Tag Archives: Carcassonne

A Competition, Compostela, Cahors and a Chateau

In the early summer of 1998 the Times Newspaper ran a daily competition one week to win a prize of an all expenses paid trip for two nights in an up market Relais and Chateau Hotel somewhere in Europe.  One day the competition required answers to three questions about Santiago de Compostela in Galicia and the Way of St James.  I was confident of the answers and telephoned them in several times over the course of the day.

Over the following couple of weeks I forgot all about the competition but one day was surprised to receive a letter from the Times telling me that I was the winner and that the prize was first class air travel to Toulouse in South West France, car hire and two nights all-inclusive at the Château de Mercuès just outside the provincial town of Cahors.

Chateau de Mercures Cahors

Early in the Autumn we flew with British Airways in a first class cabin that we shared with the actor Robin Ellis (Ross Poldark) and his wife (his real wife not Demelza)and enjoyed a silver service meal and complimentary champagne.  When we arrived at Toulouse in the early afternoon we picked up the Renault hire car and set off in a northerly direction on our way to the Chateau.

On the way we stopped at the town of Cahors and after we had walked around the centre, sitting within a protective loop of the River Lot, we found a traditional patisserie and sat and gloated about our unusual good fortune.

The village of Mercuès was just a few kilometres west of the town and eventually we set off again following the course of the river as it swept through the countryside and soon in front of us we saw a splendid castle with soaring towers and blue slate conical roofs and we imagined that it looked somewhere interesting to visit.

After only a short distance there was a sign to our hotel and we took a narrow road that climbed high away from the river and after one final turn we were confronted with the entrance to the very same magnificent building.  This was the Château de Mercuès and way beyond the standard of any hotel that we had ever stayed in before.

The car had hardly come to a halt before a porter rushed through the front doors and took our luggage from the car and indicated that we should follow him to the reception.  Inside there were wonderful furnishings and treasured artefacts and I worried that we were in the wrong place.  But no, it was true, this was prize for winning the competition.

After registration we were shown to our room at the very top of the tallest tower with stone walls, wooden beams and an external walkway on the outside with long distance views over the Lot valley, the Chateau gardens and the raging River Lot rushing by below swollen by days of heavy rain and carrying fallen trees and other debris hurriedly downstream.

Chateau de MERCURES

Our room at the top of the tower with personal balcony!

It took a while for all this to sink in but fortunately there was a complimentary bottle of Cahors wine to help us and when we had settled down we took some time to explore the castle and its gardens, its wine cellars and it public rooms.  Dinner off of an expensive menu was included and I remember that this was the first time that I ever tasted Foie Gras and feeling guilty about it because I was certain that my vegetarian teenage daughter would certainly not approve.

For our full day in France after breakfast we chose to drive the thirty-five kilometres north to the tourist town and Christian pilgrimage centre of Rocamadour.

At first the road was straight and driving was easy but the final few kilometres were on twisting bendy roads that swooped through gullies and over ravines as we got closer.  Rocamadour is one of the busiest tourist sites in France because the picturesque town is built almost vertically into the side of the mountain with its golden houses overhanging a rocky gorge and the River Alzou below.  The car park was at the bottom of the mountain and to get to the entrance gate of the town required an ascent up several flights of wooden steps that eventually brought us out at the main tourist street.

It was quiet today because this was October and outside the main tourist season but the summer months bring thousands of visitors to this place daily.  Years later I visited Carcassonne and Mont St Michel and found them rather similar in a touristy sort of way.

It didn’t help matters that the weather was rather poor and although it wasn’t raining it was misty and rather damp and the honey coloured stones looked disappointingly dull and lifeless today, the place was full of tourist shops that weren’t doing enough business to justify being open and we had the streets and medieval staircases almost to ourselves as we wandered past churches and chapels on ancient streets punctuated with shops and restaurants every few metres.  We stopped for lunch and then made our way back down the steps and drove back to the Chateau where we enjoyed a second gourmet meal in the expensive dining room.

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The next morning when it was time to check out I suddenly began to panic in case I had to pay for any of this unaccustomed extravagance and finery that we had enjoyed and the thoughts got stronger as I waited behind an American guest who settled his obscenely large bill and then made a dreadful fuss about being charged a couple of Francs for a postcard that he picked up while waiting.

