19. Nice to Carcassonne

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May 3rd, 2011
19. Nice to Carcassonne

It’s the 30th April and we are leaving the BatCave.  We are at the station by 7:15 am. Twisting our necks for a last glimpse of the Duomo as the taxi whisks us through semi-deserted streets. Our first train of the day, Florence to Pisa, leaves exactly on time. (Trains in Italy all leave exactly on time, and have done ever since Mussolini). There is half an hour to wait for our connection in Pisa so there’s time for a coffee and a chocolate croissant for breakfast.Then on to Genoa, retracing our steps.

The countryside has greened a lot since we came this way in early April. At every train change, James has to struggle with the heavy luggage, up and down stairs (the escalators never in working order, or else there aren’t any). Another train from Genoa to the Italian border at Ventimiglia takes us through the pretty Cinque-Terre area with its picturesque seaside towns. Change again at Ventimiglia and once again heaving heavy suitcases on board. This is the Cote D’Azur Express and there is an immediate difference; it’s more comfortable, modern and quieter than the TrenItalia coaches. And we can understand what people are saying.

The Cote d'Azur as seen from the train to Nice

Soon we cross an invisible border into Monaco – and promptly enter a long, long tunnel. We were hoping to see a bit of Monte Carlo from the windows, but no, it is not to be. The Monacoans (Monégasques) have constructed a huge long tunnel under their city-state to take trains right through, in a kind of giant underpass. The train stops in Monte Carlo at what looks like a huge Tube station instead of the magnificent old Gare de Monte Carlo that I remember from my youthful travels. What a swizz. A bit later later we emerge from the tunnel to find we are already in France. Here, the buildings are no longer peeling and graffiti is scarce, things just look cleaner and more prosperous. After all, we are looking at some of the most expensive real estate in the world. There are no customs or immigration procedures between Italy and France (one of the joys of travelling in Europe), and we don’t have to change money either, everything is still in Euros, very civilised and convenient.

The film festival town, Cannes - or what we saw of it!

It’s great to be in France. The train runs along the coastline of the Cote d’Azur, its famous and romantic town names reeling past us – Antibes, Cannes – which is preparing for its film festival, St.Raphael… the mediterranean is blue and gently rippling, there are cruise ships out to sea, crowded yacht harbours, and a few people already sunning themselves on the pebbly beaches. Picturesque village after postcard-perfect village pass by the window. The sky is clear but criss-crossed by jet vapour trails, looking as though they are on collision-courses. At last we arrive in Nice in the early afternoon, our stopover for the night.

The Hotel Bristol is just 2 blocks downhill from the station, thus easy to drag the ball-and-chain suitcases down the road and into the lobby. The room is small but comfortable. But the sun is still up so we hasten out to enjoy our single afternoon in Nice. We head downhill towards the sea and the famous Boulevard des Anglais. Elegant apartment buildings line the streets, then the seafront which has as advertised, a boulevard-wide promenade just like Brighton or other british seaside towns.

The Boulevard des Anglais, Nice's seafront promenade

There is a cycle track as well, but this Sunday afternoon most people are just strolling with dogs, prams, family in tow. The beaches all consist of grey pebbles and are not very wide, as the Mediterranean only has weak tides. This must be the birthplace of the sun-lounger – due to the pebbles – and there they are in close rank formation on the ‘private’ beaches wherever a restaurant or hotel has purchased (rented?) the right to a small stretch of shoreline.

Pebbled beach, sun loungers, Nice

We toast our arrival in France with a beer on the promenade – the most expensive beer in the land, consistent with the most expensive real estate in the town. You only live once… Behind the seaside promenade is a touristy pedestrian street which has nothing but restaurants. ice cream and souvenir shops. We avoid these and hunt for a smaller less touristy place (durrrrrr! we are in Nice, the entire town is a tourist trap). Finally we settle for a French steakhouse, which specialises in charolais beef. Water, wine, bread, oil, vinegar, s&p appear on the table like magic. The burgers au Savoyarde (cheeseburgers) arrive rare and delicious.

Vive La France! And the most expensive beer in Europe, just the once!

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Carcassonne

May Day. From Nice to Carcassonne there is only one train change, at Montpellier. We travel along the sea past Marseilles until Toulon, then turn inland through flat marshy countryside which gradually gives way to vineyards and orchards. As we approach Carcassonne the land becomes more hilly.

