I was born and grew up in Florida, and just to the south of my birthplace is St. Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement in the continental United States. St. Augustine is a charming and historical city, and location of the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest fort in the United States, whose construction began in 1672. It is a place of imagination and wonder for the young schoolboy I was when I first saw the imposing structure on the waterfront in St. Augustine. It is a source of pride that such an ancient structure has survived the centuries.
Since that time, I have seen big fortresses around the world. But Carcassonne is easily one of the oldest, largest, and the most impressive.
Construction was begun when the Romans fortified the hilltop around 100 BC. The citadel’s long double surrounding walls interspersed by 52 towers were in place by 1130. It is so large that 10 Castillo de San Marcos would fit within its walls.
The town has about 2,500 years of history and has seen the Romans, Visigoths, Saracens and Crusaders … and tourists.
Arriving in the afternoon, the crowds were still about, but as it was later in the day, weary parents were pulling tired young ones through the streets. Souvenir shops with plastic swords and helmets or tiaras and magic wands, lured the little passersby to stop and gaze with tired eyes at the trinkets hanging about.
Hectic as it was, we opted to walk the area between the inner and outer defensive walls rather than venture into the crowds. The distance between walls is between 70 and 100 ft with the inner walls rising over 30 – 40 feet in height, and the many towers built into the walls extend well above the walls.
The distance around the medieval citadel is almost a mile, and as the sun was getting low in the sky and the winds were still howling, we decided to locate our Bed and Breakfast and check in. Fortunately, the B&B was very nearby, and except for a wrong turn and a one-way street, we drove there quickly.
Our Bed and Breakfast Cotê Cite was as delightful as its owner Simone. Though she spoke no English she spoke plainly and slowly, being sure that we understood. We were checked in to our room quickly and given a tour of her lovely home, which even included secure parking for the car. We settled in and went to the patio area where we met two delightful couples from Philadelphia and Boston and spent some time in conversation about travel and adventure.
As the dinner hour approached, we went our separate ways and Jeannie and I wandered back into the ancient city walls to find a place to eat. Compared to the crowds we encountered earlier, the streets were almost empty. Unfortunately, being off-season, most of the restaurants were closed, including those that had been recommended. Hungry and desperate we found a place that was ok, and had outside courtyard seating under large trees that protected us from the wind. Obviously a place that catered to tourist traffic, the menu reflected a pretty unimpressive selection. Though the food wasn’t great, it was filling and the wine helped make it a little better. As we ate, the wind howled above us, yet only light breezes reached us, making for a rather delightful evening.
The medieval fortress took on a very different look at night as we wandered the empty streets after dinner. The ancient buildings leaned in over the worn cobblestone streets as leaves swirled around our feet, and our shadows advanced and retreated as we walked under the streetlight’s soft light. No ghosts or spirits revealed themselves, yet this would have been the setting where they would have appeared. The massive exterior walls and towers were beautifully illuminated yet the strong winds made the possibility of night photography practically impossible. So, we walked the 10 minute route back to the B&B and turned in.
The following day, we had a delicious breakfast and again headed out to the old city to make some photographs in the morning light. It was a clear cool day and the sun shone brightly. The crowds were building quickly, and as we had plans, we returned to the B&B to get the car for an excursion to visit the four Cathar castle ruins at Lastours.