France – Carcassonne

We had been wandering for a couple of days over the terrible roads which lie around Arles and Beziers, and now, as evening was drawing in, on crossing a band of low hills we saw before us a broad valley, and rising from it, ” A City of Enchantment built by Fairy Kings! ” Purple it was, just then, but I found later that these walls and turrets are as variable as the sky itself. Indeed, one of the greatest charms of Carcassonne is its extraordinary diversity of colour. Some-times, in the morning, it would gleam pale as an opal against the turquoise sky. An hour later, climbing the hill toward it, the fortifications would flash down upon us as though cast in bronze. And in the evening — ah! in the evening, when the last dahlia tints are dying in the west, and all the glow of the sunset seems to have culminated in this old citadel of the Visigoths, then indeed Carcassonne appears like the Holy City itself, with walls of jaspar and every gate a pearl.

We stopped in the lower town, which has replaced the ancient faubourg, at the Hotel Bonnet, a charming inn with baths, and delightful bedchambers with little tiled dressing-rooms, and great dark cupboards where we were able to change our camera plates. Monsieur Bonnet, or he who passed for such, for no doubt the original Bonnet has long since made his fortune and retired, was a young man with a pale face and a black beard. Nothing could exceed the politeness of Monsieur Bonnet, he was never tired of bowing to me. If I came in a dozen times in the morning there he was, ready with his little reverences, which he kept up till I passed out of sight at the bend of the staircase. Madame Bonnet, too! How she enjoyed helping me fasten my dress. It was so ” chic.” My scarf, my brooch, even my hair, all were ravissant to Madame Bonnet. I think there must have been a little Bonnet somewhere, but I never saw it. I heard a suggestive squeal once or twice, but it was instantly and discreetly suppressed.

But we did not see much of the Hotel Bonnet. All our time we spent trying to fix in our memory the elusive marvels of La Cite. Across the bridge and up the hill we would go to lose ourselves among the labyrinth of walls and towers, till at length we arrived in front of the old castle, on the spot where once grew the great Elm Tree beneath which the Seigneurs of old used to hold Their councils.

The fortress itself is now used as a barrack; we cannot enter and see the rooms where Roger Trencavel, Vicomte de Beziers, lived with his young wife Agnes de Montpellier. From these high towers he looked down on the gathering hosts of the enemy brought against him by Simon de Montfort. Over the hills he could see them coming, the long lines of soldiers, still mad with the blood they had tasted at Beziers. They crowded like wolves round the doomed city, and within, the Viscount watched and waited, fearing what the end must be, for he knew that the water supply was insufficient for the vast crowd of fugitives who had gathered for protection within his walls. Yet even after his uncle and suzerain, the Count of Toulouse, and his brother-in-law, the King of Aragon, had joined the enemy, he still fought on.

As we walk round these mighty walls that guard the town we can almost see the scene ourselves. The great camp of the enemy lying out in the valley, where in the centre are the pavilions of Raoul, and Pierre de Castelnau. Here, stalking close under the wall, is the gigantic form of Simon de Montfort, High Baron of the North, who, it is well known, will become Lord of Carcassonne when once its lawful master is dispossessed. Everywhere are the soldiers of the Duke of Burgundy, the Count of Nevers, and the other lords.

La Cite itself is full of fugitives. From behind the walls they listen with terrified faces to the noise of the catapults, the cries of the besiegers, as the boiling oil and stones fall upon them, the shouts of the archers in the great towers when, through the loopholes, they see that their arrows have struck down some specially obnoxious chief. And all the while Roger Trencavel, lord of the city, hastens from post to post, commanding, directing, encouraging, entreating, never daring to take a moment’s rest. Once to the gate, preceded by a white flag, came his wife’s brother, Peter of Aragon, bearing an offer to raise the siege. But the terms offered were so impossible that they were refused without an instant’s hesitation, and Carcassonne held out a few days longer.

It is said that a subterranean passage led from the foot of one of the towers to the River Aude, and that by this means a little water was brought to the thirsty inhabitants. Then one day another message came to Roger. Would he come out and discuss terms? They gave their word of honour that he should be safe, they even sent the Count of Nevers to fetch him. So, thinking no evil, he delivered himself over to the enemy.

Loaded with chains, he was cast into one of the darkest of his own dungeons, and there mysteriously perished, some say of dysentery, others that he was poisoned. But he had saved his people. When the enemy entered the town they found it still and empty. Not a soul was to be seen. Everyone had vanished as by magic, escaping by that subterranean passage the Seigneur himself had told them to use as a last resource.

That is the story of Carcassonne, the story we dream about as we study its fortifications, Visigoth, Frankish, or Viollet-le-Duc. The guardian, as he shows us round, will tell us of the first Count, Oliba, and of Raymond, who married Garsinde, Vicomtesse de Beziers, thus bringing the two towns under one lordship. He will point to one of the great towers and relate how, in Saracen days, when Charlemagne was besieging the city, and finding himself powerless against those great inner walls, God Himself showed His might, causing this tower to bow before the Christian king, so that he was able to enter by the breach and dispossess the Infidels.

You will be shown, too, the bust of that fabulous lady, Dame Carcas, after whom, according to the people of Carcassonne, the city is named. You will notice how the towers of the great entrance, the Porte Narbonnaise, the chef-d’oeuvre of the military architecture of the Middle Ages, are not circular, but shaped like the prow of a ship, thus rendering them almost invulnerable to the attack of the war engines of the period.

You will wander through the picturesque streets and stand looking down the ancient well. Then you will visit the wonderful Church of Saint-Nazaire, Le joyau. de la cite as it is justly called, and in a side chapel will be shown the Pierre du Siege, supposed by Viollet-le-Duc to be the original tomb of Simon de Montfort, who was brought here, by his son, in 1218 to be buried.

But all the time you will be thinking about Roger Trencavel, and of what happened to his wife, Agnes of Montpellier, and his children. Probably the guide will not know. He has been filled to the brim with architectural details, which come pouring out as soon as your franc turns the tap.

But in one of the old houses you may find, as I did, some white-capped grandmother, whose brown wrinkled face betrays the gipsy origin of many of these inhabitants of Carcassonne. As she knits, or combs the hair of her youngest grandchild, she will tell you of the long lingering death of the family of Trencavel, and how Agnes, terrified at her helpless solitude, sold the estates of her son to the King of France, Louis VIII., after which Carcassonne sank more or less into oblivion, till it was discovered in modern times by the architect and the antiquarian.

I have come to the end of my chapter, and I feel I have told you nothing. How can one describe this marvel in a few pages? Go and see it! Wander round the walls at night when the . moon comes peeping through the loopholes. She has seen many strange things in Carcassonne, and so have the stars that shine through the painted windows of the church. You’ will see ghosts enough I warrant you. They will rise from behind every battlement, and creep out from every doorway. You will hear them sighing from the dungeons of the old Visigoth Tower of Sauson, or the Leaning Tower of Vieulas. And when you reach the castle itself, there you will see looking down upon you the brave face and steadfast eyes of Raymond, Roger Trencavel, Vicomte de Beziers, Seigneur de Carcassonne.