Apr. 15th, 2012

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It's over.  The next installment of the Grand Tour has been and gone, I have returned, etcetera.

Carcassone certainly lived up to expectations.  I'd wanted to see it ever since I saw the walled city featured in a Tour de France stage, and though it did bear more than a fleeting resemblance to Lord Farquhar's place in Shrek, it was well worth a detailed exploration.  Its critics may deride it as a tourist trap and a medieval theme park, but there's more to the place than meets the eye, I'm pleased to say.

The highpoints of the holiday?  Apart from the monuments, that is...  Well, the French people themselves were great - very kind, very hospitable and remarkably tolerant of my ham-fisted attempts to murder their language.  The food deserves a special mention, too, especially the pastries, the crepes, and the ice cream.  Faced with a seemingly endless supply of French onion soup, pizzas (often with added goats' cheese, which my system just can't handle...) and omelettes, I baled out of my regular vegetarian diet virtually immediately, I regret to say.  The ducks of Languedoc will hate me for partaking of the famous cassoulet, but when in France, do what the French do, I suppose...

And the drawbacks?  The dog poo.  Definitely the dog poo.  Dog poo EVERYWHERE.  Closely followed by the toilets, which weren't the greatest (though these were nothing compared to toilets which stalked my childhood nightmares of French holidays, comprising nothing more than a ceramic tray with a hole in the floor.  SHUDDER!!).  And coming in a close third were the motorists, who were even more idiotic and insane than the ones back home.

Once again, I have done my utmost to seek out the best of what the area has to offer in terms of ancient buildings, monuments, and to take copious photographs for your delectation.  Since I have some grasp of the lingo (albeit a pathetic one!) I've been able to travel off the beaten track to some degree, so I hope I'll be able to give you an insight into the less well-known sites and monuments.  The quality of the built heritage was incredible.  In my week-and-a-bit trip, I managed to tick off the following:-
1 medieval walled city
5 fortified towns/villages
At least 13 cathedrals/abbeys/churches/chapels etc. (I lost count!!)
8 medieval castles
Lots and lots of carved stones - Roman & medieval.
A canal
And a Neolithic earthen long barrow.

We also visited a rather spectacular cave, which I think I can safely describe as another site because it produced finds of Late Bronze Age metalwork...

Anyway, I suppose it's my duty to give out the regular endlessrarities heritage awards.  The top three choices were really, really, really difficult, because everything I visited was utterly spectacular, and I was pleasantly surprised (if not astounded!) by what I saw at every turn.  But here we go:-

1) In first place, the medieval walled city of Carcassone.  Why?  Because it's just so big, so vast, and as much a testament to the ambitions of the 19th century antiquarian who made its reconstruction his lifelong goal as it is a reflection of Cathar and French architecture. 

2) The painted medieval ceilings of Lagrasse.  And in fact the painted medieval ceilings, full stop.  Because they appear to be everywhere.

3) The abbey of San-Papoul.  Which was full of magnificent in situ Romanesque carvings. I've had to tie this particular monument with the abbey of Lagrasse, which has a beautifully preserved medieval chapel, complete with tiled floor and painted walls.  I was completely bowled over by both...

Honourable Mentions must go to the castles of Lastours, the abbey of Villalangue, the basilica of Saint Nazaire in Carcassone and Narbonne Cathedral and Bishop's Palace.  With a special award for The Most Seriously Whacky Spaced Out Heritage Exhibition Ever Encountered By This Author going to the Lapidiary Museum in Narbonne for a display and associated sons-et-lumiere show which had me completely bamboozled.  Put it this way: the only other instance where I've felt so completely disorientated was climbing the stairs the Leaning Tower of Pisa...

Anyway, it will be my great delight to share my adventures with you all in the weeks that follows.  In the meantime, here are some pictures of the medieval city of Carcassone to whet your appetites:-


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