I can finally say with a great deal of confidence that we have finished the castle-touring portion of our trip. We’ve seen furnished castles, partially completed castles, enormous castles, tiny castles and castles in ruins. Gallo-Roman castles, medieval castles, Cathar castles, Renaissance castles and strange neo-Gothic castles.
I am proud to say that the last two days were essentially castle-less. We took Chloe to a small picturesque town called Montolieu, which is famous for its outsized concentration of small bookshops. About 15 of bookstores for a town of about 15 residents (I exaggerate only slightly). She was in heaven, even though almost all of the books were in French. She loved the idea of the place. She bought used books from the Tintin, Lucky Luke and Smurfs comic series, all in their original French versions. And she was happy. We returned to Carcassonne yesterday. Although it has a castle, it’s only a little bit known for its castle. It’s famous for being the largest medieval fortress city in Europe. And according to some (mostly those who live nearby), it’s the second-most visited tourist site in France. And boy, does it feel like the second-most visited tourist site in France.
Lovingly restored over a 50-year period starting in the late 19th century by the French architect Viollet-le-Duc (who was also responsible for bringing Notre-Dame de Paris back to life), the walled city is somewhat deceptive. Upon arrival, you make your way up the hill towards the dramatic ramparts and city gates and think that maybe, just maybe, you have actually been transported back in time. There are no cars. The “skyline” is 100% medieval (or at least 100% 19th century-restored medieval). You can fairly easily find an angle to take a photo that doesn’t have another person in it.
But as you walk over the drawbridge and enter into the old city the spell is broken. You’re no longer hallucinating the sight of a knight in shining armor coming to your rescue as you cross over the threshold into the town. Suddenly, you’re surrounded by hoards of 21st century tourists, just like you, weaving in and out of one of the dozens of souvenir shops or eating at one of the dozens of mediocre eateries that line the narrow streets.
And you realize that Carcassonne is simply medieval Disneyland without the character greetings. To its credit, however, it does offer a sadistic medieval torture museum.
Mind you, the throngs didn’t prevent us from making our own monetary contributions to the souvenir shops and restaurants last evening.
This morning we said said a cheerful goodbye to the land of the Cathars as our wonderful week with our French family came to an end.
And we’ve just said a cheerful hello to the small medieval village of Vézénobres near Nîmes, which will serve as our home base for the next week. While I said there’d be no more castles, I didn’t say there’d be no more medieval villages. ‘Cause who can resist their charm?