Via Tolosana Day 25: a short train ride back 818 years

Toulouse to Carcassonne: Kilometres don’t count travelling on SNCF

Aside: (The unfolding of my journey thus far has been a slow one. Sincere apologies to my patient readers!  Despite best intentions, life has got in the way of the re-telling, but mostly I’m enthusiastic about tackling the next journal entry, photos and sound bites. But now when I come to recount this day, I’m met with a deep uneasiness as the experience was not at all comfortable, or as I expected).

Another great night of sleep – having one’s own room does wonders! And the sheets on the bed!  It is the little things – and they all help.  I was up at 6am writing morning pages, and went down to see Philippe off at 6:30am, but unfortunately I missed him. I would catch up with him through the visitor’s books – always a handy way to see where other friends have stopped.  I left early too (at about 7:20am) and was at the station after some stops at the just-opened shops for fruit, pain and jus and more than a couple of longing looks in shop windows.  10 Euros brought me a ticket to Carcassonne which I thought excellent value.

My pack was wet, but I put it in the luggage rack and sat down next to a woman who I struck up a conversation with later – but first there’d be drama. A guy got on and wanted to sit in the same seat as my neighbour across the aisle, and so he had a long discussion with the conductor about it.  Then just before the train departed, a guy collapsed in the end compartment (different guy) where our bags were and where lots of people were standing – as they didn’t have booked seats.  I’m not sure whether he was taken off, or recovered. It certainly didn’t delay proceedings for very long.

My close neighbour was a creche worker on her way to Perpignan for a holiday on the beach with friends.  We chatted, and I stuck my maps of the area in my journal (as is my habit).  I find it is handy to have some heads-up about places when I travel. What I have been known to do is photocopy Lets Go guides, Frommers and Lonely Planet pages and cut them out on the plane, saving them in an envelope and then sticking them in at the appropriate place in my journal when I get to the town.  It works well as sometimes I get a little map of the town centre and it helps to orientate myself and see the main attractions.  I felt more prepared when I got off at Carcassonne.  Just the name to me feels so ancient that it almost seems wrong to catch a train there.

My map also told me that it is a town split in two – the old city in a way is like an island as it is walled and separate from the newer town which is on the west side of the river and into which you arrive by train.  The new town looks like any other.  For some reason, I thought of my favourite cafe au lait from Le Cafe Flo, and I wondered whether I could find one here. I stopped just across from the train station after traversing the road bridge over the Canal du Midi (yes it was a surprise seeing it even though I knew it came through Carcassonne and it had narrowed significantly for the lock). The cafe of choice seemed to have a friendly and welcoming waiter, and he confirmed he had wifi – always a helpful thing.  Usually any cafe within a couple of hundred metres of a train station is a bit twee, and I don’t prefer them, but the wifi is very helpful.  Unfortunately the coffee came out more like a cappuccino than Flo’s so I think I’ll have to wait to get home to High Street for those.

I did my usual wander in ever-decreasing circles, trying for ages unsuccessfully to find the Office de Tourisme and thinking about what I wanted to do tomorrow.  I was looking for information about the surrounding abbeys, as there are a whole number that were key in the Cathar history and wondered whether I might try and hire a bike to see them.  In Sydney I had pored over the internet listings with my friend, trying to help her find a familiar name or characteristic of the place where we may have been together. There were a few tours, but I didn’t want to do the set ones. It looked like the distances would prohibit bike riding in a day trip, and I didn’t really want to bother with the car hire.

Across the road, there was a re-purposed church that was now housing a little exhibit about Carcassonne through history.  I honed in on the period around the 1100s, but didn’t find anything in particular – my friend had suggested 1198 was a key date for us.  I walked out of the built up, commercial centre of the town (Bastide Saint-Louis), crossed the beautiful Square Gambetta, over the Pont Vieux to R. Trivalle to find my abbey accommodation.  On the outside wall, there is a beautiful trompe-l’œil again depicting history through medieval illuminations. I took this to be a good sign.

