Carcassonne and Cathars

There is sooo much written about Carcassonne!? So much history… the old cité remains recognisable in old paintings…

Evidence has been found of Neolithic settlement 3500 years ago, but the period of the city’s history that seems to capture everyone’s attention is when it became a target for the Crusade against the Cathars (also known as the Albigensiens). It was an important city in the south of France in the 12th Century, basically independent but under the influence of and allied to Aragon. Catholics and Cathars (also known as Albigensiens) as well as Jews and others live together in a spirit of harmony and tolerance, and the city and region prospered. They even had a conference between Catholics and Cathars to promote better better understanding of each other.

But powerful forces outside the area saw this state of affairs as a threat to their power and ability to extract taxes and homage. So Pope (not so) Innocent III declared a crusade against them! A crusade against fellow Christians! (Not that the crusade against non-Christians was that wonderful, but…). Those who signed up to beat the dissenters into submission were promised immunity in the heavenly and earthly courts from any misdeeds they had committed, or would commit at any time in the future, as well as the rewards of lands and riches they could wrest from those they were crusading against! Needless to say religious extremists, younger sons, and many fortune seekers signed up to serve their 40 days – a bargain for a lifetime’s indulgence and the opportunity of acquiring a fortune, a title, lands and riches! The Cathars were accused of heresy, heaven and hell were invoked, and the holy war ensued. There was a conquest, there was resistance against the invaders… and people (all of us love a good story) are still talking about it and interpretating the facts and our assumptions endlessly.

You might have noticed a fairly biased appraisal of all this. For something a little more balanced, try The Perfect Heresy by Stephen O’Shea, a Canadian historian who writes wonderfully for us common folk. (Oh, and Baronnesses too…)

The Cité

Now the old cité is yet another UNESCO world heritage listed site. It is a double walled city which has been carefully restored, and though it once housed 4,000 inhabitants (don’t know how!) only a very few live inside the walls today. But three million or more visitors come through it every year. It is a venue for festivals, rock concerts and spectacles of all sorts. The people are very proud of their Cathar heritage and their Occitane language and the Cathar cross is ubiquitous not only in Carcassonne but throughout the whole south-west region.

From the day we visited, two very special present day moments stand out. The first was being interviewed in French by two of the youngsters attending the little Occitane school within the cité. They were quite delightful, and we all had a bit of fun helping them fill out their questionnaires for class. The second was while we were looking through the Basilica of St Nazaire within the city – a wonderful experience in itself, a group of 5 men went to the front and began to sing! They were visiting Russians doing a series of concerts in France. They sang a couple of songs in the cathedral to try out the acoustics and let people know about their concert. That Russian choral music just loved the space and thrilled us with its richness and again, the surprise of such a gift in this special place.

La Musée des Beaux Arts

Both the gallery and its art collection has been established through the initiative and generosity of a body of citizens who formed the Society of Arts and Science back in 1836. Their mission was:

“… to seek, to keep carefully and to classify, in a public repository, everything that belongs to the antique and the country’s history … “

Consequently, most of the works in the gallery are 17th-19th century, but there are some from the 20th century. Of particular interest to me were some pointillist paintings by Achille Lauge. He studied under Seurat and Signac, and particularly liked Pissarro. But he developed his own style based on tonal values, rather than Seurat’s juxtaposition of dots of primary colours.

The work making all those dabs to create a very large painting of a woman (I can’t remember its name) made me feel exhausted thinking about it!

But it is great seeing the works of these artists that learned from, and painted with their colleagues, yet continued to paint and develop their own excellence and unique style even though they might not have achieved the same prominence as some of their colleagues. It is a much richer world when the visions and interpretations of all these artists are seen. It reminds me of a quote -

‘…Use what talents you possess: The woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.
-Henry Van Dyke ‘

Schubert, Chopin and Strauss in the Chapel of the Jesuits
Another happenstance… We were walking past a booking office and discovered there was to be a classical chamber concert that evening! It was held in the Chapel of the Jesuits which dates from 1640s and was part of a school for about 300 years but later fell into ruin. Now restored to echo some of its Baroque past, it is used for cultural activities.

The two artists and great acoustics treated us to a truly special evening of
Franz Schubert – Sonate for violincello and piano in A minor D821
Frédéric Chopin – Sonata for violincello and piano Op 65
Richard Strauss – Sonata for violincello and piano Op 6

Schubert is such a master of beautiful melody, the Chopin was everything you’d hope from Chopin – beautiful piano and with the cello, a delight – and even Richard Strauss – (more modern and whomTina had had on her black list for ages) was really lovely! A big surprise, and Tina’s assessment is that Strauss should have only been given 2 instruments to play with – cello and piano – and should have been kept right away from orchestras.

Pianist Alexander Paley and ’cellist Alexander Dmitriev were sensitive and masterful playing made this a truly special occasion. They are associated with the National Orchestra of Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon. Musicians and friends of this group provides the series of chamber concerts in this Carcassonne venue throughout the year. Lucky us!

We’d walked up there through the town and when we came out at 10:30 everything was closed and very quiet except for a couple of lurkers so we walked very briskly home.

Heather and Tina

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