My bike is against the wall, there are long tree shadows, it’s early. As I’m fixing a pannier the front of the bike slews round. A perky young woman passing, small and quick, grabs the handlebars, helps me steady the bike. She asks where I’m heading, tells me that last summer she cycled to Riga, the people were ‘génial’, the trip was ‘extra’, she wishes me ‘bonne route!’ goes jauntily on her way
Along empty streets I weave my way out of Albi through the French maze that is forever guiding me either onto motorways or into village culs-de-sac. Eventually I make it onto the main road south, enjoying the quiet, sunny early morning. All day I will be parallel and close to the Meridian.
Dreams I pass a sign to Musée le Rêve du Passé. More dreams of the past (and the passed), with an echo of Proust, this for a museum of tough rural ways and practical farm tools. The noun rêve was unknown in France until 1694. (What would Shakespeare have done without it in English?) It was rare before the nineteenth century, and only in 1794 was it used in the sense of ‘imagined thoughts’. Perhaps under the ancien régime, before the Revolution, such dreaming was not allowed. Or not even possible? By Nerval’s time, the mid-century, ‘the dream is a second life’. For me it has always been the line from Georges Moustaki’s 1969 song ‘Temps de Vivre’: ‘nous pourrons rêver notre vie’. Not just because I believe one has to dream one’s life into being, but also because of its echoes of réveiller (to awaken), and révéler (to reveal). And yet one of my phrases is ‘a goal without a timetable is a dream’. And what to make of Springsteen’s chilling ‘is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?’ Now I’ll be singing ‘The River’ all day! I’m daydreaming! I’m cycling through France on a quiet, sunny Sunday morning, weaving dreams! And I stop at the first bakery café to reinforce this dream of France, as I sit with a grand crême and two pains au raisin, in the midst of the smell of Sunday baking, the vivid look of Sunday tarts, and watch the careful boxing and wrapping – don’t forget to curl the ribbons! – of pastry gifts for Sunday lunch. I ride on, humming ‘Lost in France’.
Cathars I pass Lombers. In 1165 an important council of the notables of the region, religious and secular, was held here. On the lines of a jirga in tribal Afghanistan, it met to discuss and reach decisions by consensus. The outcome was that several ‘boni homines’, good men, were judged to be heretics. There were several such procedures in Languedoc in the twelfth century, initiated by the local powers, usually under pressure from hardline Cistercian ‘missionaries’ from the north, like Bernard of Clairvaux, who sniffed heresy everywhere. Their decisions usually had few consequences, and never resulted in death sentences.
There has been a range of opinions of the ‘Cathar heresy’, from judging it an alternative religion, an extreme, gnostic-inspired dualist faith (that there are two gods, the good god of the spirit, the bad god of the material) imported from the Balkans, with an organised system of doctrine, dogma, bishops and priests, to seeing it as an undogmatic Christianity, similar to the ‘back-to-basics’ Christianity of many ‘approved’ Christian preachers of the time, reflecting a society that had an instinctive antipathy to Paris-trained priests and distant authority. Languedoc was a different world, a more tribal, consensual society, in which difference was smoothed over, one could be ‘both-and’. In contrast to the northern scholastic emphasis on ‘either/or’, adversarial argument, in which something was either right, or wrong, simple. Each conflict, Albigensian, Wars of Religion, Camisard revolt, wine-producer protests, contemporary Occitan nationalism, has been a restatement and expression of that difference. It was Languedoc’s (and Europe’s) misfortune that in 1208 a perfect storm of religion, politics and greed unleashed a whirlwind that destroyed a culture.
Through Castres, where Jean Jaurès was born.
Just south, at Valdurenque, there is a meridian marker. It is close to where yet another camino route crosses, this one from Arles.
Another thought about la Méridienne verte: I have passed, in several villages, iron crosses set up to commemorate Catholic missions in the nineteenth century, neglected since. I wonder if the Meridian markers are like them, signs of a brief fire of interest that soon faded, the record a moment of excitement that flared but didn’t take hold. Whereas the pilgrim ways to Compostela, never forgotten, touching something deep, have revived in recent years.
Camisards I pass a sign to a Museum of Protestantism. And a few miles east is Lacaune, a centre of Camisard resistance. The Camisards (it is an Occitan word) were Protestants who fought back against Louis XIV’s ruthless regime of suppression, which involved vicious dragonnade (deliberately destructive) billeting, forced conversion, imprisonment and torture. It was imposed around the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. This was ‘the result of Louis’ thinking seriously about the conversion of heretics,’ wrote Mme de Maintenon complacently in 1679. The Protestant response was a guerrilla resistance that took a dozen years to put down. The oral accounts were still told when Stevenson walked his donkey through the Cevennes 200 years later. And I can feel the atmosphere of their stories in Kidnapped, transplanted to the Scottish Highland resistance. The Camisard war echoes the Albigensian Crusade, and is echoed in the wartime Résistance of the Maquisards, themselves named after the scrubby vegetation of the upland South. The effect of the destruction and flight of the entrepreneurial and hardworking Huguenots on the economy and society of France was immense, delaying industrialisation, and being an element in the stagnation that brought on the Revolution.
