Two French Cities

In the year 1247 a certain Bishop of Carcassonne, whose name was Radulphe, petitioned the King of France on behalf of a number of his flock whose dwellings had been destroyed as a punishment for their supposed complicity in an attack on the citadel. The bishop suggested that a new town should be built for the exiles; and from our knowledge of what followed we may guess that he also suggested a suitable site for it. The king replied by ordering the Seneschal of Carcassonne to act on these proposals, and added a message to the bishop, expressing his confident anticipation that the ecclesiastic would be delighted, for his part, to renounce the fines he had claimed from the outlaws. On these terms the bargain was struck, and Radulphe, on whose land the new habitation was to be erected, received half a town in ex-change for his fields and vineyards.

It was thus that the modern town of Carcassonne, on the northwest of the river, was founded. But most of its existing houses date from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and as it is here that the traveller descends, his first impressions are of grey stucco, elegant proportions, shallow balconies, and ironwork. He passes down a wide straight boulevard lined with double rows of planes. Then, as the car swings to the left and crosses the river, he sees looming out of the clearing mist, like a hallucination induced by an overdose of opium and Sir Walter Scott, the ancient City, tower and battlement and pepper-pot, the realization of a child’s impossibly romantic dream. Crossing the Pont Neuf, we mounted the hill and stopped to allow the tail of a funeral procession to file before us through the gateway. By now the mist was so thin that it scarcely impeded vision, but still communicated something of its own tenuous and iridescent quality to everything about one, so that brick and stone appeared to shimmer with the instability of cloud or falling water. Under the walls of the City women were washing linen at the communal washing-place; and this familiar sight gave one a sense of the continuity of life, an air of reality to an experience which every other circumstance combined to render dream-like and fantastic: We drove over the drawbridge and up a narrow cobbled street. In the small silent Place outside the church of Saint-Nazaire we came up with the cortege. It was the pompefunebre of the Governor of Cochin-China, who was being carried to his rest in a coffin so heavy that the hearse originally intended for it had proved unequal to its weight. The great bier, draped in black and purple, spangled with gold, the horses with their nodding plumes, caparisoned in black from head to tail, in themselves an extraordinary spectacle, appropriately medieval in feeling, served the purpose of the strolling figures in an architect’s drawing, and gave scale to the tall facade of the old cathedral.

Carcassonne is the colour of old stone, silence, the perfume of lichens and wood-smoke compounded with the lingering fragrance of a thousand years of good French cooking. It has one virtue which is supreme above all: little or no wheeled traffic is indigenous to the place; a taxi brings a visitor occasionally, a cart brings food or coal, and that is all. Today, at the beginning of the second week in February, the warmth made an overcoat unnecessary. But the sunshine, which in the plain below glowed with a kind of clear brilliance such as we see in England only on a few frosty days of early winter, was here diffused and softened by contact with a hundred different surfaces and facets of the old weathered stone; opaque prisms, as it were, which broke up the light into its components, and resynthetized it with the admixture of a thousand subtle gradations of their own tone and colour. One was lapped in this tender light, the warmth, the perfume, which was given body by the good smell of the dejeuner preparing for me in the hotel kitchen. I lunched off a superb pate of ducks’ livers; little shellfish, the kind called palourbes or clovisses; a cassoulet of small white beans, goose, and sausage; a vegetable; a mouthful of Cantal; an ice enriched with rum. I have not mentioned everything, and I had refused one course. What English hotel would serve such a meal for the benefit of half a dozen guests, and those en passage? Still, it must be admitted that the hotel was an expensive one by French standards, and that English cooking is by its nature less amenable to varying demands than French.