The house we have rented via the internet is tall and narrow, squeezed between other houses in a narrow cobbled street. Imagine four toy cubes placed one on top of the other to make a square tower. The bottom block was once a little shop; it is now the entrance hall, bathroom and separate loo with a sort of ‘cupboard under the stairs’ space. The next cube up is the bedroom containing twin beds, lamps and a steel-frame and canvas cupboard. The next cube up is the kitchen, equipped with microwave, fridge, gas stove, sink and gas geyser. The fourth and topmost cube is the living room with a sofa (converts to a bed), the TV, bookshelves and an old fireplace.

Fourth floor, Carcassonne apartment

Once you have your spacial relationships sorted out – think vertical, not horizontal – it’s easy to find your way round the house. Each room has a minimalist feel (because it’s so small) and has been painted with a gentle wash of colour and decorated with simple, uncomplicated art. The stairwell unites all four cubes and is the main feature, a graceful curve of bentwood in a sort of oval spiral. Illuminating the stairwell from above is a skylight.
Exhausted from 2 days’ travel, we have a salad and bought quiche for supper and crash into bed, first fiddling with the wooden shutters.

O joy. A lovely quiet night’s sleep! Comfortable beds, no mozzies, no pounding music, no yelling youngsters getting drunker and drunker downstairs. Heavenly. And so was the croissant and the fresh crusty baguette that we had for breakfast. It’s a fact that nobody makes a baguette like the French; the Italians do quite a good one but it’s almost impossible to duplicate that exact delicious crusty outside and the slightly open, soft but dense texture inside. The butter is non-salted, which is strange at first but then becomes more and more fresh and delicious as you become accustomed to it.

The Walled City of Carcassonne, seen from the riverside

Because it was May Day yesterday, today, Monday, is a public holiday in compensation. So most shops are still closed and we can’t organise ourselves an internet connection. So sad! Thus, the old cité of Carcassonne is our destination today…

A pleasant stroll down the boulevard and we come the old bridge, guarded by its toll house and now pedestrian-only. The river is the Aude, shallow and clear, and its banks and walks are park-like, thick with new grass and trees in full leaf. Some, such as the chestnut trees, are in full bloom. Over the bridge we enter the lower old city, the part just clustered around the skirts of the huge fortress, where tradesmen and suppliers would have lived. In times of war they would have grabbed all they could carry and run for safety inside the battlements. Today their houses are quaint little restaurants and shops – with a scattering of mystic-crystal new age type shops – and ancient paved streets, leading steeply upwards towards the ancient walled city and its castle.

Wow it's a real fortress. View of the outer curtain wall & ramparts

This, say the guide books, was a hill settlement in prehistoric times, and a fortress in the days of the Visigoths and Romans. Later it was briefly in the hands of the Saracens (muslim invaders from North Africa), then it was retaken, sacked, rebuilt, beseiged, defended, fortified, swapped, betrayed, annexed to this crown or that, and generally fought over for centuries. A horrible persecution of the Cathars took place in this city, with the most appalling atrocities which were so cruel they resonate down the centuries to the present day.

Carcassonne is a genuine mediaeval walled city of the most romantic, hollywood movie, knight in shining armour, crusader and maiden in the tower kind. It is the real thing; an historical environment right before your eyes. The moat is a deep ditch, the drawbridge and the curtain walls and battlements defend and enclose an entire town including a gothic cathedral, a keep and the lord’s castle itself. The whole fortified town still dominates the landscape, in the classic hill with a river in front of it position. Thanks to a century of restorations beginning in the 19th century, the turrets and fortifications are all there in their original, history-layered glory. Some Roman fortifications still remain.

We wander in, marvelling at the pitted, scarred stone walls and massive gateway. Inside the outer curtain wall is a wagon drawn by a pair of heavy horses. I enquire – the horses are the “Ardennois” breed, which I’ve never seen before; immensely strong looking with thick short legs and huge feet – an old fashioned type, bred to pull heavy loads, ploughs etc. I google them later and find that their owner has trimmed off the long shaggy fetlock hair. Making them easier to groom maybe?

