Carcassonne, France

We spent April 12-14 in Carcassonne, wandering around the ancient city and relaxing as much as possible in order to relieve lingering jet lag.

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A tiny part of Carcassonne

The drive from Avignon took just under 3 hours and although it was mostly an uneventful drive on a fast highway, there was a bit bit of confusion at the toll booths. Most of the autoroutes in France have toll booths and since we’d successfully navigated similar roads in Italy, we neglected to read up on the French version and needless to say, it was different from Italy.  Our first encounter was simple enough – choose a lane, drive up to the unmanned booth, take a ticket, and continue on your way when the gate opens.  Later on however, we encountered a wide expanse of lanes and gates with various indecipherable signs above. Suddenly we were unsure as to which lane to enter and ended up choosing the wrong one. At least we THINK it was the wrong one. We still aren’t sure.  It had a 3 step process: 1 – insert your ticket, 2 – swipe your credit card, 3 – well, I can’t remember 3 since we never got that far.  Erik inserted the ticket 2-3 times but the digital readout didn’t give us a price and tell us to swipe our credit card. Instead it said something in French (of course) that I think meant we were to now swipe some kind of card (not a credit card). I suspect this lane was meant for people who use the autoroute regularly and have a special pass card. But again, I don’t really know.  And of course, there was a vehicle behind us so we couldn’t back up and try a different lane, although I suspect that would have been a dangerous move even if no-one was behind us.  Luckily, the couple was kind and didn’t honk at us to hurry us along.

Finally, I suggested that Erik to press the call button. He was concerned that the response would be all in French but I didn’t care – it was worth a try.  A woman came on and I hollered across Erik  -“Parlez-vous Anglais?!!” – she switched languages and asked where we’d entered the highway.  She told us not to worry, we could pay there. Then the digital readout changed to 5.2o and so Erik swiped our credit card and we were on our way. Yikes!

We drove awhile longer and then we came to another toll booth.  This one had 2 steps – the first spot had a place to insert a ticket (I think….) and the second one had a ticket to take. Do we insert our first (now paid) ticket or get a new one? We opted to take a new ticket – so now we had two tickets. Hmmmm… I set aside the original ticket and saved the 2nd ticket for our next pay station. Then I got on google and read everything I could find about toll booths on the Autoroutes. PRO TIP: do this BEFORE you drive in FRANCE! Eventually we came to another payment toll booth and this time we were able to insert our ticket and pay the toll.  Phew – driving in other countries can be nerve-wracking sometimes! I found out later we were charged about $20 for the second section. That seems like a lot so maybe we did something wrong. Ah well.

The rest of the drive was easy, with the mapping app on my phone giving us directions all along the way (and without data being turned on!).  We got to our hotel which was situated right at the main gate of the medieval Citè de Carcassonne.  We checked out our room which was on the ground floor but the exterior patio door didn’t lock so we asked to be moved and ended up in a much nicer room on the 2nd floor with a big window that opened up to the front. It was just a standard, but slightly pricey hotel room, and I was missing having a fridge, but it was quiet, clean, and had an excellent location.

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Drawbridge entry to the town

We spent an hour around the streets of the old town and then realized we were starving as we’d had next to nothing for dinner the night before, only a snack for breakfast, and it was now 3pm. It took awhile to find a place that was serving food since it was between lunch and dinner but eventually we stopped, shared a half litre of rosé (actually the first booze we’ve had on the trip so far!!) and a plate of Poulet et Frites which turned out to be a chicken thigh and leg, a small green salad, and a small bowl of fries. We were hungry and devoured it quickly but we didn’t want to eat too much since it was late and we planned to go out for a proper dinner later. We were both tired again so went back to the hotel for a rest and then ended up skipping dinner again and just snacking on stuff we had in our room.  Neither of us has been very hungry on this trip so far so I figure we are saving lots of money. 🙂

The next day we had a full day to spend so we did a more thorough tour of the old city, and then found a grocery store and bought lunch food – a baguette, cheese, ham, oranges, bananas, a bottle of water and a bottle of wine – all for only 10 Euros.  We took lots of pictures and then relaxed and dozed and read all afternoon.

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The narrow streets are empty early in the morning.

It was been warm and mostly sunny so far – very much like the weather at home, but when it clouds over, it can feel a bit chilly.  Late in the afternoon there was a brief thunderstorm but once it was over, we went into town and had a light dinner. The area specialty is Cassoulet which is a casserole made of meat (often duck), sausage, beans, and duck confit (duck fat).  I wasn’t up for a heavy greasy meal so we chose to have salads instead. Erik went back into town around 10pm and took a lot of photos of the castle walls when they are all lit up.  Very pretty.

Carcassonne itself is like a fairy tale village.  There is an outer wall that dates back about 1500 years, and a slightly newer and much more impressive inner wall that is about 1000 years old.  You enter the city by crossing a drawbridge and you can only tour on foot.  There are only a few locals and workers who drive cars within the city walls. In all, there are 53 towers along the walls and it looks like the kind of castle that I always imagine when I’m building a sand castle!

After a long and varied history which I won’t go into on this blog (google it), the Cité de Carcassonne was in very poor shape and destined to be torn down in the 1850’s but the mayor and others fought to have it repaired and it eventually was turned into a national monument. It also has a smaller inner castle that you can pay to tour – apparently worth it, but we did not bother – and an impressive gothic church with beautiful intricate stained glass, that is over 1000 years old.

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Basilique des Saints Nazaire et Celse

Normally, Carcassonne is crawling with tourists during the day, even in the off season, but it is almost empty in the early morning and later evening. There are quite a number of restaurants and tacky souvenir shops with lots of dress-up stuff for little “knights” and “princesses”. I think most people only come a day trip so it is worth staying here one night so you can enjoy it without the hordes.  We stayed two nights but only because we wanted some down time to relax as well.

And now, we are off to Albi for 3 nights of R&R in another old city. Watch for my next post on Saturday or Sunday!

Here are a few more pictures of Carcassonne for you to enjoy.

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The entrance was a  block from our hotel.
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View of the double walls from the drawbridge.
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La Place Marcou is quiet for breakfast but busy later in the day.
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It takes about 30 minutes to walk a loop between the walls around the cite.
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So many beautiful old doorways and windows.
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