My hands were sweating and I avoided the postcards but I needn’t have worried of course, the whole bill was taken care of by the Sunday Times and with the sun shining now we had one final walk around the delightful gardens before setting off for the return journey to Toulouse airport.

Brittany, Mont St Michel and Cinderella’s Castle

Disney Cinderella Castle

“This enchanting landmark is an architectural blend of many European styles, from 13th Century French Fortress to late Renaissance Palace.  Since it was inspired by no single structure, Cinderella Castle represents them all” – Disney Official Souvenir Book

In the 1960s, so the story goes, Disney ‘imagineers’ travelled throughout Europe looking for the perfect castles on which to model Cinderella’s Castle in Walt Disney World.

The lead architect for the project was Herbert Rymanand and what makes this story a bit of a mystery is that there is no documentary evidence to establish exactly which castle became the inspiration for the Disney Magic Kingdom centrepiece.  Disney themselves do no more than confirm that Cinderella Castle was ‘inspired by the great castles of Europe’, but they never explicitly say which one.

So who is traditionally in the running?  Determined Disney researchers claim to have narrowed it down to just one or two…

Alcazar Segovia

Some say that the inspiration comes from Spain and Segovia and the Spanish tourist board are convinced that it is them and but there is no real evidence for this. The blue tiled turrets look right to me but I am not sure about that big square Torre de Juan II.

Others say that it is most likely that the famous icon of the Disney empire was inspired principally by Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria and this really does seem to be a serious contender.

Neuschwanstein

But, and here is the point of this post, I think everyone making these guesses is missing the most obvious candidate that as far as I can see doesn’t even get a mention.  Surely it has to be Mont St Michel in France.  This magnificent structure has the same shape, the same dainty turrets, the same architecture and having visited both I am certain that we can dismiss all of the other claims and go straight to Normandy.

Mont St Michel Cinderellas Castle

Or is it Carcassonne in the south of France?

Cacassonne City Walls

Which castle do you think was the inspiration for Disney’s Cinderella Castle?

Weekly Photo Challenge: Muse

Cacassonne City Walls

“It is said that the stones have a magnetism that draw people back time and time to the city. I’ve heard it’s to do with ley lines.  Carcassonne has the same legend.  At certain points across the earth the energy builds up and creates a pull, a pulse and in these places unusual and mystical things can happen”  Patrice Chaplin – ‘Albany Park’     

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France, Return to Carcassonne

Cacassonne City Walls

On the way down to breakfast the next morning, knowing how precious the French can be about their language, I attempted some simple communication with the receptionist about the arrangements for petit dejeuner.

I am fairly certain that I selected the right words but graciously concede that I may not have had them in the correct order and this is an annoying thing about the French because they like you to try and speak their language, which is fair, but then ridicule you if you don’t get everything absolutely grammatically correct, which isn’t very encouraging.

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France, Rugby World Cup Celebrations in Beziers

Canal du Midi Beziers

After the refreshment break in Carassonne we walked around a little more but we were soon going over the same ground and revisiting streets from an hour or so before so in the late afternoon we left La Cité by the main drawbridge gate and walked back over the Pont Vieux to the car park because ahead of us we had a sixty-kilometre drive to the city of Beziers where we would be our base now for three nights.

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France, Carcassonne and La Cité

Carcasonne France

After I had familiarised myself with our temporary transport and we had loaded our bags in the back of the car we set off towards the city and concentrating now on driving on the correct side of the highway and following unfamiliar road signs I soon forgot about the car hire scam.

It took only a few minutes to arrive in the modern city of Carcassonne which seemed strangely quiet for a Saturday afternoon and after a few minutes of parking indecision found a spot with no charges just about five hundred metres from the main attraction and its medieval core, La Cité, a huge walled town that was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1997.

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France, Customer Service Improvement and a Car Hire Problem

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Earlier in the year we had flown from Stansted Airport to Pula in Croatia and the grotesque behaviour and the appalling lack of manners shown by the airport security staff prompted me  to write to the airport to make a formal complaint when we got back home.

I often threaten to make complaints and then calm down and forget all about it but not this time.  Because of the complete contempt for the customer and the apparent determination to be as rude and ignorant as possible to passengers being processed through the security lines I imagine that quite a lot of other people might have complained as well and I would like to think that all of those complaints collectively did some good because on this occasion there was a completely different experience.

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