Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

September 26, 2021
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Holding down the fort

Perfectly preserved Carcassonne makes a stand for medieval France

At the crossroads of major trade routes between the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, France and Spain, the medieval town of Carcassonne was coveted and conquered by many during its brutal 2000-year history. Today the hordes that swarm the gates are tourists -- some two million who visit annually, hoping to experience the illusion of being back in the Middle Ages.

Lying in a wide valley between the Massif Central and the Pyrénées in France's Languedoc region, it is the largest, best-preserved fortified town in Europe. Its ramparts rise above the Aude river ending in a series of turrets, towers and crenellations which surround the medieval part of town known as La Cité. The rest of the formidable structure consists of two cordons of stone walls -- one dating back to the Roman era, another to the 13th century -- totalling three kilometres and interspersed with 52 watchtowers. No wonder Walt Disney modelled the castle in Sleeping Beauty after it.

Yet Carcassonne might not even have survived if good fortune hadn't smiled on it. By the 1800s the town was dilapidated and the French government had slated it to be demolished. The medieval citadel had lost its importance two centuries earlier when the border between France and Spain was moved farther south. Neglect had set in and builders were carting away the fine-cut stone for other projects.

Under pressure from concerned citizens, the French government reversed its decision in 1849 and hired renowned architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc to rescue the site. He proceeded to restore it in his own vision of what a medieval town should look like, adding touches such as the conical roofs usually found on 19th-century Loire Valley châteaux.

The renovation cost the state a king's ransom -- though no one seemed to know what was to be done with the place afterwards. Luckily, the problem vanished when the railway arrived a few years later, bringing tourists curious to see a medieval walled town. These days busloads of visitors alight at the entrance and stroll through the crooked streets trying to imagine what life was like 1000 years ago. Most come only for the day and at night La Cité is home to its few permanent residents.

Until recently, life in Carcassonne was anything but a fairy tale. The town was conquered many times. Traces of Roman, Visigoth and Moorish occupation and fortification are still present and can be appreciated by taking a guided tour.

But the most turbulent chapter in its history is not nearly as visible. In 1209, under the patronage of the Trencavel barons, a dissident but peaceful Christian movement (called the Albigensian heresy by its detractors) flourished in the area. Its followers, known as Cathars, condemned the corruption that was prevalent in the established Church of the day.

Pope Innocent III declared such disobedience unacceptable and ordered a crusade to stamp out the heretics. As an incentive to anyone who volunteered, the pontiff promised to forgive their sins. Meanwhile, the French king, Philippe Auguste, offered his nobles any land that was conquered. Takers were legion.

The crusade's defining moment occurred in the nearby town of Beziers. When the town fell, the crusaders couldn't distinguish between heretics and true believers. "Kill them all," Papal Legate Arnold Amaury is reputed to have said. "God will know his own." By the time they were finished, the streets were littered with the corpses of all 20,000 inhabitants.

The crusaders then turned their attention to Carcassonne, where people from the surrounding countryside had taken refuge after burning their crops. The town's normal population of 4000 had swelled to 40,000, putting an unsustainable strain on its limited food and water. The Achilles heel of any fortress built on solid rock is its water supply -- the wells were by necessity located outside the safety of its perimeter. Within two weeks they were forced to surrender.


Having no stomach for a repetition of the carnage that occurred in Beziers, the crusaders allowed the heretics to leave. However, there was one condition: they had to depart carrying nothing but their sins. Thousands of barefoot, scarcely clad wretches stumbled out of a side door and wandered into the charred remains of their fields. In the space of 20 years the Cathars had been ethnically cleansed.

After these grisly events, a period of relative peace prevailed under the French monarchs. A second outer circle of ramparts was constructed and La Cité was never attacked again by a professional army.

On the other bank of the river, a new town, variously known as the Bastide de Saint-Louis or Ville Basse, was laid out along a grid. It became the commercial centre for the area. Wealthy merchants who prospered during the textile boom in the 18th century built the mansions whose faded grandeur gives the quarter its charm today.

One of the best vantage points from which to admire the citadel is the Pont Vieux, the old bridge over the Aude, that links the two parts of town. From there, at sunset, you can also watch the fortress's golden stone turn a dozen shades of orange and purple. At night floodlights make it appear ethereal. Much more spectacular are the fireworks on Bastille Day every July 14 when it is lit up in a fiery display reminiscent of a medieval attack.

A short walk up the slope from the bridge will bring you to the Porte Narbonnaise, a massive stone gateway. Buttressing it are two 20-metre towers with red conical roofs -- one of the most enduring images of the whole complex. After you cross the drawbridge over a dry moat, you enter the pedestrian cobblestone streets fronted by shops selling postcards, trinkets and souvenirs with medieval themes; the plastic swords and armour are especially popular with little boys. But it's not all kitsch; some of the better stores stock antiques, linens and a cornucopia of gourmet foods.

Continuing with your exploration of the town -- if you manage to get past the many patisseries without stopping to buy petits fours, éclairs or croissants -- you will arrive at the Château Comtal (count's castle) in the heart of the fortress. Tours of the 12th-century keep and its museums retrace the town's tragic past.

A standard tour also takes in the Saint-Nazaire Basilica. Started in the 11th century, it took 300 years to complete and contains both Romanesque and Gothic elements; it was also restored by Viollet-le-Duc. Its slender columns and stained-glass windows make it one of the most beautiful churches in the region -- a perfect venue for the free organ recitals on Sunday afternoons in the summer.

Behind the basilica in the Greek-style amphitheatre, concerts are performed in July. And during the first two weeks of August, the town stages the Spectacle Médiéval, a theatrical re-enactment with period costumes. Jousting tournaments take place in the afternoon in the lists, the wide area between the two rows of ramparts.

Besides its monuments, the town is typical of this part of the country for the richness of its gastronomic pleasures. Regional specialities like foie gras and cassoulet are offered in many establishments. One of the liveliest spots to enjoy a meal is the bar-and-bistro-packed square of Place Marcou with its tables and umbrellas set out under the plane trees. Here gourmands can also indulge in multi-course menus in several upscale restaurants.

The Ville Basse, where the majority of Carcassonne's population lives, is also a good bet for dining out and food shopping. Not to be missed is the farmers' market on Saturday mornings in the Place Carnot. It bustles with shoppers stocking up on local produce, pâtés, cheeses and bread. You couldn't do better than to buy a picnic and enjoy it in the fortress's fairy tale setting.

Dr Abraham Langdon practised as a general surgeon in and around London, Ontario for 30 years before retiring three years ago. He is an avid hiker, traveller and photographer.


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