La Montagne Noire Rising in front of me is a green wall, rising very high above Mazamet: the tree-covered Montagne Noire. It is a tough climb, rising 600m in a few miles. On top there is dense forest, of ash, oak, chestnut. It is quiet, the quiet grandeur of undisturbed broad-leaf forests, with little traffic as I cycle through, and enticing by-ways that I imagine leading to the isolated houses of the minor nobility who, like the Catholic families in Protestant England who sheltered and passed on Catholic priests, welcomed and hid the secretly-travelling ‘good men’. It was also a centre of Resistance in 1944, with over a thousand men in five camps. There are lakes here, dug to supply water to the Canal du Midi. And it is where you must gather gorse if you want to cook authentic Castelnaudary cassoulet.
THE SOUTH The forest is cool, it could be England on a sunny summer day. But when I emerge from the trees, to a stupendous view, and begin the long, easy descent to Carcassonne, it is as if a door has been thrown open and I have entered another world, hotter, brighter, and at first, alien. I am in the South. The heat is terrific, and I begin instantly to sweat. The light is at first blinding, a vista of bleached ochres; only as my eyes adjust do I see subtleties and shades. But in a different palette. And the view is closed at the horizon by a pale blue wall, far higher than I expect, the Pyrenees. Lost in the blue is the 2,784m Pic de Canigou, the revered mountain of the Catalans, where in two days the Catalan Flame will be lit.
Close to, there are small-leaved, scrubby shrubs and spiky conifers, open stony ground, bleached-out colours, the trees a wash of faded blue-green broken by the sudden sharp green of new conifer needles. Pale fields, and then the vivid green of vines. There are yellow flowers, purple flowers, scents of herbs, and the turpentine smell drawn from the pines by the sun. This is a different palette of colours! Intensely visual. But a fractured vision, that first Cézanne, then Van Gogh, and after, Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Dufy would invent new colour chords, harmonies and dissonances, new patterns of shape, to both represent, and defy representation. Pine cones litter the bare ground. The vegetation is thorny, spiky, protecting itself. There is a racket of cicadas. There are violent gusts of hot winds, as around an oven, the air is overheated, there is a dangerous turbulence, of disturbing power, and a blanket of heat everywhere, the heat coming from every side, up from the road as well as from above and sides. The bike thermometer reads 97.5ºF. The sun is a force, vast and frightening. A Van Gogh sun! The super-dry air is sucking moisture out of me, desiccating me as I ride. I drink and drink. By the end of the day I have drunk 3 litres.
The shock is great. And yet, by the time the citadel of Carcassonne is clear before me, I have adjusted, become part of this new reality. I have thinner skin, a clearer eye, I am sensitised. There are signs to Cathar castles, and signs to vineyards. The South.
Carcassonne The cité of Carcassonne, on its hill above the town, with its 3km of double walls and 52 towers, is not a castle but a fortified town. Taken by the Crusaders in 1209, Simon de Montfort, a minor northern noble with close links to the Cistercians, threw all the people out, and made it his base during his ten-year rampage. After 1247, when the town submitted to the French crown, it was refortified to become a key part of the defence against Spain. Below it, the area by the river became le ville basse. The citadel lost its military significance in 1659 when Roussillon became part of France. Its fortifications decayed, and were about to be pulled down when Prosper Mérimée intervened and had Viollet-le-Duc renovate them. He did this in an inappropriately northern style (the conical tower roofs are too high and steep, and have slate roofs), the last chapter in the French appropriation of a key Occitan centre. Although perhaps the last (or latest) appropriation is in turning Occitania and the Cathars into tourist attractions.
However inaccurate the renovation, it is a hugely popular, and I can hardly push my bike through the crowded streets. Although packed with shops and restaurants, few people now live up here, and at night it empties of all but the residents of the few expensive hotels. And, amazingly, the youth hostel, which is here, inside the citadel.
There is a friendly Irish girl on reception. My room mate is a young Canadian. He is friendly, in a well-trained way, fastidious and rather prim. He has an electric fan, hired from reception, going full blast. He has just arrived in Europe, he’s not used to no air-conditioning. He has a day here, a day in Avignon, two days in Florence, etc. The European experience. He is excited because tonight is the night of the annual Fête de la Musique Carcassonne. It takes place in the ville basse, and there is a classical concert in the église des carmes he is keen to hear.
I shower, change, and go out into the citadel. It is all narrow, winding alleys, stone buildings, hemmed in, claustrophobic when full of people, but now, with the crowds gone, it echoes with emptiness, and has an air of sombre melancholy. Which takes me back. I climb up onto the deserted ramparts, walk slowly along.
