I recently went on a long weekend trip to Carcassonne, France with my husband and father in law. I didn’t know too much about Carcassonne before we went. My husband told me it was a medieval city he’d visited with his dad when he was growing up, and that it was a walled city, big castle on the hill, blah, blah, blah. I’m sad to say, I can get a little borderline blasé about castles (and cathedrals) after living in the UK for nearly 6 years and doing a fair amount of travelling…so she says. How wrong was I? I was blown away. We couldn’t even drive into the city, we got dropped off at a gate and walked over a drawbridge, yes, a DRAWBRIDGE and up a series of winding cobble stoned streets before we got to our hotel.
We went during the tail end of the off season, so it was a bit nippy, but I’d take throwing on a couple of extra layers any day for the views we were afforded. During the off season, Carcassonne is a lovely, sleepy little village. The shops open and close whenever they damn well please, and with less people about, it’s a lot easier to step back in time and imagine the fortress this place used to be.
Like Paris, the city of lights, Carcassonne knows how to light up a city. At night the castle and the castle walls are beautifully illuminated. You can walk all around the city in what used to be the moat. It was very still, stunning and incredibly eerie to walk through the moats and city at night.
Of course, me being me, there was a cemetery that I couldn’t resist. I went right after sunrise one morning…the only creatures to keep me company were a few cemetery cats. Much like their penchant for lights, the French know how to turn out a beautiful cemetery. What I found unique about this cemetery was that whilst it was clearly well maintained and frequently visited by families of the deceased, there weren’t many offerings of flowers, at least not real ones. Most of the graves were adorned with lovely ceramic floral arrangements, with a pretty dark pink being the most frequent. There were also enamel portraits of the deceased.
We arranged a half day trip with a private guide (see more about this later) to Rennes-Le-Chateau. This location has become a mecca for some conspiracy theorists. If it sounds familiar, you may recognise it from the Da Vinci Code. One of the theories is that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, he survived, married Mary Magdalene and moved here to live out the rest of his days. It’s also thought a poor French priest in the 1800s who suddenly started splashing cash around may have discovered the Holy Grail or some other secrets or treasures hidden there.
The site overlooks the Pyrenees Mountains and includes a tower called, wait for it, the Magdala Tower as well as a graveyard and a church. Some think the church is creepy, I really dug it. Parts of the ceiling were painted a moody blue with gold stars painted on it and it has a big red statue of the devil…basically, it’s how I decorated my room as a teenager. I could write loads and loads about the different conspiracies, but if you’re so inclined you can find much more knowledgeable sources via google. What I will say is that, no pun intended, it really did feel like being in heaven here. There is a second tower that is bridge with a high wall with the Magdala Tower. The second tower houses a small atrium that overlooks the valley and the mountains. We went early in the day when there was still a fair amount of fog in the hills and it really was being in a beautiful glass house above the stars. It actually took my breathe away, it’s a memory I’ll not soon forget. I took photos, but they don’t do the place on iota of justice.
A bit of a star in his own right, the creepy Red Devil of Rennes-Le-Chateau
A couple of practical notes
I’m a vegetarian. It is not easy to eat as a vegetarian in France, and Carcassonne was no exception. Fortunately, they are well renowned for their bread and cheese. I saw many a cheeseboard that weekend. And the wine, oh my word, the wine.
PRIVATE GUIDES! I know the idea of a private guide probably sounds out of reach and mega expensive, but you would be really surprised. Our trip to Rennes-Le-Chateau was via a private guide. He took three of us for around 150 euro. If you can work it into your budget, it is so worth it. You get a much more in-depth history of wherever your visiting and often a good guide will ask you what you are most interested in before you go and will tailor the trip to you. Our guide ended our day with an impromptu visit to the Saint Hilaire Abbey which dates back to the Middle Ages. He had his friend who works there hide a bottle of sparkling wine and three glasses in the cloister fountain for us to end the tour. You don’t get that with your bog standard guide. SO WORTH IT.