France the French way


Carcassonne – I was there in the year 1209.

Posted: 2011-10-04

No one will believe what I am about to write. When I set off from my hotel ( beneath the fortified town of Carcassonne I was planning on a gentle stroll through the cobbled streets before having a cooling beer and quiet dinner at the end of a long day entertaining clients on my current tour of south west France.

It was 7pm as I approached the Cathedral of Carcassonne. From the square in front of the church the spine-tingling rich tones of an organ reached out from the inside of the church drawing me inside. It was incredible. The last of the late summer sun was all directed through the stained glass windows, leaving a kaleidoscope of colours through the nave of this 11th century church. On top of this there was this music that completely enveloped the place. I was the only one here as the music and atmosphere enveloped me.

Sitting in the Cathedral in Carcassonne

When churches were built, one of their purposes was to seduce you and to give you a quiet moment from the trials and stresses of daily life. I was seduced!
I sat down at the back of this large church, all alone. As I sat and marvelled at my privileged situation here in Carcassonne, a young man came and sat next to me. What on earth  was he wearing  – a beautiful military style tunic with gold braiding on his epaulets, and riding boots which were caked in thick red dried  mud. Was this some sort of joke? There was something that worried me about this young man. He was probably in his early twenties, but he carried the rank and appearance of someone very important. He looked so concerned, and wore premature lines around his eyes, even though his skin was heavily tanned and smooth  – I really couldn’t guess his age.
“Isn’t this a beautiful place” I suggested to this stranger.
“Yeah, it’s beautiful, and I hope it can help me get out of a situation. I’m in real trouble” said my stranger. “Look” he carried on, “I’m Roger-Raymond, the Count of Carcassonne, and I’ve got the French Army two days away, and they plan to get rid of all of us”.
I’m sorry, the Count of Carcassonne is sitting with me? Not possible. It must be the year 1209! I check my watch – that doesn’t help, it says it’s 7.14pm.
The ridiculous thing is, I know this man. I’ve read about him over the years, so I know where we are. The French King and the Pope’s forces are after him. This young man of only 24 years old controls a large chunk of south west France. This area is full of people who have a different view on Christianity than that demanded by the Pope. The Cathars as they were called practiced a Christianity that dealt with love and shared responsibilities between women and men. As well Roger-Raymond has towns of Jews which he controlled, like Beziers and Narbonne. The King and Pope had asked him to rid his land of these people. Bit heavy don’t you think?

Porte Narbonne, La Cite, Carcassonne

Why shouldn’t all these people be allowed to practice their own beliefs” Roger-Raymond said to me. “What really gets me is that all these people are such good folk”. “I’ve just been down to Beziers to try and negotiate with the French Army down there, and they weren’t even interested in me – I reckon they just want a fight”. “But at least I had time to warn all the Jews in Beziers to get right out of there, and hopefully they took my advice”, he continued.
I look at my watch again, hoping it might confirm the date. No, it’s 7.20pm. No-one could believe me –  the year 1209.
“I’ll do anything to protect my people when the French army arrive here, which I’m sure they will, but we can’t compete with their numbers. Do you know that the Pope has said if the French troops fight for 30 days they get a free pass to heaven? I’m sorry I think that’s sick. So of course, every man and his dog want to join their army!” Roger-Raymond explains. His long shoulder-length brown hair falls forward partially hiding the sadness and stress in his eyes.
At that moment a guard runs in to the church. “Sir, an emissary has just arrived from Trebes which needs your urgent attention”.  Roger-Raymond stands abruptly, moves to the centre of the church aisle and graciously and deeply bows before the altar. He turns, but before rushing from the church, he comes over to me and firmly shakes my hand “Monsieur, I bid you farewell, and ask that you make an early escape from my town. God bless you!” With that he left the church!
The organ music came to a dramatic crescendo, and then it stopped. The sound of silence in the church echoed deafeningly. I could hardly breathe, and my shirt was clinging to me with sweat. So I brushed past some camera bearing tourists at the front door and escaped into the warm fresh air. I felt I had to run away from the church. I ran over the cobbled streets, but the cobbles were so rough and uneven that I had to stop and walk. I needed a cold beer! So I soon found an empty table on the central square, and promptly ordered a drink.
I don’t know what had just happened. No-one will believe me. But I thought about Roger. Did he know what was in-store? Did he know that the French would surround his town? Did he know that he was going to run out of water in 14 days, because he hadn’t provided enough water cisterns in his town? Did he know that the French would seize him illegally during planned surrender negotiations? Oh no, I must warn him about that? Maybe I can change his future?

This is the home of Roger-Raymond Trencavel - Chateau Comtal

I had just gone out for a beer and dinner, and now this.  Should I try and warn him. Yes! I couldn’t get the attention of the barman who seemed to be more interested in a young beautiful girl than me (that’s fair!), so I left 5 Euro on the table and left. I made my way past all the diners and headed towards the Chateau Comtal, which was the inner fortress of Carcassonne (La Cité) where Roger-Raymond Trencavel lived. At the top of the main street was his Chateau. From a distance I could see the impressive impregnable walls of Roger’s sanctuary and the powerful welcoming gates. I was excited, my heart was pounding as I approached. I felt lucky. Diners were overflowing on to the uneven footpaths, and tourists were digitally capturing all these images, and I was thinking how they wouldn’t believe what I was about to do.
I crossed the forecourt of the Chateau to the gate. It was locked, and I could see no-one. There must be someone here. I searched around, until I saw a white sign the size of an A4 piece of paper.
“Chateau Comtal, 11eme siècle (11th century)
Opening Times:  10h00 – 17h00
Closed:  Christmas Day
Tarrif: 9 Euro pp
Confused I turned from the gate and slowly made my way down the main street. I imagined the families sheltering in their homes, worrying about what lay ahead. They weren’t to know that their town would be sieged for two weeks before Roger-Raymond was arrested. They weren’t to know that Roger negotiated their safe release, at his own peril. Roger-Raymond never saw his 25th birthday. But as I left the fortified medieval town through the impressive Porte de Narbonne I thought of this young man who perished while trying to protect his own people – people of any race or colour, people of any belief or religion, and I saluted him.
I made my way back to my hotel, and planned for another exciting day on tour ( .

Troops had to breach two fortified walls to access the town - this is the space between the walls (known as "les lices" in French!)