Today’s language lesson changed from French to Russian because I had to look up the name of those nesting dolls (and this blog post’s title) that stack inside of one another, each getting smaller and smaller. This folk art was started in a craft workshop near Moscow in 1890 by an industrialist searching for a new style for his country. Carcassonne has its own bigger-than-life version, as in 10 meter (32 feet) tall stone walls, that got their start at least 800 years before those tiny carved dolls.
Château Comtal, or the Castle of the Counts, is truly a castle inside another castle. La Cité, the largest fortress in Europe with double surrounding walls nearly 3000 meters (2 miles) long provides the outer defense. If you make it through those (no invading army ever did) you are met with even more walls and a moat to cross to gain access to the Counts waiting inside. We made it to the heart of the castle a few days ago with no effort nor armor, swords, or catapults, and without spending even a centime.
From what I discovered at the city’s tourism office, the hill overlooking Carcassonne has been used as a defensive site since a hill fort was built there before 500 BC upon which the Romans constructed walls, 1200 meters (4000 feet) long around 300 AD. With those walls still in place 800 years later, the wealthy Trencavel family were able to build Château Comtal and used it as a stronghold for their Cathar beliefs. In 1209 a crusade initiated by Pope Innocent III against what he considered heresy led to the Trencavel’s surrender and fall from power and the castle passed into the domain of French royalty. There it remained as a significant military outpost until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 made it obsolete and it began to fall into decline. Realizing the historical significance of the fortress and the castle, the French government began a restoration project in 1853 that continues even today.
From November through March, on the first Sunday of each month, the normal entrance fee of 8.50 euro is waived as part of the Center of National Monuments’ (CMN) mission to ensure access to the nation’s treasures. To spark the interest in history that might have been smoldering since childhood, anyone under age 26 always has a free ticket to nearly 100 monuments around the country including Mont St. Michel, and in Paris the Arc de Triomphe, St. Chapelle, and the towers of Notre-Dame, to name just a few. If the excitement we see daily in the children who have just come from a visit to the castle above us is any indication, the CMN is definitely on the right track. I know that after our visit to the Château we came away impressed with the quality of the presentation and the desire to see many more properties under the care of CMN .
Visiting notes: Although we were content with following the arrows through the castle and out along the crenellated walls for about an hour, I believe that the normal paid entrance fee includes an audio self-guided tour plus guided tours in French are available too. There is an 11-minute introductory film in French with English and Spanish subtitles that is worth taking the time to see. Expect lots of steps including one very steep and narrow spiral staircase downwards plus several steep staircases along the walls. We will certainly return.