I made my way inside to talk to the woman behind the desk. I vacillated for a time about whether I wanted to stay two nights, but ended up deciding to pay for two – not a great decision it turned out.  I took my little key with a ring and bell-like wooden appendage up to the 2nd floor in the lift to find my room.  It was just near the lift, and it looked inwards towards the central garden, with the spire of the chapel in my horizon.  There was a shared bathroom at the opposite end of my corridor with new-ish laminate shower cubicles with those massive plastic locks that you twist across to secure – good for arthritis in their hands. The toilets were next to the lifts but they didn’t have any toilet paper in them when I got there, and despite me asking, didn’t have any all the time up until I left.  I wasn’t impressed, not least because the stash I’d made sometime earlier, was running out.  In my little room, that did at least have a tiny sink and a cupboard to hang things in, I tried to access the wifi, but it didn’t work.  All of this combined made for a strange welcome to Carcassonne. It didn’t feel right.  I managed to connect to wifi eventually, but then couldn’t get it for the rest of the day. I even tried accessing it sitting on a bench outside the office downstairs, but to no avail.  I was still in two minds about what I wanted to do tomorrow, but I put off the decision about it until after I had explored ‘La Cite’, which was right next door.

It was still overcast as I scaled the steep stairs that led up to the carpark and next to the ramparts of this ancient relic.  My legs were tired and it was only morning still. My knees also felt fatigued.  It was spitting with rain a little, but I developed a strategy for keeping my bag and largish SLR camera dry. I’d tuck them inside my jacket and do up the zip. Luckily I’d dropped a few kilos so it all fit inside, but it did make me look a funny kind of pregnant. It would do.  With my jacket done up, I got hot walking around.  I walked along the tiny cobble-stoned lanes with the throngs.  It reminded me of the touristic-ness of a cross between St Guilhem le Desert and Mont St Michel where I had visited previously.  When you’ve been walking out in forests and through fields of sunflowers, nothing quite prepares you for the bustle, the sweet smells of crepes with chocolate and the commercial overwhelment of post-cards, medieval kids costumes, medieval adults paraphernalia, swords, crowns and rings!  A visual cacophony of consumerism.  I couldn’t work out whether it was an underlying uneasiness in the place, or this in-my-face marketing.  Whatever, I wasn’t really enjoying it quite like I had anticipated all the way from Australia.

I made a pretty direct route through the old town, and found myself at the Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus and went inside. The hum of people talking in hushed voices was surprisingly interrupted by the practice of an organist who seemed to be struggling with a movement from Handel’s Water Music – I can’t remember which one. I wondered whether he or she was rehearsing for a wedding sometime.

Emerging back into the brighter light of the dim day (you know those ones where you can feel the strong sun behind the clouds), I noticed that the chapel didn’t quite seem to have enough skirt around it. It very grand, but was hemmed in on most sides by old buildings and ramparts and only had one entrance onto the small square it nestled next to.

In my wanderings I had seen many people walking around ramparts and along little pathways up several stories on the outside of turrets.  I wondered how they got there and after finding the ‘Adelaide Restaurant’, realised I was hungry.  Adelaide looked nice, but was a little pricey for me as I was already blowing my budget on my accommodation, so I settled on another cafe just near the entrance to the chateau. It occurred to me that you have to pay to enter Le Chateau Comtal, which is of itself a national monument – and that’s how you access the remparts.

Lunch was a menu du jour (menu of the day). Onion soup (not as good as Flo’s), the regional specialty – Cassoulet du Maison and pear with chocolate sauce. I, of course, needed to go the whole way with a kir as well. All for 15.50 euros.

With a full stomach, I paid my 8.50 euros for a tour of the Chateau et Remparts de la Cite de Carcassonne, after a 20 minute wait in a queue for tickets in the sun (now out), then made my way inside. Starting with an 11 minute film about Carcassonne, it was an interesting visit. The funny thing is that the men who chose to restore it over the turn of the 20th century, did so according to their whims of what it might have been.  It is nice to think that medieval castles looked like this, but there seems to be evidence of a vast amount of creative license in this re-imagining.  The site was packed and it was easy to see this was the busiest day of the year. I wonder whether La Cite might even be a little unnerving if it was deserted.  The route took you up ancient stairs, into chambers filled with all kinds of museum pieces.  Of course it was also summer, so it was bound to be busy. I heard many different languages, including lots of Spanish. There was an absolute crush for the ramparts by the time I got there, so I walked patiently behind the long single file walking up stairs, though rooms and along the outside exposed areas for only a little while, before realising this was going to get even more frustrating. So I turned around, went against the tide and went back to where I’d started from. It seems my tolerance for crowds has lessened.