The City, built on a small hill rising from the flat plain of the Aude, between the Montagne-Noire and the Corbieres, commands the natural route from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and then passes into Spain. There must have been a stronghold here as long as this part of the world has been inhabited. The Roman Carcaso, though never an important town like Arles, Nimes, Aix, or Narbonne, was established well before the Christian era; and beneath the floor of the Chateau Comtal, itself dating from the twelfth century, you may see Roman foundations and a mosaic floor, of more archaeological than aesthetic interest. After the Romans, the Visigoths, the kings and nobles of the Dark Ages, in turn fortified the place. Most of the existing ancient fabric dates from the sixth, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. But from the death of Philip the Bold for six hundred years more crumbled into ruin at Carcassonne than was built there. Then, in the middle of the nineteenth century, came Viollet-le-Duc, who filled the breaches in the walls, rebuilt the pepper-pot towers, each with spike atop, and in general restored the City as well as he knew how to the appearance it was presumed to have presented at the close of the thirteenth century. His work here and elsewhere has been much criticized in this carping latter age, especially by people who have never looked at it, on the general supposition that anything the nineteenth century did would necessarily have been better left undone. But there can be no doubt, I think, that Viollet-le-Duc performed his task at Carcassonne at least as well as anybody who might have attempted it could have done; and so he can only be criticized, except by the congenitally peevish, on two grounds, of which the first is that his restoration spoilt the appearance of the City, and the second is that all restoration of ancient buildings ought to be deplored on principle.

To people of the latter way of thinking, little need be said. They are extremists, and extremism is its own criticism and its own reward. As for the alleged despoliation of the place’s looks, who can remember what the City looked like before 1850? And who, if he could, would be prepared to affirm that in those days he would have gone half a dozen miles out of his way to see it, without its being recommended to him by the enthusiasm of a miserable product of the nineteenth century, a wretched fellow who actually had the bad taste to believe in something? But concerning tastes, we know, there’s no disputing, and I can only say that Carcassonne as it is to-day is very much to mine, and there’s an end. It possesses great beauty of form, atmosphere, and colour on the one hand; on the other, as a memorial of the Middle Ages, it is unique. If the restoration has added nothing to the former qualities, it has probably made the latter more complete. There is perhaps some justification for the charge that Carcassonne is a dead city, a vast museum, even though a humble peasant life goes on within its boundaries as it has always done, and cabbages grow in the shadow of its walls. But then I like museums, if they are good ones, and if I can go through them at my own pace, unhurried and alone, or very nearly so. Carcassonne is certainly a good museum, and in February at least it is a quiet one. In July, when crowds come up from the hotels in the Ville-Basse, and from all over the surrounding neighbourhood to clatter perspiringly about its cobbled streets in search of that which flies before them as naturally as ice melts before the fire, it can hardly be as charming as I found it in the first spring sunlight, tender and serene, and invested with a blessed silence.

Carcassonne has fifty towers, or some say fifty-two. A few exist in almost their original condition, some have been partly and some wholly rebuilt. The last merge very well in the general mass, provided one looks for the broad effect; regarded individually, they are absurd and charming, after the manner of summer-houses, or the little shelters in which people wait for buses. If you wish to assess the strength and bulk of the fortifications you will do well to walk round the City, between the inner and outer walls, for preference in the afternoon, a little before sunset. The ground on which one stands, and from which the walls leap up with a disturbing arrogance, was once used for tourneys. A crowd of spectators, on one side the common people, on the other the gentry, their ladies wearing the high, pointed head-dresses and the fantastically long, narrow, tapering slippers which the erotic imagination of medieval man demanded, gathered here to watch the knights, encased like divers in their clumsy armour, lumber into combat on their ill-bred, ungainly horses. For the medieval tournament, with all its pageantry, was not the affair of rapid clash and glitter which the historical novelist depicts. So heavy was a full suit of medieval armour that a man dressed in it required to be lifted on to his mount by two or three attendants, and, if unhorsed, would be powerless to rise without assistance. The ordinary saddle-horse of those days would be quite unable to bear such a load, augmented by the weight of its own gaudy, clanging accoutrements: the knights rode into combat on cart-horses, huge shaggy beasts incapable of anything beyond a shambling jog-trot. Still, it must have been a brave sight when the banners streamed in a steady breeze, the southern sun shone brightly on polished metal, the dust rose in a slow cloud behind the hoofs of the heavy, overladen beasts, and the jangling of so much ironmongery gave an illusion of breath-taking speed. The spectacle was displayed against the same background as we see now: the huge masses of masonry, varying in colour from a neutral grey to a warm, rosy buff, the landscape of red earth, pine and olive, such as we see in an Italian primitive. And if in the soaring pinnacles, the pointed, slated roofs that crown these towering walls, there is a touch of fantasy, of the architecture of the story-book, and even of the spirit which inspired Balmoral and the Crystal Palace, that sorts very well with what we know of the age which expressed itself in such performances; an age of cruelty, devotion, grandeur, lust, and prettiness.

