, the great towered and embattled enceinte produces an illusion; it looks as if it were still equipped and defended. One vivid challenge, at any rate, it flings down before you; it calls upon you to make up your mind on the matter of restoration. For myself, I have no hesitation; I prefer in every case the ruined, however ruined, to the reconstructed, however splendid. What is left is more precious than what is added ; the one is history, the other is fiction; and I like the former the better of the two —it is so much more romantic. One is positive, so far as it goes; the other fills up the void with things more dead than the void itself, inasmuch as they have never had life. After that I am free to say that the restoration of Carcassonne is a splendid achievement. The little custodian dismissed us at last, after having, as usual, inducted us into the inevitable repository of photographs.

After leaving it and passing out of the two circles of walls, I treated myself, in the most infatuated manner, to another walk round the Cite. It is certainly this general impression that is most striking—the impression from outside, where the whole place detaches itself at once from the landscape. In the warm southern dusk it looked more than ever like a city in a fairy-tale. To make the thing perfect, a white young moon, in its first quarter, came out and hung just over the dark silhouette. It was hard to come away—to incommode one’s self for anything so vulgar as a railway train; I would gladly have spent the evening in revolving round the walls of Carcassonne.