Tales of the cité

Sixteen years ago we bought a tiny, biscuit-coloured house in Carcassonne. It crouches in the deep shadow of the battlements of the medieval Cité at the bottom of a steep, uneven flight of stone steps leading up to the Porte d’Aude.

We knew nothing about the place. It was just one of those random decisions that have unexpected and far-reaching consequences. I had no intention of writing a novel set in Carcassonne. I’d never even been to southwest France.

But in November 1989, as I stood outside the little house in the Quartier Barbacane looking up through the cloud of rain and mist at the fairytale towers and turrets of the Cité, I felt immediately at home. I read everything I could get my hands on – the Romans in the 1st century BC, the Visigoths in the 5th, Charlemagne and Dame Carcas, the 8th century Saracen queen after whom the city is named, the Albigensians in the 13th, the Nazi Occupation in the 20th. I collected guide books, history books, incomprehensible medieval theology, even Occitan poetry and proverbs. I hunted down traditional festivals, such as the extraordinary – and enduring – medieval fertility rite of the Fête de l’Âne in Ladern-sur-Lauquet. I wanted to be more than just another visitor passing through.

Carcassonne is a town divided. The medieval Cité, restored (controversially) by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the second half of the 19th century, sits high on a hill on the right bank of the Aude. On the other side of the river is the Bastide Saint-Louis. First built in the 14th century, it underwent a period of massive expansion and prosperity during the 19th century and was rebuilt on a grid of narrow cobbled streets. For more than 600 years, the two halves have been linked by the perfect medieval stone-arched bridge, the Pont Vieux. A battered metal crucifix halfway across marks the point at which the old and new towns meet.

From the moment they learned to climb, our two children treated the medieval Cité’s three kilometres of ramparts as their playground. Every summer, in the space between the outer and inner walls known as the lices, there’s a medieval joust. The sound of metal on metal, the thud of the quintain and splinter of wood ring out much as they would have done 800 years ago.

The medieval heroine of my novel Labyrinth, Alaïs, lives in the Château Comtal. Constructed on Roman and Visigoth foundations, the castle was built as part of the western fortifications in the 11th century by the Trencavel dynasty. Although many of the oldest buildings are now gone – their stones scavenged to build the Bastide St-Louis – the main courtyard, the Cour d’Honneur, the smaller Cour du Midi and the distinctive watchtower, Tour Pinte, remain.

Unlike the Bastide, the Cité’s network of tiny cobbled alleyways and streets is more spider’s web than grid. Many of the older inhabitants have lived within the walls for generations. Head for Place Marcou, a small square in the heart of the Cité, or, for Belle Époque splendour and a beautiful ivy-covered façade, try the luxurious Hôtel de la Cité on the site of the old Episcopal Palace beside the Basilica Saint-Nazaire.

In 1989 there were few English tourists. Carcassonne had not yet been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. Ryanair didn’t yet serve the tiny airport – now there are two flights a day from London alone. There was an air of loving neglect surrounding many of the monuments, despite the fact that, in the early 20th century, Carcassonne had set out to market itself as a tourist destination. The tourist office opened in 1902, one of the first in France, repackaging medieval history as an alternative to the fashionable but idle resorts of Cannes or Nice. Postcards reproducing a line from Gustave Nadaud’s famous 1863 song – ‘Il ne faut pas mourir sans avoir vu Carcassonne’ – were mass produced. The campaign worked. More than 10,000 visitors arrived on the new railway line between July and October 1905. One hundred years later, a staggering three million visitors come to Carcassonne every year, and it has appeared on the big screen in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It is the second most-visited site in France outside Paris.

They come for adventure in the mountains and hills around Carcassonne, too. Gaunt silhouettes of ruined castles – Lastours, Quéribus, Peyrepertuse – pepper the landscape. And then there is Montségur, the spiritual centre of the Cathar Church in the Languedoc from 1204 until its final defeat at the hands of the French Crusaders. The ‘safe mountain’ citadel perches perilously on the top of the mountain looking out over the Pic de St-Bartélémy and the hidden caves beneath the Pic de Soularac, where my novel both begins and ends.

When Montségur fell in March 1244, after 10 months of siege, more than 200 Cathars were burned alive in a pyre constructed on the lower slopes. Now a small stone stèle stands in the Prats dels Cremats to mark the spot. Flowers, scraps of poetry and fragments of material are left at the foot of the cross in tribute.