If we stand at the north-west corner of the City, on the outer wall, and turn our backs on the fortress, there’s a different view. Instead of the rural landscape, tilted behind the battlemented walls at an angle which seems to falsify perspective, we look out and down on the roofs of the old faubourgs of Trivalle and Barbacane, on this side of the river, and, beyond it, those of the Ville-Bose. They are covered with those semi-circular tiles, resembling half flower-pots, which are common all over southern France, but on which some local accident of weathering has here conferred a peculiar variety and subtlety of colour. The warm light plays over a multitude of surfaces, brought to a thousand different shades of their original colour and of the lichens which en-crust them, and inclined at a thousand different angles. For a curved tile must always, as a mere matter of mathematics, have those advantages over a flat one, that the number of planes which it presents to the light is infinite. Few things of the kind can surpass this view over the lower town and the suburbs of the ancient City, which has a beauty entirely independent of the romantic associations of the place. In one spot a group of trees, in another a single tree, an open space or a garden, weaves an accented note into the rich and various fabric; here and there a church thrusts itself above the general mass of buildings. The nearest of these churches, Saint-Gimer, in the Barbacane, built in the Romanesque style which is native to these parts, and has persisted in the south right up to modern times, is not the worst of them. It has a good shape, a fine ochreous colour, a very pleasing tiled roof, and no pretensions. The early Gothic Saint-Michel is more elaborate, but still plain and simple (and very delightfully so), as Gothic goes; there is a fine rose-window in its western wall. Of Saint-Vincent, hemmed in by buildings, one sees little but a few gargoyles, an expanse of threatening wall, an unfrequented air. And, to have done with the churches, behind us in the City there is Saint-Nazaire, in which a style of architecture primarily derived from military motives, and one essentially devotional and sensuous, may be studied side by side. The magnificence of its stained glass makes this church worth entering from the most pagan point of view, which is not always the case with religious edifices of splendid exterior, I find.

The Ville-Basse, a square town, is encompassed by wide boulevards, planted with plane trees, after the manner of the country. It has a merit which we scarcely ever find in an English town, but is common enough here, a formal unity, the quality of a place which has not grown by accident but by design. Though the predominating colour of the buildings, and of the shutters too, is a cool grey, the general effect is not one of coldness, for the play of warm and cool tones over the thick trunks of the planes, where the bark has scaled or remains intact, gives variety to what one sees. It is largely this very subtle and yet simple flickering effect which constitutes the charm of these French towns, especially at this season of the year, when there is no leaf.

In the Ville-Basse of Carcassonne, the widest of these avenues is the boulevard Barbes, where the cathedral and the principal cafes are; the finest, because of the size and magnificence of the trees that line it, is the boulevard Jean-Jaures. These broad ways are provided with footways of immense width, designed for comfortable strolling. One realizes that life here has been conceived as comprehending pleasure, relaxation, even beauty, and not merely toil and responsibility. These fine streets were laid out like this, not solely to gratify an arid civic vanity (though local pride is always strong in France), but actually because people liked to have them so. A pleasure-ground in which anybody but a few cranks and children took any pleasure would be a miracle in England! But this willingness to accept life in all its aspects, to admit that even leisure may be respectable, is deeply imbedded in the character of the hardworking French. It is being rapidly uprooted, of course, as the modern ideal of a purposeless mechanical efficiency extends its influence, and those concepts of urbanity and reason which we won with so much difficulty from error and experience surrender to the desperate philosophy of the ant heap and the jungle. The north, perhaps, is lost to humanity already; but it may be yet a year or two before the Midi falls. In the south at least a remnant still remains of that sense of the potential dignity and spaciousness of life, which even when it is only dimly comprehended can inform the absurdest bourgeoise existence with a touch of ceremony.

