We originally had plans to cycle the Loire Valley before heading south but with the end of our trip coming quickly and the purported difficulties with transporting bikes on the French trains, we decided we better start heading south. After all we leave for home from Rome in less than two weeks now and Paris, as the crow flies, is just a little over 1000 km away.
So we boarded a night train from Paris to Carcassonne, leaving at 9:45pm and arriving at 5:39am. We did decide to pay the supplement for the couchette which really was quite comfortable. We had a 6 bunk compartment to ourselves and probably would have slept quite well except both of us kept checking the time as we were anxious about missing our quick stop at such an early hour. Well, we were definitely awake by our stop but our concerns about the speed of the turn around time was well-founded. We had just gone back on the train for our bikes after depositing our bags on the platform when the warning whistle went and the doors started to close. Luckily a guy was still smoking in our doorway and was able to keep it open for us.
So here we were standing on the platform in Carcassonne before 6am. The night was still dark and cold!!! Yes, I know I can’t complain too strongly about the temperature for November, but it must have been close to freezing. With no place to go we headed into the equally cold station until a nearby cafe opened at 7am. So with the brightening light of dawn, we had our continental breakfast of a croissant, baguette, and hot chocolate before proving that the French definintely don’t rush you out the door. Bryan proceeded to have a three hour nap on my shoulder. Well, I slept a little bit too but I was awake to see the looks of amusement on the waiter’s and the customers’ faces as they came and went during the busy morning period. Finally, we convinced ourself that it may be warm enough to venture outside and we paid our bill. Well, it was definitely sunny but I can’t claim warm. Our theory of heading south to warmer climes may not have been well thought out or researched. At least looking at the forecast for this region during the next couple of days shows near zero at night with a daytime high around 10 degrees Celsius. But getting warmer throughout the week.
We’ve decided that it was not warm enough for us to camp tonight. I think if I had not felt chilled all day I may have wanted to as I’m actually missing the tent. It has been over 3 weeks since we have used it as we have been staying in the middle of cities. Tonight we decided to stay in the youth hostel in the Cité part of Carcassonne.
And now for a little geography lesson for those who may not have heard of Carcassonne outside of the board game, if that. Carcassonne is in the South of France in a region called Languedoc-Roussillon. It is about 80 km inland from the Mediterranean Sea and was once was the home of “the greatest fortress in Europe”. I am currently writing from within the walls of this Cité. There has been a fortress at this location since the 8th century BC and the Romans, in the 2th century BC, established a town. Overthe years, the fortress was modified and rebuilt to become the military stronghold that its position between France and Spain necessitated. However, once its use as military stronghold faded, the Cité gradually decayed and fell into ruins. In 1844, architect Viollet-le-Duc, who had recently restored Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, was granted the job of restoring the Cité. A job which lasted the rest of the century.
Today Carcassonne is two very distinct entities. There is the walled Cité with only a few hundred of inhabitants but over 200,000 visitors each year. And below the fortress is the Ville Basse where the normal day-to-day functions of the city takes place.
Carcassonne, the Cité, is a fascinating array of narrow, cobbledstoned streets withinin fortfied walls with an even more fortified Chateau that fits the image of a fantasy castle. Indeed the restoration work of Viollet-le-Duc has been criticized as being more fantasy that restoration. The crenellations and the pointed turrets with slate roofs would not have been part of the original historical structure. However, his recreaction is definitely beautifal, even if full of inaccuracies. And it is tourist ladened with everything within its walls now catering to the tourist’s needs and superfluous wants.
I hope the pictures I took today do show this fairy-tale place and the country-side which surrounds it.
This evening we ordered the plat du jour from the hostel cafe. It was an impressive array of meats and vegetables. I’m not sure what all I ate but it was satisfying and well presented. A meal like that may have easily cost more than 30 Euros elsewhere, but we only paid 9 for the 3 course meal here at the hostel. Perhaps the best deal we’ve seen all trip.
Tomorrow we are back on the bike and heading for the Mediterranean coast. One of our planned stops over the next few days is the Roman Pont du Gard aqueduct near Nîmes. Bridges are a passion of mine and seeing this triple-decker structural feat will be a highlight for me. Expect way too many pictures.