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I think I’ve mentioned before that I met Leslie at Philmont, the Boy Scout camp where I worked off and on for seven years. The two of us were part of a group of friends who bonded over an almost nightly ritual of playing games in my tent. After a brief visit home before the start of Fall season, Leslie and her sister Jackie returned with Carcassonne[A], a board game that’s kind of like a cross between Settlers of Catan[A] and Risk[A] (but even more fun than both combined). It quickly became a crowd favorite, so obviously, we had to visit the town that inspired the game while we were in Europe.
La Cité de Carcassonne sits on top of a hill overlooking the River Aude. The area has been inhabited since the Neolithic period, and the hill provided strategic advantage for the varying groups that have held power throughout the centuries. It has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and approximately 3 million people visit every year.
The name of the city comes from a rather entertaining legend. Supposedly, during the time of Saracen control, a princess named Lady Carcas was left to rule the city after her husband’s death. Charlemagne sent his army to retake the city for the Franks, and the siege lasted for five whole years. When Lady Carcas took inventory of their dwindling food reserves, they found that they only had a single pig and a sack of wheat. Lady Carcas had the wheat fed to the pig to fatten him up, and then they threw it over the wall at Charlemagne’s army. Thinking that the city must have plenty of food if they were wasting some as pig feed, Charlemagne’s men called off the siege and left. Lady Carcas was so pleased that her crazy plan had worked that she sounded all the bells in the city. A member of the retreating army said, “Carcas sonne!” (“Carcas sounds”), and the city earned the name that has stuck with it to the present time.
Much like Mont Saint-Michel, entrance to the city is free. There are restaurants and souvenir shops galore, and we had fun window shopping as we wandered the streets. It’s much more open and easy to navigate than Mont Saint-Michel, though, and it was easy to see everything in a day of exploration.
We also started a new tradition of taking pictures of Leslie in doorways, since there were no shortage of them for her to pose in. We definitely had many giggle-worthy moments as we set up these shots under the curious gaze of other tourists.
We also visited the Monument, which has a museum covering the history of the city and gives you access to the ramparts. The city’s fortifications consist of 3 km (1.9 mi) of double walls and 52 towers. Leslie loved finding the towers that looked like the ones on the front of the game, and it was fun to imagine we were knights defending the fort from invaders. Despite the vertigo-inducing heights, it was fun to get up high enough for an incredible view of the Aude Plain surrounding the city.
(You could say, “Oer the ramparts we walked…”)
As we walked along the ramparts, we also encountered a busker playing a sarangi, a bowed lute from India. Even though the instrument was neither historically or culturally accurate, the sound of it echoing off the city walls did lend a medieval feel to the whole place. I loved it, and I still regret not buying his CD.
I think my favorite part of the day was the St Nazaire Basilica. This church dates back to the 10th century and was considered a cathedral until the construction of the Saint-Michel Church in Bastide prompted its demotion to basilica. It was a lovely building, but the thing that made it my favorite part of the day was the music: a group called Doros de Moscow filled the rafters with their gorgeous rendition of several sacred hymns. I love love love all-male choirs, and I love love love love love hearing hymns sung in beautiful spaces. You can see a video of a similar performance below:
Read more about my trip with Leslie here.