Despite the stream of visitors across the foothills of the Pyrenees, and the overcrowded August streets of the Cité, the spirit of the place is strong. The real Carcassonne – or Carcassona, to use its older Occitan name – can still be felt. Beyond the ice creams and plastic swords, it’s there in the hills, in the brilliant Midi light, in the violent summer storms and flash floods, the dry, evening wind from the north, the Cers, that blows down from the mountains, just as it did 800 years ago. It is a land of secrets still.

· Labyrinth by Kate Mosse is published in hardback by Orion. To order a copy for £9.99 including free UK postage, call the Observer Books Service on 0870 836 0885 or visit www.observer.co.uk/bookshop. For further information visit www.mosselabyrinth.co.uk

Kate Mosse’s address book secrets

Places to eat

In the medieval Cité try Le Jardin de la Tour (00 33 4 6825 7124), 11 rue Porte d’Aude, La Cit&eacute. Set within a 19th-century building, in the shadow of the medieval walls and the Tour du Justice, it has an excellent wine list and a varied menu with plenty of local specialities.

Alternatively, for a slice of life of the rich and famous before the First World War, make a reservation in the main restaurant of the Hôtel de la Cité (04 6871 9871), Place Auguste Pierre Pont, La Cit&eacute. It has an outstanding modern French menu, but is expensive. Formal dress code. Booking essential.

The best croissants, pain au chocolat, tartes and madeleines in the Cité are at Blanche de Castille, rue Cros-Mayrevieille, just inside the main gates into the Cit&eacute, the Portes Narbonnaise. There’s also a wonderful selection of teapots to buy too!


If you’re after replica swords (and I have a few), there are a couple of good souvenir shops at the junction of rue Cros-Mayrevieille and rue St Sernin. However, if you’re interested in genuine objets, weapons or maps, the oldest surviving antiques shop in the Cité – and still the most reliable – is Antiquities at the bottom of the rue Porte d’Aude.

Essential sight

You must visit the Château Comtal (04 6811 7077). Although access to the Cour d’Honneur, the main courtyard, is included in the basic entry price, it’s worth investing in a ticket that includes a guided tour and access to the western battlements.


Until 28 August the walled Cité plays host to medieval concerts, theatre and pageantry. Le Chevalier de la Foi, a semi-dramatised display of jousting and stage fighting, takes place every afternoon in the Lices. With fantastic sword fights, trick riding, quintain and lance, the riders’ exploits would make Orlando Bloom pale. Call the tourist office (04 6810 2430) for performance times.


There are several good bookshops in the lower town, Bastide Saint-Louis. My favourite is Librarie Breithaupt, rue Georges Clemenceau. I buy all my writing notebooks here – a different design for each novel!


Place Carnot is at the heart of the chequerboard of streets that make up the Bastide Saint-Louis. The main weekly market takes place every Saturday morning with a mouth-watering selection of local products. For lunch, head for the shade of the plane trees at Bar Félix, but arrive early to be sure of a table.


The Hôtel du Soleil le Terminus (04 9280 7400; www.hotels-du-soleil.com), 2 avenue du Maréchal Joffre, opened at the end of June 1914 as the Grand Hôtel. The ornate gilt and gold decorations, mirrored walls and wrought iron staircases of the Grand Café are still in pristine condition. A taste of café society life entre deux guerres.

Trips out of town

About 2km outside Carcassonne, close to the village of Montegut, is the Lac de la Cavayère. A magnificent artificial lake, created in 1988, there are three beaches, excellent (and safe) swimming, as well as a peaceful (and challenging!) wooded walk around the periphery of the lake.

Constructed high up in the pine trees and forest above the lake is the magnificent Parc Acrobatique Forestier (06 6825 3383), a superb treetop adventure assault course.

If you have time to visit only one Cathar castle, make it Montségur. The ruined citadel sits nearly 2,000 metres above sea level, overlooking the Pic de St-Bartélémy and the Pic de Soularac.

Local wines

Domaine Begude (04 6869 2041) lies above the small hamlet of Cépie, just outside Limoux. An English couple, James and Catherine Kinglake, bought it and are producing an excellent Chardonnay (among other wines). Tastings and tours are scheduled to start this month. In the foothills of the Montagne Noire, is the old family-run business of Château Villerambert-Moureau (04 6878 0026) which produces a wonderful Minervois rosé and drinking and eating reds.

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