One of our favorite places in Carcassonne to spent time is in Place Carnot, the central town square near the middle of the Bastide Saint Louis (also called the Ville Basse – lower city), the modern city of Carcassonne that lays below the medieval citadel of la Cité de Carcassonne. (Google Earth: 43°12’48.39″ N 2°21’06.21″ E)
“Place” is French for “square.” Place Carnot, while one of many squares scattered throughout town, is the “heart” of the city, the central square since medieval times that has been the main meeting place and market for the lower town. Place Carnot is where the open-air vegetable, fruit, and flower market is held every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. This is the place to sit and enjoy a morning café creme or afternoon Pastis at one of the many cafés’ outdoor tables and watch people walk past. Place Carnot is where you can enjoy watching children chase pigeons past the Fountain of Neptune or skate on the seasonal skating rink that is assembled during the Christmas season. This is where many free musical events and an occasional wine tasting are hosted during the year. If you have an image in your mind of leisurely South of France town life, this is where that image would play out.
The history of the square is very rich. “At the junction of (the main streets of rue de Verdun and rue Georges Clemenceau) . . . , royal surveyors marked out a large square. After 1355, the square was reduced to the size we see today. By doing so, Rue Pinel and Rue de l’Aigle d’Or were created. After the fire in 1622 which destroyed more than 150 houses and the arcades filled with shops round the square, a new corn market (now the covered market) was built on the site of the Officiality. This cleared the square. On 27th December 1792, during the French Revolution, Jeanne Establet, or Joan the Black, was guillotined here with two of her accomplices. Two years later, Father Henri Beille, Vicar of Alet, a non-juring priest became the only victim of the Reign of Terror when he was executed. During the Napoleonic Empire, the square was renamed Place Impériale. It became Place Royale during the Restoration of the Monarchy, then Place Dauphine, Place de la Liberté and Place de la Révolution, Place aux Herbes (1852) and, finally, Place Carnot (1894).” From “Our French Retreat”
My understanding is that the square is named in honor of Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot, French military engineer and physicist, known as the father of thermodynamics. However I have had difficulties confirming that fact.
The surface is a mix of paving stones inset into square or spiral patterns. At the center of Place Carnot is the marble Fountain of Neptune (La Fontaine de Neptune). The fountain is surrounded by a rose-colored marble basin from the village of Caunes-Minervois which has been producing marble since Roman times. Neptune was sculpted by Italian artist Barata and his son and finished around 1771. Beneath Neptune are marble figures of dolphins and naiads. Tracy and I joke that after seeing the stunning sculptures in Florentine and Roman fountains, Place Carnot’s somewhat anorexic Neptune appears to have been created by a “junior varsity” sculptor. Our research into the additional works by Barata has yielded nothing. We wonder if he was a “one hit wonder” in his day.
The perimeter of the square is lined with trees and at each of the four corners is a small lion-headed fountain in the base of a candelabra of street lights with copper shades. Around the outer perimeter are numerous cafés and restaurants with their outdoor tables, chairs, umbrellas and awnings; clothing, cosmetics, tobacco, and food shops; four banks (including ours); and a pharmacy.
Place Carnot is great location to stop and sit, have a café-espresso, and enjoy the sun on your face (especially at La Petit Moka, our current favorite café.) Or you may order another Pastis and silently toast Joan the Black who met her final fate in the square by guillotine.