In search of Carcassonne, and some other castles

In the last few years we've really gotten into playing board games. One of our early favorites was Carcassonne, which was simple enough but also gave an outlet to Ann's occasional aggression. So we journeyed westwards to visit the namesake of our erstwhile diversion, though along (and slightly out of) the way, we figured that we'd hit a few of the so-called Cathar Castles* in the Languedoc region as well.

The first of these was Montségur, a ruined castle from the 13th century built near a settlement dating from the age of Neanderthals(!). We arrived after visiting hours but it was still light out and there was no gate, so we scrambled up the little hill, just in time for it to start raining. Still, what an breathtaking view of the Midi-Pyrenees from the top, and we could hear cowbells clanging in the distance.

We stayed at a B&B run by a British woman, and next morning woke up to beautiful sunshine: 

We continued onwards toward Puivert, another not quite Cathar Castle from the 14th century. This one was much better preserved and still had many of its rooms intact, including one for the gathering of troubadours (this came to mind). After a roasting uphill hike, we discovered to our delight and wonderment how naturally cool it was inside stone buildings. Can you imagine living here, with these views!

Looking out from the top of the keep, we were also struck by how the farms, churches, and roads below actually looked like the pieces from the board game. Somewhere in the distance we thought we caught a glimpse of a patch of red, so we decided to go and check it out. After driving around aimlessly for half an hour through muddy farm roads, we found what we've been looking for – a poppy field!

Our rental car has taken a bit of a beating, but we were eager to continue on. We managed to squeeze in a brief stop at the Abbey of Saint Hilaire (where one particular priest had commissioned some ahem very impolite paintings to adorn the walls of his private chamber), before finally going on to Carcassonne.

At a rest stop along Route A61, we finally caught a glimpse of the magnificent walled city:

Since it was recommended to us by multiple people, we made a dinner reservation at La Barbacane (one of the THREE Michelin-starred restaurants in the tiny city). The outdoor seating was located on the ramparts of Carcassone, overlooking the countryside and in view of some of the castle towers. It was a perfect evening and the food was exquisite as it was beautiful.

As a funny side-note, it quickly became clear to us (and our servers) that we were less than familiar with the etiquette of fine dining and overwhelmed by the number of silverware choices presented to us for each course, as we sheepishly learned that we were not to use all of them. To cope with our apparent barbaric savagery, we drank copious amounts of wine and made up a game to entertain ourselves. Each course is one round and the scoring is as below (the higher the better): 

  • For each used silverware taken away and not replaced with same: +1pt for a lucky draw

  • For each unused silverware taken away: -1pt for sheer ignorance

  • For each used silverware taken away and replaced with same: -1pt for inappropriate usage

  • BONUS: If the waiter takes away only used silverware and replaces with unique silverware: +2pt

Suffice to say that by the end of the night we were fairly negative. Until next time! If they let us back...

Potential rules for future outings:

  • Use of the crumb sweeper: -1pt for being a slob
  • Stain on the beautiful white table cloth: -2pt for being an absolute slob

And so concluded our trip to France. Onwards back to Ireland. Final Carcassonne score: we captured many roads, one poppy farm, one cloister, and three castles (I'd say this counts as one with a pennant)!

*The Cathar Castles are a terrible historical misnomer for the sake of boosting tourism. The Cathars were an early Christian sect fleeing the Crusades during the 12-14th century, and had tried to retreat to the Pyrenees foothills before getting wholly expunged. They did in fact build some castles, many of which were subsequently razed and rebuilt, and most so-called "Cathar Castles" today in fact have little to no connections with the Cathars. In the end, we still ended up learning about the Cathars, so I guess it's all good...?

Next: Going home via (mostly) Northern Ireland.