It is a Southern evening. The warm air is soft around me, the stone warm to my touch, my footsteps soft on the polished stone. A peach light. A lemon tang. Before I look out, I look in, remember. I remember the adolescent I was, walking the ramparts of the castle at home. For years I was a solitary evening walker, a celebrant of sunset, twilight, the crepuscular, watching defiantly as the wide light drained away and the darkness flooded up, standing alone, a Friedrich figure. While wishing, yearning, for the one soft hand, the one silent listener, the one perfect companion. Through everything, a long life of having, and of relinquishing, always that wishing was there. But no longer. Alone. Self-sufficient. Now, look out –
The town laid out below, with the hills and horizon beyond. There are dusky blue-greys, layers and washes of colour, the sharp outlines of hills like smoky charcoal cutouts, dark wedges of trees with emerald slashes. Birds are urgently feeding, noisily roosting. There are ochres and reds of earth and buildings, contrasting with the green of vegetation, and the blue sky overall. Complementaries of red and green, blue and orange, yellow and violet, harmonised and intensified with broken colours – Van Gogh didn’t find his colour theory, his gestural technique, in the South; he found in the South the place where he could apply theory and technique. It is time to descend to the town.
Ville basse There is a straight road down, to the old bridge crossing the Aude to the ville basse on the other side. After Carcassonne surrendered in August 1209 the population was spared, but exiled from their city, straggling down the hill to a shanty town by the river. When the city was ceded to the French crown in 1247 and became a frontier fortress, le ville basse was founded. What would have been for centuries a narrow, busy causeway and bridge is now a handsome stone pedestrian entry into the lower town, its own ceremonial gateway, a citizen appropriation.
From here, looking back up, the citadel is the perfect children’s castle, crenellated and towered. Not the girl’s fairy-tale castle of princesses and unicorns, but the boy’s castle of toy-soldier combat. As I watch, it turns pink, then red. Then fades to grey.
It reminds me, this pedestrian way up to the citadel, of Athens. But there the citadel, the Acropolis, was the shared religious and ceremonial high-point; here it represents, then and now, exclusion, authority, and privilege. A boy revs noisily past on the pedestrian-only bridge, bouncing on his mobylette on the polished stone, horn beeping, hair flying, set face, a dare on this night of fête to cross the pedestrian bridge, his friends laughing at the far side, high-fiving when he breathlessly arrives. ‘It’s not right!’ frets an old squat woman. ‘It’s youth,’ sighs her husband. And they walk slowly on, arm in arm. The scent of figs rises up from the river bank below. At the end of the bridge there is a circle around a white-haired woman, my age, singing ‘La Vie en Rose’ with passion. Our eyes catch, she smiles. It is the night of ‘la Fête de la musique Carcassonne’, and music is everywhere.
A poster reads: ‘Capoeira [‘A Brazilian martial art combining dance, acrobatics and music’! I discover later], slam, blues funk, folk, heavy rock, rock français, soul, hip-hop, electro-rock, metal hardcore, percussion, jazz, fanfare, classique.’ Here a couple of earnest guys are setting up their turntables with snakes and coils of cable. There a girl band dances like Pussy Riot. A young rock band is anxiously tuning up. A middle-aged man is crooning sentimental ballads. As I get nearer the centre, the streets fill. The place is packed. A jazz group is playing jauntily outside Subway. From the packed, open church next door come the high arcs of Vivaldi. There is the thump of techno, there are evocative accordion tunes. It’s a night of music and street food, of noise and light, of carnival, the terraces overflow with eaters, the streets are packed with strollers, and everywhere the mood is expanding into the soft evening air.
I eat a crêpe filled with ham, mushroom and cheese, and drink a can of beer as I stroll around, look at the lights reflected in the canal du Midi. The beer reminds me how tired I am. Today was my second-longest ride. I head back. Crossing a square, a middle-aged man, hunched over his microphone, is singing ‘si tu n’existais pas …’, if you hadn’t existed, I’d have had to invent you, the way you once loved me, the way that you left … Amateurs raising money for charity make crêpes, not expertly but their smiles make up for it, and I walk back the bridge eating a second crêpe, this one bien sucré.
I climb out of the noise, out of the light and music, the activity and life, up the empty stone streets to the citadel. Around me is the powdered light of a southern twilight, above me a greenish-blue sky, with swifts black meteors streaking across. The horizon is dusty pink, against it are silhouettes of buildings and trees, sharp and solid black. The far hills are smoky blue. Below me is the ochre and pale-red town, above me the grey ramparts, with their towered gateway. I walk in through the gate, onto the cobbles. I walk into the silence. Or rather the quiet. Of politeness. Restaurants with white napery, subdued conversation, the low tap and scrape of cutlery, the discrete world of privilege, high above the light and noise of a town that is coming to carnival life. A Brueghelesque allegory.
The Canadian, setting out his clothes neatly for tomorrow, then writing his neat diary, is disappointed because the concert was sold out. I suppose he never thought of standing at the door of the church. Or of wandering through the crowds. The fan whirrs. As soon as he is asleep, I turn it off. It’s time he began to adapt.