Escaping the madness with my life, but grateful I’d seen the spectacle of a national monument on Assumption, I sat for a few minutes to read a few of the books they had in English about Cathars in the bookshop.  What a fascinating time in history.  I put two books on my list for when I return: Stephen O’Shea’s, The Perfect Heresay and Kate Mosse’s, Labyrinth.  Just two to get me started.

With the sun coming out, I fled the compound and went back to L’Abbaye and the comfort of my bed for a short hour-long nap.  Dinner was at 7.30pm, no more, no less, according to the woman checking me in.  I did a few trips to the office to try to work out the wifi situation, and the no-toilet-paper situation, but no luck.  I also sat still and realised I didn’t want to stay in Carcassonne for another night even though I’d paid for it. I felt strange, the place didn’t give me a good feeling. I decided to ask about a refund. I wrote a little blog for a while and went to dinner at 7.30pm.

I met a lovely retired Swiss barrister, Michelle, who is in the process of moving to Montpellier, but taking time out to attend a paper-making course in Carcassonne.  We had a lovely chat over dinner, and she told me she would be going to process up the hill following Mary.  I decided I would go with her.  After dinner Michelle and I were returning to our rooms before venturing out and we discovered four boys (visiting with the German football team from Munich) who had set up mats in the corridor ready to say their prayers.  Michelle respectfully took her slippers off to walk across their mats.  I grabbed my camera, then met her near her room.  At the end of her corridor, the sun was setting and we were blessed with the most awesome sunset.

We walked back along the road I’d come along earlier in the day from the Pont Vieux and we met the procession that had just started from the small chapel on the other side of the river, Notre-Dame Sante: complete with gold Mary and candles!  I was only going to process to Notre Dame de L’Abbaye, but it was a calm procession on a beautiful night and it felt right to continue with it, and Michelle, right up to the Basilique again – oh what a night!  We joined at the back, and then walked back the way we came, paying some euros for our little candles and the words to the music. We paused for readings and songs at a statue of Mary that was draped in a beautiful cloth.  Then, with the help of the lovely gendarmerie, the procession of perhaps a couple of hundred people slowly moved up towards La Cite.

The towers and ramparts looked beautiful and I got some wonderful photos of the walls and the procession.  I also took photos of the TOLERANCE installation by a French artist, Guy Ferrer (1955) .  It was a bit of a late night, but this kind of going with the flow always feels right to me.

I recognised the word chemin in the the beautiful song, Marche avec nous Marie and I decided it was like a personal message to me to get back on the road and walk.

Marche avec nous, Marie

1 – La première en chemin, Marie tu nous entraînes
A risquer notre “oui” aux imprévus de Dieu.
Et voici qu’est semé en l’argile incertaine
De notre humanité, Jésus Christ, Fils de Dieu.

R/ Marche avec nous, Marie, sur nos chemins de foi,
Ils sont chemins vers Dieu, ils sont chemins vers Dieu.

2 – La première en chemin, joyeuse, tu t’élances,
Prophète de celui qui a pris corps en toi.
La Parole a surgi, tu es sa résonance
Et tu franchis des monts pour en porter la voix.

R/ Marche avec nous, Marie, aux chemins de l’annonce,
Ils sont chemins vers Dieu, ils sont chemins vers Dieu.

3 – La première en chemin, tu provoques le signe
Et l’heure pour Jésus de se manifester.
“Tout ce qu’Il vous dira, faites-le !” et nos vignes
Sans saveur et sans fruit, en sont renouvelées.

R/ Marche avec nous, Marie, aux chemins de l’écoute,
Ils sont chemins vers Dieu, ils sont chemins vers Dieu.

4 – La première en chemin pour suivre au Golgotha
Le fruit de ton amour que tous ont condamné,
Tu te tiens là, debout, au plus près de la croix,
Pour recueillir la vie de son cœur transpercé.

