While la Bastide St. Louis of Carcassonne was founded in 1248, few buildings from that period still stand. That’s because they were built of wood, and had a tendency to catch fire.

The Black Prince....Grrr!
The Black Prince….Grrr!

Not to mention that in 1355, the Black Prince, aka Edward of Woodstock who was then the Prince of Wales, burned the place to the ground.

If you look at la Bastide from above, you can see that, aside from a grid of streets, not a lot was planned.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 3.46.23 PMBuildings got added onto. Narrow streets from centuries ago got built over and are now corridors within buildings.

A street, back in the day
A street, back in the day

The son of our apartment’s previous owner, who grew up there, said rumor is that the whole Bastide sits on a honeycomb of tunnels and secret passageways. Exciting!

I was trying to imagine what life must have been like, back when our place was new. Between 1628 and 1633, the plague killed 1,895 people in the Bastide, or a quarter of the population. Things were worse in la Cité, where residences were smaller and more cramped: 2,146 dead, or half the population of the fortified town.

The people who picked up the dead were called ravens because of the black veils they wore over their faces. Robbers disguised themselves as ravens to move around town with impunity.

The town fell into an economic depression. The authorities let in workers, weavers and artisans to make up for the drop in tax revenues. The fabric industry had been tightly controlled because Carcassonne’s products were renowned for their high quality, sought even in Italy and the Middle East.

Eventually, the Bastide was home to many increasingly rich drapery merchants. The fabric was exported via the Canal du Midi, which was completed in 1681. In 1694, the drapery factory on the Cité bank of the Aude was founded and named, two years later, as a royal supplier. It was the golden age for Carcassonne.

La Manufacture Royale de la Trivalle
La Manufacture Royale de la Trivalle

Some of those buildings have been restored. The Manufacture Royale, for example, was renovated for €500,000 euros and now houses government offices. Drapery merchants built their fine homes in the 18th century, such as Hôtel de Rolland, which is now city hall, or Hôtel Roux d’Alzonne, which is now a middle school.

What do the echoes of the past say to you?

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6 thoughts on “Imagining the past

    1. Only la Cité is within the walls–it’s the original walled city and the only part of Carcassonne at the time of the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars in the early 1200s. Carcassonne fell pretty quickly in 1209 and residents were forced to leave. That didn’t improve the situation, and the French king known as St. Louis finally ordered a new town built, on the other side of the Aude river, for the refugees. The new town also was fortified with a wall–a bastide. So “new” Carcassonne–la Bastide–dates to 1260-ish. La Bastide and la Cité are a short walk apart, over a beautiful stone bridge called “Pont Neuf”–new bridge.

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      1. Thanks so much for taking the time to piece together the history for us all. I have travelled close to Carcassonne, but, as we were there in summer and suspecting that it might be very touristy, we did not make it a priority to visit. Your stories and photos are enticing me back!

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      2. If it weren’t spectacular, tourists wouldn’t come, would they…Midday at the peak of summer, it is definitely crowded. But mornings and evenings are fine. Plus, there are cool events (concerts in July, medieval programs in August) that are totally worth it. It’s also worth considering staying in the Bastide, which would be a destination in itself anyplace else (hard to compete with la Cite) and which is more about typical French life.

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  1. That was my question, too. Thanks for clearing up what’s been a big ??? for me.
    Although I’ve read that la Cité as it is now is largely a reconstruction of the 19th (?) century. The destruction of Catharism didn’t leave much behind, apparently.

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    1. Actually, la Cité fell without much of a fight (word about the slaughter in Beziers had made people ready to just give up). But the residents were forced out, and the neglect was a big part of why it fell into ruin. The pictures I’ve seen of the pre-restoration Cité show the walls and most of the buildings intact, but, for example, the roofs are missing from the towers. The decision of Viollet-le-Duc to use gray slate roof tiles is one of the controversial things about his work (terra cotta tiles were more likely to have been there). Eventually, as the population grew, people moved back into la Cité, and used whatever they found (like loose stones from other buildings) to make homes. The space between the walls was completely filled with dwellings and the Cité was kind of a slum. You can read about the restoration on the French national monuments site: http://www.monuments-nationaux.fr/fichier/m_docvisite/177/docvisite_fichier_15D.carcassonne.EN.pdf

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