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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lounging at the plaza

For centuries the center of Madrid life, the stately Plaza Mayor combines elegant architecture with a history dominated by peculiarly Spanish dramas.  First laid out in 1618 it hosted the beatification of the city’s patron saint, San Isidro Labrador.  It also played host to the macabre rituals of the Spanish Inquisition – burnings on the north side of the square, hangings on the south – until unironically consumed by fire in the 18th century.  Later rebuilt, as many as 50,000 people would cram into the square for spectacles of another sort: bullfights.  Before you attempt to ponder these vagaries, pull up a chair at one of the outdoor cafes around the perimeter and enjoy the theater of Spanish street life coursing through the plaza, which must surely rank as one of the country’s most beautiful.

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