“Where in the world are . . . Tracy, Alan, and Kiara the micro-dog?”
“Where the heck is Carcassonne? I know France . . . a little. Paris . . . and the Normandy Beaches from WWII . . . and Provence from all those photos of fields of lavender . . . the French Riviera . . . the Canne Film Festival . . . and those wine places: Burgundy, Champaign, and Bordeaux. Alright, I really don’t know anything about France and never, ever heard of Carcassonne before.”
So, what about France?
France, the République Française, is the largest country in western Europe and the third largest in Europe overall. The “Hexagon” — the approximate shape of France — is a little smaller in area than Texas and basically located in the center of western Europe. To the north is the Atlantic Ocean and English Channel and to the south is the Mediterranean Sea, France is bordered by Spain, Andorra, Monaco, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium. France has overseas regions including French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion and Mayotte and additional territories like French Polynesia. This is similar to Alaska and Hawaii being U.S. states although not part of the contiguous United States and U.S. territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. France has about 1/5 the total population of the U.S. with 65 million citizens, compared to 316 million in the U.S. France has been the number one tourist destination in the world for the last 20 years. Geographically diverse with three major mountain ranges, major beaches, and scenic valleys, France is also ethnically diverse. France’s colonial past and tolerant culture has made it as much of a “melting pot” of peoples and cultures as the United States. Paris is the capitol to France’s semi-presidential constitutional republic that shares many aspects with the U.S. system of government. France is the fifth largest economy in the world and the second largest economy in Europe. And yes, the language in France is French.
So, exactly where in France are we?
There are 22 regions in Metropolitan France and 5 regions overseas. The regions are roughly the same as states in the U.S. but with less autonomy. Each region has a capital (think state capital). We live in the Languedoc-Roussillon region and our regional capital is in Montpellier. It is the eighth largest city in France and its fastest growing for over 25 years — it’s also the size of Reno, Nevada with approximately 255,000 residents. The immigration office we work with is headquartered there. We live in the city of Carcassonne, about 90 miles from Montpellier.
Within the region of Languedoc-Roussillon there are five departments (think of the departments like a county): Aude, Gard, Hérault, Lozère, and Pyrénées-Orientales. Carcassonne is located within the Department of Aude and is its Prefecture (the “county seat”). With Languedoc-Roussillon being adjacent to Spain and the Pyrenees there is a Spanish Catalonian influence to food and culture here. There is also the local regional dialect of Occitan (a mix of French, Spanish and Italian) still spoken in the region although French is the official language.
Carcassonne’s history as a settlement dates back to about 3500 BCE. There was the Roman colony Carsac on the same site in 100 BCE. Carcassonne has been occupied by Romans, Visigoths, Saracens, and Crusaders. The beginning of what was to become the largest existing walled city in Europe started in the 3rd Century with the Romans fortifying their outpost with walls. Through the centuries the fortifications continued to grow and expanded to today’s huge citadel with two massive outer walls three kilometers in length with 52 towers and barbicans. One of these towers housed the Inquisition in the 13th Century and is still known as ‘Inquisition Tower’. There are drawbridges, portcullis, arrow slits, and machicolations (murder holes – basically holes in the ceilings to drop rocks on people’s heads) to defend the fortress. Portions of the film “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (1991) with Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman were shot in and around Carcassonne. In 1997, le Cité de Carcassonne was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites.
Carcassonne has a current population of about 48,000 residents (somewhat smaller than Carson City’s 55,000) and consists of three distinct areas.
1.) Le Cité de Carcassonne, the historic fortified citadel located at the top of the hill on the right bank of the River Aude. Le Cité is home to museums, restaurants, shops, and hotels.
2.) The Ville Basse (the lower town) or le Bastide de Saint-Louis is located on the left bank of the River Aude. The Ville Basse, our current home, is an irregular hexagram with narrow streets in the typical grid layout of the 13th Century. The Ville Basse has historic reminders of it’s former walls with three of the town’s four original bastions at the town’s corners and the impressive medieval Jacobin Gate (Porte des Jacobin).
3.) The new town. The modern city and suburbs that has grown around the original medieval city .
We are enjoying our new home in the Ville Basse. At the end of our block is Pont Vieux (the old bridge), the stone bridge built with its twelve semi-circular arches in the early 1300s. This pedestrian bridge crosses the River Aude and leads up to le Cité de Carcassonne. The parks on both the left and right banks of the Aude are Kiara’s favorite places to walk and play.
In Carcassonne’s Ville Basse we have been finding many new favorite spots, one of which is La Petit Moka with its outdoor seating and great coffee. Near our apartment is Square Gambetta, host to a rotating variety of special events including open air markets, new car shows, and flea markets. The Musée des Beaux Arts (Museum of Fine Arts) is at the west end of Square Gambetta inside an 18th century hôtel.
The town square, Place Carnot, is home to the open air market on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, where we shop for fresh fruits and vegetables The square has a fountain of Neptune at the center and a grandstand at one end. Its perimeter is lined with cafes and shops. Place Carnot is a perfect location for people watching and a morning café creme, an afternoon café, or an evening pichet de vin (carafe of wine). Interesting historical note: during the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, four people were guillotined in the Place Carnot. Nowadays, our favorite coffee place La Petit Moka is there.
At the north end of the Ville Basse is the Gare de Carcassonne (train station) and the section of the Canal du Midi that flows through Carcassonne. The Canal du Midi, like Le Cité de Carcassonne is a UNESCO World Hertiage Site, it is a 225 mile long network of navigable waterways linking the Mediterranean to the Atlantic through 328 structures (locks, aqueducts, bridges, and tunnels.) Built between 1667 and 1694 ,the Canal du Midi paved the way for the Industrial Revolution in France. There are now recreational barge cruises on the canal.
To the south of the Ville Basse, is the Jacobins’ Gate, Porte des Jacobins, a remaining example of the four former gates when the Ville Basse was still surrounded by a wall. The Jacobins’ Gate is registered as a historical monument. Outside the gate are fountains and gardens.
Our apartment is located one block west of Square Gambetta, approximately six blocks from Place Carnot and 1/2 block from Pont Vieux. A 20-minute walk from our front door will find you at either the train station (Gare de Carcassonne) or Le Cite (the citadel) depending on whether you head north or south. The Jacobins’ Gate is less than 5 minutes from our apartment.