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Memories of a visit to Carcassonne

Walled city of Carcassonne seen from the Canal du Midi, its towers and turrets perched on a hill

Carcassonne has two major sides to her. First, she is the most exquisite example of a double-fortified city in Europe. Second, she is an incredible tourist attraction, drawing visitors from around the world, especially for the various festivals held there. These unique qualities helped make la Cité a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

While I live and work in the world of theatre and have attended various festivals in England and Europe, I find the first side of Carcassonne to be the more important one. Rising above the surrounding city and plains, she is a powerful reminder of the Middle Ages and the need, then, for such formidable structures.

Yet, as I stood before her that spring morning, I saw something more: A tangible reality of my love of and appreciation for the time of medieval tales of chivalry, knights, and the code of Courtly Love. I felt myself being drawn back into a world that existed almost a thousand years earlier. I let my imagination run free, seeing the armored knights riding, on powerful horses, to the fortress, after a victorious campaign. On either side, the villagers’ attention was drawn to their existence: The land and livestock. The lives of those peasants did not change much, except when an enemy attacked; then, they sought refuge inside the fortress.

Old black and white etching of Carcassonne

I have always loved the Middle Ages, why, I don’t know. It was a brutal time: Most of the people were dead by 40 and had no future.  Yet, there was an energy–a life–that la Cité represented.  I remember the stories my daughter and I shared of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table? To capture what I could of that world as I saw it, I planned a series of photographic shots that would let me leave my modern world and see la Cité, whenever I chose to do so, back home. I could also share part of what I experienced with family and friends.

I began with several wide-angle exterior shots, then panned from left to right, taking images that I hoped to use in a montage of what lay before me. I selected details including some of the 52 towers, arrow slits, wooden hoardings from which defenders could shoot or drop stones onto attackers, gargoyles, and others. Finally, I shot white clouds billowing overheard against an intense Provençal blue sky, then ended on the fortress.  It all felt right.

The closer I got to la Cité, the more I understood its physical strength. The rough-cut stone exterior guarded a second wall, providing additional security for the occupants. Inside the double walls was the site of an entire village with a fortress castle and the Roman-Gothic Basilica of Saint Nazaire.  While the original fortification dated back nearly 1400 years, the current structure was completed in the 13th century. In the mid-nineteenth century, more than 15 percent of that structure was either rebuilt or renovated, adding to its mystique.

Cafes and shops on a cobbled street in the walled city of Carcassonne

As I entered its walls, I saw another side of la Cité, and lost some of my suspension of disbelief. Along with the various interior rooms and structures of the fortress, I encountered pricey cafés, restaurants, and shops selling a variety of tourist items. I also saw some of the 50 or so residences inside the walls. All of this was not what I was seeking, momentarily feeling that I was inside a modern tourist trap. I was able to put that aside and imagine what the place must have been like in the 13th century, making my experience awesome and nearly overwhelming.

Soon, I was trying to shoot images of the interior without tourists in the scenes. But I also included some to act as a bridge between the past and the present. By early afternoon, I had completed my introduction to la Cité.

For several hours, I wandered the interior, along the narrow walkways, past living quarters and armories, storehouses and crafters’ quarters, and all of the other historic spaces, as well as modern ones. La Cité is a massive structure, nearly intact, especially after the major renovations of the 1850s, and gave me a true feeling of what it meant to live in a walled-military fortress. I had a sense of security with the double-walls surrounding the interior, and also a sense of place and home. Innumerable towers rose from the interior, adding to the medieval quality and, for me, reinforced the role of la Cité in the lives of those who lived under her influence and control.

While the original occupants were gone, the places where they lived, loved, worked and died were still there.  My imagination easily took control and began to transport me backward in time. I merged with the other visitors, found a café, and enjoyed the ambiance, letting it all surround me. For those few brief moments, it was as though no problems were lurking in the shadows of my present life.

Carcassonne at night

Fireworks over the citadel of Carcassonne to celebrate Bastille Day

At night, Carcassonne showed another side, with the artificial lights changing its feel and texture. I walked outside and photographed the fortress, capturing it in the warm wash of the massive flood lights. Her solid walls and rising turrets seemed to grow out of the land upon which they stood, invincible and permanent.

I felt an inexplicable power rising from behind those walls, drawing me like a Siren, into a past where life seemed more clearly defined. This is the world of Roland and Arthur, when the Code of Chivalry ruled their society and behavior, I thought.  I know that world so well through the works of Sir Thomas Mallory and all of the images I saw in films and on stage. Yet, there was more. I paused in my thoughts, then continued. It is a place where its knights were pure, where might was right, and where the hero protected the helpless. I paused again. Where are our heroes now? I wanted to believe that others around me also shared my thoughts and feelings.

I walked toward la Cité, shooting along the way, knowing that I could never capture in a two-dimensional world what lay before me. I ignored the nods and greetings of those I passed. I needed a few minutes alone, to find my core, again. Carcassonne had taken something from me: My modern view of the world and my life. La Cité gave me something so much better in return: A wonderful sense of place and time.

I crossed through the massive main entrance, the heavy iron-and-wood portcullis secured high above. Without thinking, I climbed a set of worn sandstone steps leading to the ramparts high above.  From there I had a panoramic view of the land. I let myself go backward in time, escaping the realities of my present life.

Suddenly, I felt myself move toward the edge of the battlement. I glanced down, panicked. and imagined the ground rushing up to me. From behind me, a hand seized my arm and firmly held me in place.

“Monsieur, you are fine,” a casually dressed, burly man in his forties, said. He pulled me closer to the interior stone wall of the walkway, out of danger.

“Someone bumped me…I think,” I whispered. I stopped, trying to catch my breath. “I thought I was going over the wall.”  I slowly inhaled. “When I caught myself and turned to look for them, they were gone.” I paused to collect my thoughts. “Then, you appeared. Merci. Merci.”

“De rien,” the man said, with a gentle voice. “The walls they are high, n’est-ce pas? He gave a slight smile, and said, perhaps it was just the vertigo, Monsieur. Many are not accustomed to the height.”

“Oui, c’est possible,” I replied with relief, knowing that I had not dropped thirty feet.

Others on the battlement approached me, concerned for my welfare. I weakly pushed away from the stone wall, breathed deeply, again, then ran my hand over my face. I turned to the man who had just helped me. “Merci,” I repeated. I was still perspiring, my heart was slowing, and I felt weak and unnerved. I knew I had to stand…to regain control. I looked at the concerned visitors and smiled. “Pas de problème.  Merci,” I said as I regained control.

“Bon,” my savior nodded and smiled.  “Bonne vacances.” With a light wave of his hand, he walked away.

The moment was gone and I was back in my time.  Yet, I knew that I had needed to explore the interior, to fill that hole inside that grew as I came closer to la Cité. For some reason, the place got to me at the end. Maybe it was just vertigo. It was a strange sensation…I felt as though I were being drawn there, but backward in time; I loved that feeling. I also knew that it was time to leave and enter the world of today. As I walked along the ramparts, I stopped for a few moments, realizing, with a growing clarity, what had happened: I might have fallen from the battlement, but I didn’t. I was given a remarkable opportunity to explore a world that I had dreamed about for many years. Now, in some small but important way, I had entered that world and time – however brief – and I was satisfied.

By John Pekich  producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA

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