A matched pair of very strong traditional French cart horses, from the Ardennes region

Immediately through the massive gateway of the second curtain wall, we find ourselves in a quaint cobbled street with 2 to 3-storey houses built shoulder-to-shoulder,  holding each other up. On the street level of almost every house is a shop. There are 120 permanent residents living in the walled city, says the brochure; everyone else thronging the old streets is a tourist. Many of the shops are pleasant-looking restaurants, quaint bistros and snack bars. There is tourist tat in many of the shops – plastic swords and maces for the kids make a game of some of the most terrifying conflicts ever visited on a peaceable population in the name of religion. Shady little plazas take the explorer by surprise – two of them have deep stone wells in the centre. The winding little streets are cobbled with round pebbles or square paving with single-lane stone strips for the steel wheels of horse drawn carriages. Walk in any direction and you soon come to the fortified walls. You peer out of the battlements and imagine defending the city with your crossbows and trebuchet machines and prayers. Some layers of stone are Roman, those are the ones levelled with courses of red brick.  At one end is the castle, with its own drawbridge and fortifications – the last stand would have been made here. But the castle is a whole separate (paying) tour, so we decide to reserve that for another day, and just explore the setting and the walled town for today. There are two different stone built wells, still with their iron winches – essential in times of seige.

The sun comes out at lunchtime, and after agonising over the choice between the many charming little restaurants, we decide on one with a vine-shaded terrace overlooking a tiny square with a monument to the restorers in its centre. The local speciality is ‘Cassoulet’, a sort of hearty bean bake with meaty bits, so we choose a ‘set menu’ with terrine to start, and order a carafe of house wine. The Cassoulet is a famous dish in France and apparently originates in this area. Preserved duck (or goose), Toulouse sausage, cubed smoked bacon and white haricot beans are the main ingredients. It comes to the table in a glazed clay dish, straight from the oven. It is exactly the sort of ‘stick-to-your-ribs’ meal that would have kept a hard-working man going all day in the dead of winter. Rich with goose and bacon fat, dense with protein and carbohydrate, it is both delicious and utterly, utterly filling. Anyone eating cassoulet should be allowed to have a lie-down for at least an hour afterwards. I have the recipe…

Cassoulet, speciality of the region

But there’s nowhere to snooze, and we have more sightseeing to do, so we stagger off towards the ancient cathedral, which is on the other side of the town to the castle (separation of church and state I suppose). It is classically magnificent, with leering scary gargoyles jutting out overhead and pointy spires and beautiful stained glass windows.

The gothic church within the ancient fortified city walls

Inside, over a worn stone threshold and into the cool gloom with its kaleidoscope stained windows, there is singing. in front of the massive lace-draped altar, a male choral group is performing the most exquisite (Gregorian?) acapella chants, by the light of candles and glass windows. Shivers down the spine, sacred music. There is an horizontal alabaster statue of a bishop (unknown), alcoves with saints and crucifixes and Marys behind carpets of glowing votive candles. Ancient flagstone floors and soaring pillars supporting vaulted stone ceilings. What conflicts and dramas this place must have seen over the centuries; you practically expect to see blood stains on the floor. Dark oak pews look as though they have been there for a hundred years. Today, there are tourists stepping carefully about, whispering while clicking cameras. I click mine too; glad to be able to take the images away with me.

Outside, near the western inner wall of the city is an old amphitheatre but it is closed off, covered in scaffolding, under renovation. We sit to rest our feet in a quiet area off the square, with benches and shady trees and an iron Jesus on the cross. Pigeons pace about, courting each other while being stalked by a black-and-white cat who tries cunningly to hide behind our legs. The pigeons are wise to her though and keep well away. Visitors linger at tables in the square, finishing their slow lunches. Through the arrow-slit embrasures we can see the intense green of the distant landscape; the foothills to the Pyrenees. No snow at this season.

On the way back to our cube-stack house (James is making up names for it, tries the Belfry – as ex- BatCave dwellers, belfry sounds quite good), we cross the river by the New Bridge, the one with cars allowed, and from this bridge watch a game of boules being played below us, with great skill in the late afternoon sun. People are strolling along the river banks on a broad, sandy pathway. Ducks preen on some stones in the middle of the river, the water swirling past. A grey heron is still-hunting.

There is a little old-fashioned carousel playing on the boulevard in front of the old stone gates to the (relatively new) city. Prancing horses, carriages, a camel and a biplane go round and round – one tiny blonde girl has chosen the motorbike as her ride. She sits bolt upright, handlebars firmly gripped and her eyes practically popping out of her head. A biker-chick in the making, for sure.

We pick up a reasonable bottle of bordeaux instead of supper (still full of cassoulet) and it’s very nice…. way nicer than Italian plonk. Ah, France in the spring…….

1 Comment

  • Shaz

    25 May 2011
    Reply

    Loving your writing friend! So where is the next installment? Clearly the wine is very good…………

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