It is a pity that first the curse of puritanism, and more lately the plague of numbers and increasing centralization, have so generally destroyed this sense in England. British fortitude might have resisted much that is spurious in modern thought, and directed progress along other lines than it has followed, if only the English had understood a little better how to live. But it is natural, I suppose, that a people who on the whole eat so badly should be ready to accept without protest a half-baked ideology. It was probably the bad food in Germany, following the revolution, which made Hitlerism possible; and so long as the average Frenchman continues to eat well, and according to an ordained plan (which is not a matter of income, but of taking trouble), there’s some hope for him. Politics, which is the source and fount of half the evil in the modern world, and in France especially, may, like a disease, be kept in the comparatively harmless stage of theory, and prevented from becoming fatal, by a well-lined stomach.

But for us the tragedy of it is that fundamentally, I believe, the Englishman has a real talent for good living and enjoyment, while in many matters his taste is sounder than the French. Only he is never encouraged to employ these gifts, for lack of a tradition; and what sweetens life in England has survived through the efforts of a handful of eccentrics. But what are you to do when the supply of eccentrics becomes insufficient? We English paid too high a price for the right of free speech and the British Empire, I thought, sitting outside a cafe in the February sunshine, drinking an infusion of lime-flowers which tasted like water that had been kept a long time in a cellar and then slightly warmed. When I had finished it I returned to the hotel and ate a superb dinner, beginning with the best lentil soup I have ever tasted, and ending with crepes Suzette au Grand Marnier.

One’s mind, during a stay at Carcassonne, is exercised by the question, whether or not to make La Visite. La Visite consists of a glance through the museum in the Chateau Comtal, and a tour of the ramparts under the supervision of a guide. It is probably best to get it over early. I held out until the second day, and then succumbed, since there was no other way of seeing what I wished to see. I made La Visite in company with two young priests, a plump French-woman, her little boy, and a Frenchman attired very sportively in gum boots, a macintosh, and a shirt of the most amazing tartan I have ever seen. The guide whisked us at a tremendous speed through the museum. He. spoke bad French very rapidly. There was no time to assess the aesthetic value of the exhibits: I remember some sarcophagi, a few pieces of Romanesque sculpture, an engraved brass platter. Then, starting at the chateau, we made the circuit of the fortifications, astonishing in their complexity. Bearing in mind the commanding position of the citadel, and observing the thickness of its walls, the elaborate contrivances for isolating, enfilading, and otherwise discomposing the personnel of an attacking party, for raining cannon-balls upon him and drenching him with boiling oil—seeing all these things, it appears incredible that any one not equipped with modern artillery should ever have aspired to take the place by force of arms.

We have to go back some time to find the record of such an attempt. On the 17th September 1240, Raymond Trencavel, last of the Viscounts of Beziers and Carcassonne, despoiled by his sovereign of his inheritance, presented himself at the head of a Spanish army before the walls of the City. He seized the ancient bridge across the river Aude (which is still in use today) in order to isolate his objective. Driven out of the faubourgs of Trivalle and Barbacane, which it appears that treachery had at first delivered to him, to the subsequent profit of Bishop Radulphe, he dug trenches, strengthened by palisades, between the City and the river, and erected a mangonel before the western gate. The defenders retaliated by setting up an engine which rained great stones on the contrivance. Warfare must have been a jolly, schoolboyish affair in those days, resembling American Rugby on a larger scale. Trencavel went on to undermine the Porte-Narbonnaise, the gate by which one drives into the City, and to set fire to the defences: mining and countermining were continued for several days, and huge breaches were opened in the walls. On the 7th October, fearing the arrival of royal reinforcements from the north, the viscount launched a general attack. It was re-pulsed with heavy losses. A few days later he withdrew his army, and the story does not record what became of him.

The king began the work of repairing the breaches in the walls, and strengthening the defences, which was completed by his son. From this time Carcassonne was considered to be impregnable. Nor was the stronghold subsequently taken or attempted, until in 1355 it opened its gates to the Black Prince, after he had subdued the whole of the surrounding region. Carcassonne was thus the last of the cities of Languedoc to surrender to the conqueror.