Thursday, April 30, 2015

My First Thoughts About France

Let's start out by saying that I have spent some time in France.  It's one of the most beautiful countries in the world.  If I were to do a television series about France I would probably call it the history of France, because everything there has a history.  The food, the art, the architecture, the land, the roads, the bridges, the fashion, the language--everything.  Each section of France has a different lifestyle, different culture, different tradition, different palate, different view.  The folks up north live in a more British background, the people of the southwest live a more Spanish lifestyle, and the people on the southern shore are completely different yet.  It's an amazing journey to travel through France, and I highly recommend the whole trip from border to border to border to border.  I hope that my off again, on again ramblings about certain places in this magnificent country can help you with your ideas and travels.

The Castle in the Pyrenees, by Rene Magritte was my beginning of fascination with that region of southeastern France.  Reality doesn't really fall that far from the surrealist's image.  The Pyrenees mountain range extends around 270 miles across southern France and the highest point is Pico de Aneto at 11,168 ft.  They are rugged rock face mountains that make for very dramatic views.  The best part is that they are full of surprises.  One of those surprises is the plethora of Cathar Towers in the area.  Cathar castles were not mighty fortresses built to show wealth or power.  They were hiding places that would help protect the Cathars.  This religious group flew in the face of Catholics during the time of Catholic domination in Europe.  The Cathar belief differed from Catholicism and they were deemed heretics for their beliefs and were sought out by the church's armies.  The Albigensian Crusades were the church's quest to destroy the Cathars during the 12th and 13th centuries.  Cathars are long gone today, but the so called Cathar Castles are some of the most amazing structures in southern France.

 Every grouping has it's ruler, and Carcassonne is the king of Cathar Castles.  This is a medieval town that really makes you think of the world of King Arthur.  Carcassonne is the largest intact medieval fortified town in Europe.  It has 52 towers and a double set of walls.  It is extremely well preserved and a must see in the area.

 Inside Carcassonne is an entire village.  In the high tourism months it can feel a bit like a tourist trap, but I assure you, the beauty and the history will more than make up for that.  It has all that you would imagine it would with shops, restaurants, chapels, and cathedrals, ramparts to walk along, and amazing views from the walls.  It is a walking environment what with the narrow streets and historic atmosphere.  You will feel like you've walked onto a movie set.  It will seem as surreal as Magritte's paintings, but it is a real part of history.  It's honestly hard to wrap you mind around the idea that his walled city has been there for more than 1,000 years.  It survives today and is one of the most treasured properties in all of France.  There was a time when the government had discussed letting it go and the people would not allow that.  I think they made a good choice, because it's one of the most amazing places I've ever seen.  Today it is a protected World Heritage Site and well taken care of.

Different parts of the city were built at different times.  It was refortified at one point with an extra outer wall.  There are bridges, remnants of a moat, tunnels entries, gates, and the towers.  This place was rarely overtaken and could outlive almost any siege with it's multiple wells and storage areas.  Hands down, a must see, along with other castles in the area.  You will never forget this though.

Traveling to Carcassonne is something to look into carefully.  There are many options, and you should find the one that's right for you.  The train is always a good deal and of course, it goes everywhere in the country.  There is a train station in nearly every town.  They are easy to navigate and pretty well priced.  There is also the option to fly to Carcassonne, but you will have to take Ryanair to the local airport.  That's not hard, because you can catch it from London for a very good price.  That's the thing I was talking about a couple of entries ago.  Just catch some transatlantic flight to Paris or London and take Ryanair from there.  Option number three is to rent a car.  I always like this idea, because the scenery in the Pyrenees is some of the most amazing you'll ever see and driving allows a lot of freedom from itineraries.  That's just me.  Most people will not want to take on southern France without some guidance on the first trip.  I have rented a car in France and I liked it, but bring some maps, because the sat nav that comes in the rental cars is a little off in my opinion.  I like to have my old fashioned back up.

Here's the second part of the Adventure for Anyone.  Option number four is to take a canal barge.  That's right, Carcassonne sits on the Canal du Midi and you can take a river barge cruise to get there.  It's something that I always love to do, because it's relaxed and the views, once again, are amazing.  You can take a cruise from Marseillan to Le Somail and stop at Carcassonne along the way.  The boats that come from the few companies that offer this amazing option are floating hotels with great food and great service on board.  They are relaxing and scenic.  The trip is part of the history here, because the canal is another part of history.

You will get to travel through ancient locks and over water bridges as part of you trip.  It's an amazing way to go, and you won't have to find your own way.  So, it's up to you on this one.  If you like to do things on your own, I still say drive.  That train is convenient, but I like the freedom of the car.  If you would like something more structured to get your feet wet in southern France, I would take the barge.  It's different and gives you a truly unique perspective on the area.  There is that plus that the people on your cruise are there to help you have a great time.  I love France, but sometimes the locals are a little harsh and not as friendly as I would like.  In that way, a cruise can really take the edge off.  For the France savvy, I say rent a car and go for it.

Hands down, Carcassonne is the coolest medieval fortress town I've ever seen.  It's not Paris, but then again, Paris is crowded and hectic.  I write these blogs so that people will discover the more amazing parts of the world, and pretty much all of France is more amazing than the hustle and bustle of Paris.  So, hit the road, waterway, airport, or train to the south of France and the Pyrenees, home of the Cathar Castles and their ruler, Carcassonne.

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