Once the age of 62 is reach in France, a senior citizens railcard can be bought. Our first foray was to Carcassonne to see the medieval city and to benefit from the promise of reclining seats on the overnight trains.
We were disappointed to receive a text message just before departure to say that reclining seats would not be available. The promise of a comfortable seat and a certain amount of sleep was a principle reason for booking the trip. Instead we arrived very tired having spent most of the night awake.
Carcassonne station did not have any of the amenities for processing the arriving tourists. To leave the station we had to lug our suitcases down steps, go through a tunnel under the rails and then climb the same number of steps on the other side. There was no sign of a lift and I wondered how anyone with a disability or a heavy suitcase would cope.
Carcassonne town looked old and worn, with little investment in infrastructure. However our Ibis hotel near the Fine Arts Museum was conveniently situated. An afternoon nap refreshed us and we explored the old town. Away from the principal axes there were many old, dilapidated buildings not at all in keeping with a famous tourist town.
Coming by train means that you have no transport in which to visit the region, but we searched out the bus ticket office and bought bus passes for the week. If I have any travel tips, this is our best one. Buy a bus/tram pass so that when your legs get tired you can go on the longest bus ride you can find, preferably to an out of town shopping centre where you can sit and enjoy a coffee or an ice-cream.
The medieval city was our next day’s activity. Having read about the history of the rebuilding, I expected to see busts of Viollet-le-Duc the architect that planned and executed the resurrection of the ruined and destitute mound that was the city before 1850. I wanted to see ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos featuring the houses that had existed between the ramparts and what it had previously looked like. I expected this man’s work to be honoured, but it seemed like the truth of the modern rebuilding was less attractive than the myth of this amazing ‘medieval’ city. There had been a lot of controversy over his choices of roofing tiles for example, as no-one actually knew what the original buildings looked like as only the floor plans were visible, much of the stone had been taken for use in building houses in the new town – the site had been used as a quarry in effect. Recently, we saw a programme on the TV about Carcassonne which said that the space between the two outer walls had been filled with houses, using the ramparts as convenient back walls. The presenter showed the holes where beams had been inserted and the marks that remained of stairs going to upper floors. Now, that was interesting, seeing what had been removed during the renovation work in order to rebuild the mound as a medieval castle again. We found a little museum of school life between 1880 and 1960 which was interesting. Pictures of children wearing the the dunces cap ‘bonnet d’âne’ feature on their webpage. chttps://www.carcassonne.org/sites/default/files/paragraph/field_fichiers_ressources/2020-02/2019_GUIDE_ENSEIGNANTS_MUSEE_ECOLE.pdf. The poster showing the evils of alcohol and the illnesses it causes could possible be revived for todays gin drinking young people! TIP – take a bus No. 3 to see the castle from all sides.
Another day we took the bus out to Pont Rouge, an out of town shopping centre and saw some of the Canal du Midi en route. Strangely, the canal bed is at the bottom of a steep sided ‘V’ near the town so there is no possibility of cycling or walking beside it.
We took a bus to a lake – Lac de la Cavayère. Happily, there was a young couple on the same bus who got off just before us and disappeared down the road. We searched for a sign post but there wasn’t one, so decided that perhaps the young couple were also going to the lake, so set off in their footsteps. Fortunately, our hunch was correct and we found the lake. Usually, it was possible to walk all round it but there was building work taking place so we couldn’t do the whole circuit. People from the area had chosen their spots in the shelter of the forest and had folding chairs and portable picnic tables otherwise there were not may places to sit and eat. We saw various pretty butterflies and an impressive lizard.
Caunes-Minervois was listed as an interesting village with an Abbey. Again, we could get there by bus. After walking around the narrow streets for quite some time without finding the abbey, we resorted to looking at a map on our phone. Going round in a circle and arriving close to where we started, we mentioned the lack of signs to the concierge of the abbey. “Yes, everyone says the same thing!” she said.
We had passed a little park that had some picnic benches and went back there to eat. The park had many marble works of art, the marble coming from a local quarry. Even the toilets in the abbey had marble washbasins!
The bus is also useful for having a rest when you have walked enough. We took a bus in the direction of the airport just for the ride! it It was at the end of the school day and it went to every village dropping off school children. For 85 minutes we saw every village between Carcassonne and the airport, all for the cost of a 1€ ticket – not bad value!
People told us that we must try cassoulet while we were in the south. We did, and it wasn’t the very interesting. Lots of overcooked beans and too much meat for modern people who don’t do days of hard physical work in the fields. By contrast we had a lovely meal in a restaurant called simply ‘104’ – its door number. Interesting modern dishes, beautifully presented and eaten in a little courtyard.
Just a few hours before our return journey we again received a text to say our reclining seats were not available. When a steward passed our seats, we complained that what we were having to make do with was not what we had booked and paid. The steward looked very surprised and said reclining seats had been phased out and hadn’t been available for a long time. After returning, we wrote to SNCF and got a refund of 82€.