The first time that I went to Carcassonne, it was by train, with a friend; it was a long day of much bus and train travel then pavement pounding (with two young children) on what was an extremely hot August day. In spite of all that and very sore feet, the magic of La Cite (the fortified medieval town) still got through and left its impression and I vowed to return.
Two years later, I did just that. This time, I was with a large group of people gathered to spend a week with my two friends who were over from New Zealand; it was also my first holiday abroad with my now-husband. We stayed in an idyllic location, up in the hills above Carcassonne; a group of gites set in a wooded valley with a stream that glistened over smooth stones, alive with more dragon and damsel flies than I had ever seen in one place before and which my young daughter spent most of the week, in flip flops, trying to catch in her hands. The reason I am writing this piece about Carcassonne, now, is that I had a dream last night that we went back there. We have certainly never forgotten it.
Within moments of our arrival at the gite, it supplied one of my fondest memories to date – as we were taking in our first view of the perfect green idyll that had become our home for the week, the clouds burst and it started to rain; a heavy downpour, the kind that soaks you to the skin in seconds. Rather than dashing for cover, and with all the exuberance of arriving at our holiday destination, we spied a table tennis table set-up in the field beyond the swimming pool and started to play, in fact we laughed our heads off as we ping-ponged in the pouring rain, our clothes stuck to our bodies, my five-year-old daughter, as she was at the time, joining in trying to catch the balls – it was hilarious and I will never forget that either.
We returned to the same gite another couple of years after that and it still looked the same; nothing could spoil the location but it felt different. In the interim, the owner had split from his wife so that the atmosphere struck us as being both more relaxed and less welcoming than before. Loud sing-along parties were hosted under our window until late into the night and the plumbing “played up” all week so that we were forced to arrange showers in his house, under the scrutiny of his obviously disapproving mother. I suppose that’s the risk inherent in returning to a place that has carved a special place in your memory – it may not live up to the idyll you have preserved in your mind. Yet it was still a marvellous holiday and gave us another week in close proximity to La Cite.
On my second visit to the region, our first at the gite, we had timed it so that we could witness the incredible spectacle that is La Nuit du Feu (Night of Fire); a staggering firework display from within the fortifications that makes the medieval city appear as though it is being razed to the ground by fire. This meticulously planned performance attracts over half a million visitors every year on 14th July and had been on my wish-list since my previous visit when we had watched the promotional videos of the event in the castle’s museum.
With a few days at our disposal, beforehand, to spend determining the best vantage point from which to watch the fireworks, we did our homework and decided to take our position near to the walls of La Cite yet outside of them, alongside the River Aude, from where we could appreciate the overall effect at close-quarters. Where we stood was fairly crowded but not unbearably so and we were able to get a good sense of what a celebration this is for the region; there was an overriding atmosphere of carnival about it all. It also gave us a chance to go for a meal in La Cite beforehand, braced as we were to do the legwork to find a much-coveted corner in one of its heaving restaurants, all of them filled to capacity and with queues at the door on this special night, but it was all worth it. Our friends, having much younger children, decided to head for a hill some distance away but we will never regret the fact that we decided to brave the crowds that night in order to stand so close to what we saw and go for the “total immersion” approach to it all. We still talk about it from time to time and, hopefully, my daughter will never forget that she was there, witnessing what was an incredible spectacle from her high-up perch on top of Jeremy’s shoulders.
The other aspect of Carcassonne that has left an indelible mark is the rolling countryside, dotted with stunning villages, abbeys, fields of sunflowers and with views that make you want to pull the car over with your camera at every opportunity.
One place that we made sure we went to on both of our stays in the region was L’Abbaye de Villelongue, a stunning Cistercian abbey, now a bed & breakfast that promises absolute tranquillity (no TVs or wifi here!), with shady cloisters bordering stunning gardens and with the abbey itself somehow all the more perfect for having much of its structure open to the sky and the birds. Both visits to this special place saw me hugely reluctant to leave again and in fact more than happy to meander around with camera and sketchbook in the cloisters and gardens for as long as I could, taking in the collection of gourds (the owner of the abbey is a squash enthusiast) and the mostly blue-painted sticks of furniture – old chairs, iron bedsteads, wheelbarrows – that have been deposited around the gardens as a quirky cross between plant-supports and sculpture amidst the vegetables; take a look at their website to see what I mean. My very first half-presentable oil painting (I won’t show it here…) was of the wisteria-hung abbey doorway and so this place can be credited with inspiring me to paint all those years ago when to do so was still quite daunting and new. I am set upon the idea that, in years to come, once there are just two of us on these trips, Jeremy and I will book ourselves into one of the abbey’s rooms so that I can spend hour-upon-hour enjoying the place’s special atmosphere, painting my fill – an ambition he more shares as he was every bit as captivated by Villelongue as I!
On our third visit, the hills all around where we were staying were dotted with hay rolls and I became utterly consumed with pulling over to take photographs of them feeling, as I did, that I had a painting in the making. The result was my 2008 painting “Hay on Hills” which was purchased by a couple who wanted it for the wall of the farmhouse they were renovating in France. Ironically, they liked it because it reminded them so much of the typically English countryside that they were leaving behind but then, as with most of my paintings, it did result from more than one set of photographs and some of the others I drew upon were of hay rolls on the Chilterns in Oxfordshire, taken shortly after we returned from our holiday. Whatever, this all goes to emphasise that art can be whatever you want it to be and that different people see different things; it is not prescriptive at all, nor should it be.
As I’ve been writing all of this and hunting out photos and sketches, conjuring up memories across three separate holidays, its struck me just how much one place has given me, far more than I could summarise here. I wonder why I had that particular dream last night when its been almost three years since our last visit to Carcassonne – maybe its time to go back there, soon.