The French Connection: Day 2 – Carcassonne

After breakfast, I wandered around town for an hour before heading to my guesthouse to dump my rucksack. Check in wasn’t until 5pm and even a 40l rucksack can start to feel heavy if you have to carry the damn thing around all day.

My first port of call was the Old City, up on the hill. I spent most of the day wandering around up here.

It’s been a fortified hilltop since Roman times but I was more interested in its Cathar history and specifically the Pope deciding to launch a Crusade against it in the 13th Century.

Previously, there had been good relationships between Rome and Carcassone – in 1096, Pope Urban II blessed the foundation stones of the new cathedral. By 1209 Pope Innocent III was launching a crusade.

The Cathar movement was widespread across Europe having started in the 7th century. It was a Christian system but differed with the Roman Catholic Church in a number of key ways: they didn’t believe the Eucharist WAS the body of Christ; or that God was the one true god and that Satan would inevitably be defeated; or that the priesthood was necessary. Women also enjoyed greater equality. It was particularly popular, and therefore a powerful movement, in Southern France.

In 1198, having assumed the papacy, Pope Innocent III resolved to deal with the Cathars and sent a delegation of friars to the Carcassonne region assess the situation. The Cathars were seen as not showing proper respect for the authority of the French king or the local Catholic Church, and their leaders were being protected by powerful nobles who had a clear interest in independence from the king.

Pope and King had a shared interest here then and the Cathars had pissed off two powerful figures. When diplomatic means to halt the spread of Catharism failed, the Pope declared a Crusade in 1208. He offered the lands of the Cathar heretics to any French nobleman willing to take up arms. Presumably the French King had to support this or he would have nabbed them for himself.

The Crusades largely continued until 1244 and these, with the creation and institutionalization of both the Dominican Order and the Medieval Inquisition wiped out all traces of the Cathars by the 14th Century. Some historians describe this as a genocide.

The Dominicans preached the Church’s teachings in towns and villages in order to stop the spread of alleged heresies, while the Inquisition investigated people who were accused of teaching heresies.

Beziers and Narbonne, towns near Carcassonne, were massacred and captured or surrendered before the Crusaders turned on the hilltop. Carcassonne was well fortified but vulnerable, and overflowing with refugees. The Crusaders travelled the 45 miles between Béziers and Carcassonne in six days, arriving on August 1, 1209. By August 7, they had cut the city’s water supply. By the 15th, the Carcassonne surrendered. The people were not killed but were forced to leave.

And the outcome of this Crusade? It was the fourth Papal Crusade and longterm… it’s probably reasonable to say it backfired on the Papacy. The scale of the bloodshed meant that it was a struggle to recruit to the Fifth and Sixth Crusades. It also created a dependency on the French Monarchy. Both issues weakened Rome.

After lunch…

… I headed down to Place Gambetta in the Low Town.

Constructed in 1861, Place Gambetta’s small park replaced the Place du Charbon (place of coal) as well as various surrounding buildings. It was then renamed Place Sainte-Cécile, after a saint that was popular in the area. Following the death of famous French lawyer and republican politician Léon Gambetta, it was renamed to Place Gambetta in 1883. Gambetta is considered the founder of the Third Republic in France.

During WWII Germany occupied Carcassonne and in 1944 they demolished much of the square. Unfortunately, after this vandalism only two rows of trees remained. These trees are still present in the square today. Following the Liberation of the City in 1944, the garden was restored in French style. The restored garden was unveiled in 1948.

The latest redesign of the garden occurred in 2015 and the trees have been added to with statues, a fountain and 1,500 roses of 25 different varieties.

What strikes me about Carcassonne is, yes it is October and therefore out of season, but it’s also a Saturday… is just how quiet it is. Wandering around this evening, I saw a lot of quiet restaurants, their owners standing in the doorways looking out onto largely empty streets.

The Italian towns I visited in May were fairly quiet for the start of Summer but Covid regulations were still being eased there. Carcassonne seems eerily quiet.

Categories: Carcassone, France, The French Connection, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. IS your guest house nice? Mine in Llandudno was grimey.

    Liked by 1 person

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