main street carcassonne

carcassonne panoramaLooks can be deceiving: Carcassonne is not a castle. Surrounded by almost 2 miles of fortifications it’s the largest walled city in Europe. The first signs of settlement in this region of Languedoc date to about 3500 BC, but things didn’t take off until the Romans identified the hilltop site as strategic and started building fortifications. Next came the Visigoths, who expanded the fortress into a fiefdom – until the Papacy stuck its nose in. Pope Urban II arrived to bless the foundation stones of a new cathedral and turned the growing city and its environs into a secondary seat of church power – all the better to launch a crusade against the pesky Cathars, a religious group which rejected Catholicism as the Church of Satan. Holy war, as we all know, is very good for business. More ramparts went up, dungeons were built, and towers were erected to house the Inquisition. Carcassonne became a border citadel between France and Spain that remained unconquered until the 17th century, when an economic revival under Louis XIV trumped the city’s military significance. In truth Carcassonne wasn’t so much conquered as absorbed into a burgeoning colonial empire. Cite de Carcassonne, as it’s now called to distinguish it from the modern-day town of Carcassonne down the hill and over the river, is no longer a functioning city – technically. Yet it’s been restored to varying degrees of authenticity in an example of artistic simulacrum. Populated with shops, hotels, and tourists eating ice cream at outdoor cafes, the city appears at first glance authentic. But not unlike Disneyland’s Main Street USA, it’s all a facade. And yet I have to give someone serious props because it’s an awfully good one at that.
carcassonne main street

carcassonne

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of the many castle amenities

Of the many amenities to be found at Castelo de São Jorge perhaps my favorite is the en plein air urinal at the front gate. A hole in the ground; half a hemisphere of shoulder-height metal for privacy.  Simple and practical, it certainly beats hunting down a public toilet.  Plus, who could resist the urge to relieve oneself under such decorous signage?  Sorry, ladies.

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castelo de são jorge

After the tricked out palaces of Sintra, the shell of Castelo de São Jorge – or St. George’s Castle – is a bit of an architectural come down.  (Although it must be noted that this former fortress has borne witness to the entire sweep of Portuguese history: from the Iron Age through to the Phoenicians, Romans, and Moors.)  Occupying the highest hill in the city, the views from the citadel survey the wide expanse of Lisbon, as you’d expect. That alone makes it worth the climb. That and the peacocks.

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pena palace

Consort to Portugal’s Queen Maria II – and cousin of Bavaria’s “mad” King Ludwig – Don Fernando II built Palacio Pena in the 19th century atop a ruined monastery perched on the summit of the highest hill in Sintra. Overlooking a vast expanse of countryside, the view – on a clear day – extends all the way south to Lisbon.  Influenced by the romantic and eclectic tendencies of the time, the Don oversaw the creation of a revivalist palace incorporating artistic styles from antiquity to the Renaissance, while entwining art of the Far East with Arab-style domes and minarets.  In short, he built himself the ultimate over-the-top fantasy castle; a worthy rival to Neuchswastein. Almost as dramatic as the castle are the surrounding gardens; a remarkable project of landscape transformation Lord Byron likened to “a wonderful Eden.” Initially barren at the time, the hill was turned into a 200-acre arboretum of historic gardens, grottoes, fountains, and lakes, imbued with the same Romantic taste for the exotic so evident in the palace.  It’s all terribly dramatic and hauntingly beautiful; a testament to the Romantic ideal of man’s supremacy over nature. Pena has spoiled me, I think.  It’s what I always imagined a fairytale castle should be.  And more.

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