It is as if time has stood still in the little fortress town of Carcassonne in a tucked-away corner of the south-west of France. While wandering through the twisting cobblestone alleys, it is easy to imagine that I have stepped into a time paradox where donkey-driven carts and high-tech internet cafés rub shoulders, where the old lady with the wrinkled face still walks every morning to the same little boulangerie from which the mouth-watering smells of freshly baked bread have been wafting for centuries, and where the church bells toll the hour in the sun-filled square while tourists take pictures using mobile phones.
Visiting Carcassonne is a surreal experience in many ways. I have always been fascinated by history, the Middle Ages in particular, and here I find myself walking in the footsteps of the people of that era, crossing the Pont Vieux just as they did, and gazing from the arrow-notched walls across the L’Aude river at the Occitan countryside just as they must have done – although the beautifully verdant vista was probably not as peaceful then as it is now. Nowhere is this sense of history more palpable than in the timeless halls of the Basilica of Saint Nazaire, where the awed whispers of the faithful are barely audible and even the multicoloured light from the stained-glass rose windows are reverently subdued.
But perhaps this is all a trick of the mind, the contrivance of an overactive imagination and a deep-seated longing to experience the romanticised past as depicted in such movies as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and the novels of Kate Mosse. Because although the city dates back as far as Roman times, it fell into disrepair and was only renovated in the late 19th century. A façade of antiquity therefore, but a convincing one nonetheless.
The 19th century French poet Gustave Nadaud very eloquently wrote:
How old I am! I’m eighty years!
I’ve worked both hard and long,
Yet patient as my life has been,
One dearest sight I have not seen —
It almost seems a wrong;
A dream I had when life was new,
Alas our dreams! they come not true;
I thought to see fair Carcassonne,
That lovely city — Carcassonne!
Have you visited Carcassonne? What did you think of it?