Saturday, 26 April 2014

Spring in the South - Carcassone & Montpellier

Carcassone
Carcassone is a town split into two distinct parts – La Cité and La Ville Basse. The walled town atop a hill is La Cité, but this is only a small portion of Carcassone as a whole. The day I arrived I first of all went for a look around La Ville Basse (roughly translates to the Low Town, as it sits below the hill of La Cité), where most of the town’s residents live. It’s a pleasant place, with lots of narrow streets and both a canal and a river running through it. I didn’t come across anything exceptional in it, being mostly homes and shops, but it was nice enough to have a look around for a while.

La Cité
View from La Cité of La Ville Basse
The following day, I headed up the hill to La Cité, which was unlike any other town I’ve visited in France. From afar, it looks like something from a fairytale, the medieval walled fortress, towers and spires standing above the rest of Carcassone. Inside, it is no longer a defensive site, but a tourist haven. Few people actually live within its walls, so it is mostly made up of shops and cafés now. However, after passing over the drawbridge, the cobbled streets thrum with the bustle of crowds, bringing life and vibrancy to this ancient town.

Château Comtal & Basilique St-Nazaire
Château Comtal
Basilique St-Nazaire
The main sight within its walls is the Château Comtal. Unlike the royal residences of the Loire Valley that I’ve been visiting all year, this is definitely a defensive structure. Its history and functions are all well explained, and there’s also a gallery of stonework, showing the artistry present in the town, alongside its practicality. The château also allows access to the inner of the city’s double ramparts, as far as the Porte Narbonnaise, the town’s main entrance, and provides wonderful views over the rest of Carcassone. The other main structure inside the town is the Basilique St-Nazaire, which is as grand and ornate as any of France’s other cathedrals.

Porte Narbonnaise
The outer ramparts of La Cité
La Cité is enclosed by a double rampart and you can walk between the two around the entire circumference of the town, and climb up onto the outer wall for much of this. I particularly enjoyed this, given that it was such a sunny day, and from the top of the outer rampart you get vast, uninterrupted views over Carcassone and the surrounding area. After I had thoroughly exhausted La Cité, I went back down to La Ville Basse and took a stroll along the River Aude to finish out the day.

Montpellier
While the first few towns on my trip had a considerable amount of Spanish influence on the architecture and language, as I’ve moved further east I’ve noticed this receding. Montpellier felt more like the French towns I’m used to visiting, especially with its large university population, which Tours is also noted for.

Théâtre - Place de la Comédie
Esplanade Charles de Gaulle
I arrived earlier in the day than usual, which unfortunately meant I was stuck with my luggage for a couple of hours before my room was ready, so I sat in the Jardin des Plantes, which is leafy and sheltered, with lots of hidden corners. Later, I went to the large Place de la Comédie, overlooked by the Théâtre, and the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, which were buzzing with life - I do enjoy a bit of people-watching. I even stumbled upon some street performers, who were pretty amusing. I also went to the Musée Fabre, a large art gallery. I like visiting museums sometimes, but I’m not enough of an art of history buff to want to go them all, so this was my first this trip. It’s an excellent gallery, with a huge collection laid out chronologically. It was pretty quiet while I was there, making it nicer to walk around (apart from when security is breathing down your neck), but I did get a little bored towards the end, as it really is huge.

Ring-tailed lemur at Montpellier Zoo
Giraffe at Montpellier Zoo
The next day, I started off by going to Montpellier Zoo. This may seem an odd choice when trying to experience France, as you can go to a zoo anywhere, but this one came recommended in my guide book, and I fancied a change from all the old buildings I’d been seeing. The main park is free and mostly made up of huge enclosures, which give the animals and the visitors plenty of exercise! The only area with an entry fee is the Serre Amazonienne, a large hothouse building, which feels like entering a rainforest, and is home to creatures like crocodiles, piranhas, anteaters, sloths, birds of paradise and plenty of species of monkeys. It was great fun to indulge my inner child for a couple of hours.

Arc de Triomphe
Place Royale du Peyrou
Cathédrale St-Pierre
On returning to the town centre, I went around exploring a bit more. In amongst the streets of shops, typical to any French town, there were some “hotels particuliers” and the Préfecture and Palais de Justice are grand buildings, if not home to anything very exciting. Montpellier has its own Arc de Triomphe, and passing under it you reach the large, tree-lined open space of the Place Royale du Peyrou, which I took a wander around. The town has many churches, but the biggest and grandest (and only one I visited) is the Cathédrale St-Pierre. I finished my day by wandering through a few more streets, but didn’t yield anything very exciting. While it was nothing tremendously interesting, Montpellier was a nice enough place to spend a couple of days.

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