R/ Marche avec nous, Marie, sur nos chemins de croix,
Ils sont chemins vers Dieu, ils sont chemins vers Dieu.

5 – La première en chemin, brille ton espérance
Dans ton cœur déchiré et la nuit du tombeau.
Heureuse toi qui crois d’une absolue confiance ;
Sans voir et sans toucher, tu sais le jour nouveau.

R/ Marche avec nous, Marie, aux chemins d’espérance,
Ils sont chemins vers Dieu, ils sont chemins vers Dieu.

6 – La première en chemin avec l’Eglise en marche,
Dès les commencements, tu appelles l’Esprit !
En ce monde aujourd’hui, assure notre marche ;
Que grandisse le corps de ton Fils Jésus Christ !

R/ Marche avec nous, Marie, aux chemins de ce monde,
Ils sont chemins vers Dieu, ils sont chemins vers Dieu.

7 – La première en chemin, aux rives bienheureuses
Tu précèdes, Marie, toute l’humanité.
Du Royaume accompli tu es pierre précieuse
Revêtue du soleil, en Dieu transfigurée !

R/ Marche avec nous, Marie, aux chemins de nos vies,
Ils sont chemins vers Dieu, ils sont chemins vers Dieu.


1 – The first way, we trained you Marie
A risk our “yes” to God’s unexpected.
And here’s what planted in clay uncertain
Of our humanity, Jesus Christ, Son of God.

R / Walk with us, Mary, our faith journeys,
They are paths to God, they are paths to God.

2 – The first way, joyful, you’re slender,
Prophet of the one that took shape in you.
Word has arisen, you are its resonance
And you crossed the mountains to carry the voice.

R / Walk with us, Mary, the paths of the announcement,
They are paths to God, they are paths to God.

3 – The first way, you cause the sign
And time for Jesus to manifest.
“Whatever he tells you, do it!” and our vineyards
Tasteless and fruit, are renewed.

R / Walk with us, Mary, to the ways of listening,
They are paths to God, they are paths to God.

4 – The first way to follow to Golgotha
The fruit of your love all condemned,
You stand there, standing at the foot of the cross,
To collect the life of his pierced heart.

R / Walk with us, Mary, our paths cross,
They are paths to God, they are paths to God.

5 – The first way, your hope shines
In your heart ripped and the darkness of the tomb.
Happy you who believe with absolute confidence;
Without seeing or touching, you know the new day.

R / Walk with us, Mary, the paths of hope,
They are paths to God, they are paths to God.

6 – The first in the way with the pilgrim Church,
From the beginning, you call the Spirit!
In this world today, ensures our walk;
That grow the body of thy Son Jesus Christ!

R / Walk with us, Mary, to the ways of this world,
They are paths to God, they are paths to God.

7 – The first on the way to the shores blessed
You preceded Mary all humanity.
The Kingdom accomplished you are precious stone
Clothed with the sun, transfigured in God!

R / Walk with us, Mary, the paths of our lives,
They are paths to God, they are paths to God.

It was a poignant procession. Some keen singers would sing all the words and harmonies, but the crowd really joined in when the choruses came and the sound flowed towards us from further ahead. With the ‘Ave’ of Ave Maria, people would raise their candles up heavenward, maybe spurring her on her way.  It was really quite a tender experience that overlayed over the violent past of this town.

Michelle had told me over dinner that you can hire Deux Cheveau (Citroën 2CV) – so I was a little conflicted and thought I should do that tomorrow. I’d sleep on it.

Returning after the procession, I said goodnight to Michelle and went to bed, saying I’d see her at breakfast.  It was a noisy night. After I’d got into bed, I went out to ask the kids in the little meeting room next to my room, to please be quiet.  It worked and I slept well. I tossed and turned a little, but a good night’s sleep in a good dark room (aided by outside shutters pulled closed).  With my alarm on I don’t need to see sunrise, and anyway, it doesn’t rise before 7am. Michelle couldn’t quite believe I wanted to be up for brekkie at 7.30am.

1 thought on “Via Tolosana Day 25: a short train ride back 818 years

  1. Pingback: Acoustic Motorbikes or Le Tour de France | other states, other lives, other souls

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