It is surprisingly chilly on the battlements, in the wind-tunnel-narrow streets, even standing in the open space that would have been a moat except that water was too precious to waste on defense. The chill comes from a battle only a geographer could appreciate: Carcassonne sits in a corridor with the foothills of the Pyrenees to the southwest and the Massif Central to the northeast. Between them, the Aude meanders to the Mediterranean coast. The Marin, that warm, moist, sticky wind, flows up from the sea bringing clouds or pouring rain. The Cers, a brighter westerly wind, sweeps in from the Atlantic, following the corridor until it runs headlong into the Marin right there, just over your head as you look out from the battlements, beyond the towers, over the city, to the rising distant landscape.
The substantial evidence of history, religion, trade, rests on the broad shoulders of the city itself. Carcassonne overlooks the trade route that once brought pewter from Cornwall (of all places) to be traded east so the Greeks could make bronze. One of the great religious battles on the 13th century—the annihilation of the Albigensian heresy—proved Carcassonne’s vulnerability; the siege lasted all of two weeks. And, years later, in 1234, the Inquisition came to town to enforce the Pope’s victory. Local residents were compelled to confess or die. Once they confessed, their land was confiscated to enrich the church, the very sense of luxury the Albigensians meant to reform in the first place. This twenty-year crusade, by the way, was brought to you by the same worthy Pope who excommunicated all England: Innocent III.
But visiting Carcassonne has been a far more intimate pilgrimage. I’ve mentioned before in these letters the importance of Richard Halliburton and his wonderful Book of Marvels. Halliburton’s adventures demanded that I wade, someday, somehow, in the Euphrates and leave my footprint in the Fertile Crescent, which, if not Adam and Eve’s Eden, was the paradise where mankind first domesticated animals. When I accomplished that feat of bravery, it did not matter to me that the depth of the river never exceeded 18 inches or that the Crescent, in that area, produces pumpkins. I trust you have your own such places, monuments to your childhood’s fantasies and aspirations. Nothing can alter them in the mind’s eye or the mind’s blessings, not even the trumpet blasts of contemporary reality.
Carcassonne was, for me, the second of Halliburton’s Marvels. It has rattled around my spirit for more than sixty years, and I did not care how chill the wind was, how many tour guides’ pennants fluttered obnoxiously in that breeze, how many seven-year-olds took advantage of the day and their parents and now ran through the cobble streets waving wooden swords and peeping through their beavers.
Of course, I took the usual surfeit of pictures and I invite you to nibble at the fantasies of my youth by looking at them. For me, however, the photographs were almost superfluous. Only the winds were really substantial. They have not changed for the eight thousand years since I first encountered them.
If you pressed very hard, however, you might point out that I was not participating in spiritual exercise when I ate lunch at Comte Roger’s restaurant, the second most posh in La Citie, feasting on foie gras glazed with something sweetly savory and topped with roasted sesame seeds, served on caramelized apple slices. And you would be appalled at the oath I swore at a cab driver who was an hour late, who called me a liar when I said I had indeed telephoned the dispatcher, and who retaliated against my slur by saying “Now you wait two hours. Hummpf.” You would not see the unjust Innocent III in him as his black Audi roared across the Aude leaving me in the unrelenting dark.
The wall and the towers are now more circumspect than they once were. They could look down on all my hullabaloo with a condescending silence that followed me all the way home to the semi-crummy hotel I would not choose to stay in again.
Good night, Mr. Halliburton.