Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Lost in time in a city that still breathes

It's difficult to know what you expect of a place like Carcassonne: a sort of Disneyworld for grown-ups, cotton wooled for all time so that visitors can 'oooh' and 'ahhh' over eternally recreated scenes of medieval life?

That, of course, would mean that the old city itself had found itself in some sort of time vacuum at the end of the medieval era and stopped changing and developing.

But the truth is that La Cité didn't stop growing and developing, inside the walls, until very recently, as even a brief wander shows.

We didn't reach it on Monday night. Stage three of our journey had only concluded in mid evening and in gloomy weather. And the moment that I was able to sit down and remove my walking sandals and plasters, there was the evidence of what I knew had happened in the course of that yomp from station to hotel: I had three blisters.

There was only one thing to do - try some German engineering. I pulled out my Birkenstocks - a pair that has only been worn once - and decided to give them a shot.

I have notoriously difficult feet: small, but with a wide fitting, with hereditary hammer toes and bone spurs on my heels. Buying shoes is the nightmare of decades. Or rather, wearing shoes in is the nightmare. I carry plasters as a matter of routine.

Two years ago, in Potsdam in Germany, I finally found a pair of Birkenstocks that would fit. After getting used to toe posts, I have almost worn them into the ground. So this year, I managed to order more directly from the company, thus bypassing the apparent refusal of British importers to stock a European size 35.

On Monday night, even without plasters, I was able to stroll comfortably over the bridge that spans the Aude and into the town that surrounds the base of the plateau that La Cité stands on. When we found nowhere open for dinner, I was able to comfortably wander back to the hotel.

We're not great ones for eating in hotels, but there seemed little choice. As it happened, this was a very good restaurant indeed - hardly hampered by being on the fourth floor, with a panoramic view over the river to the walled city. As dark descended, we were able to watch it slowly light up while we ate.

And eat we did. Expecting more seasonal weather, it had occurred to me that we might not really want to try something as filling and wintery as a cassoulet on this trip. But nothing about Monday had made us feel such a thing and we both ordered this regional speciality.

As is the way with such things, there are probably as many different ways to make a cassoulet as there are people who have ever done so. Add to that the local rivalries and arguments about, for instance, whether a layer of bread crumbs should go on the top, and you have something where it's difficult to know exactly what an authentique version will be like.

It came in a lovely old earthenware dish, with sausage, confited duck legs and pork, swimming in unctuous fat, with masses of ivory haricots. Perfect food for hungry travellers.

It' a remarkably subtle dish - and an enormously comforting one too. Generally speaking, I 'cheat' on beans and use tinned ones, but this made me think that there might be a value to doing it the traditional way: presumably, they are much better able to soak up the flavours of the dish without falling apart.

The following morning dawned grey. We'd decided to set out straight for La Cité and have some form of breakfast there.

I opted for the Birkenstocks again, with t-shirt and shorts but jacket - it was far too humid to be so bulked up - and we set off. Within a short while, as we started an ascent up the side of the plateau, it was raining. Drizzle turned to something heavier. I had no umbrella either, since everything was geared to the camera that hung around my neck. I hate feeling cluttered.

We missed the entrance recommended by the guide book we had with us, and carried on alongside the towering old walls, dodging puddles and getting very damp indeed, even though The Other Half was trying to cover us both with his brolly.

Eventually, we found the main entrance, with its little bridge over the old moat and then the short hop between the outer and inner walls and so to the city gate itself.

Heaving with tourists and with the rain now pouring down, we fled up a tiny side street and into the first cafe we came to, deciding to hide out the worst of the shower while we had coffee and croissants.

Having done that - and after I'd splashed €9 on a brolly - we started to wander, only for the rain to increase again a short while later. This time, we found a small bar and ordered Cokes, as The Police played in the background: an incongruous juxtaposition of place and music.

The weather was playing games. Every time it seemed to have lessened and we left cover, it came on again. There were limits to how much we wanted to look around the shops selling apparently endless souvenirs, including large amounts of toy knights (plus damsels, distressed or otherwise, dragons and siege engines) and assorted plastic swords, shields and helmets.

Finding ourselves drawn to a gateway in the inner walls, a gust of wind swirled up and attacked my brolly, reversing it and pretty much dealing it a death blow there and then.

We gave up and went in search of lunch in the first possible place. Moderate duck confit, with piles of fries and beer filled more time as well as stomachs. And then we decided that that was enough, and headed back down the hill.

At the bottom, with time to kill, we slumped into chairs under cover outside a delightfully Bohemian cafe and ordered beers, while a classical radio station played the sort of music that added to the soothing effect.

And while we sat, the sun came out.

Back at the hotel a short time later, the priority was soaking feet and a change into dry clothes. By then, it seemed as though the rain was holding off.

We made our way back over the Aude and, taking an easier road route that we'd finally spotted, re-entered La Cité in the sun.

Even the shops seemed nicer. I found one that sold proper, locally made earthenware pots for cassoulet, and then couldn't resist a real gourmet's shop that sold pastis mustard and Camargue salt. The woman in the shop knew a good customer when one appeared, and after sniffing assorted truffle products in near orgasmic fashion, a pot of truffle salt was added to the bag. Earlier, I'd picked a box of salt in a small shop down in the town, which the woman had only half joked was a 'grand cru' among salts. The lesson of that salt in Bordeaux had been learnt, but it was to occur again when we finally found a restaurant for dinner.

Before that, we found a bar with a garden and sat for a slow beer. Gardens in this walled city were a revelation: my expectation had simply been crowded streets, but not only had they made space for public spaces, there were plenty of gardens too, with some now being used as places to eat and drink.

The restaurant if Saint Jean, which catered for locals as well a tourists, also allowed us to sit out, right next to ramparts and towers, with only a hedge between our table and the moat.

The menu was short, but with obvious differences from the more 'tourist' eateries elsewhere within the walls.

For the first time this trip, we opted for a starter. The Other Half had eggs cocottes and I plumped for beef marrowbone on toast, having never eaten it before - well, with the exception of a tiny bit as a garnish on Bruno Loubet's hare royale last December.

It arrived as four pieces of bone on individual toasted slices of baguette. You break the 'seal' with your knife and push or pull it onto the toast; spread and garnish with the good salt that arrived with it.

This is nature's ready made pâté.
What can I say? It was utterly divine: sweet and yet light at the same time; gloriously fatty and messy. Heaven on a plate or a piece of toast. So much a dish of this meaty area - and another illustration of a philosophy of nose-to-tail eating.

I had a very nice piece of monkfish in orange to follow (indicative of the nears of Carcassonne to the coast) and finished with a raspberry tiramisu. Well, I say "finished", because our waiter charmingly brought us a shot glass each of a delightfully smooth brandy-based digestif, which had a lovely almond taste.

Our wine for the meal - recommended by the waiter - was a Borie de Maurel Minervois 2010, which was a jolly fine recommendation, being not at all expensive and very enjoyably fruity.

We ambled back through La Cité, enjoying the quietness, with most of the crowds having departed. Suddenly, you had a different sense of the place.

But although its main business is tourism, the walled city of Carcassonne is not a museum, but a living, breathing little city. And for all that there is a part of me that would rather like to see it devoid of (other) tourists, I am ultimately far happier that is lives like this - even if it does mean having to dodge endless children with pretending to be knights.

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