Carcassonne – Citadel of Fireworks

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The Mediaeval city of Carcassonne is rising up the ranks of Irish people's favourite destinations. Tootlafrance visits the city on Bastille Day

We had walked a kilometre and a half or so, following the good-natured crowds as they funnelled through the streets of the “new” Carcassonne – the grid-patterned ville basse that was built to accommodate rebels who had been expelled from the Cité in the 12th century.

Just as we had been told by the lady in the tourist office, there was the long grassy stretch of natural “amphitheatre” between the aptly-named Quai Bellevue and the River Aude. It was part of a town park and a long stretch of bank that led down to the river below.

They were all there – the good people of Carcassonne seamlessly mingling with visitors like us – to see the fireworks show. This was the the 14th of July; Bastille Day as we call it or as the French call it, La Fête Nationale.

Beating the 14th-of-July: a great crowd had gathered long before sunset for the best seats in the house.

Beating the 14th-of-July Rush: a great crowd had gathered long before sunset for the best seats in the house.

The Bastille Day fireworks show for Carcassonne draws a particularly huge crowd because it uses the entire magnificent citadel of Carcassonne as its stage. The prominent position of this city ensures that it can be viewed from a variety of spots – from the Canal du Midi that runs by it, people stand on their boats and stare. From the rooftops of the more modern city, from the edge of the motorway (a highly dangerous practice that people seemingly can’t resist doing) and from the place where we were – the best spot of them all.

Carcassonne the city has a film-set look about it that makes it an extraordinary walled citadel quite unlike any you’re ever likely to have seen. The walls around it are intact, as are all the buildings within. The turrets placed at varying heights and regular intervals around the city wall are topped with tiled roofs like witches’ hats (restored controversially in the mid-19th century) and you enter the city in dramatic style – through two magnificent stone porticoes over a drawbridge across a wide moat.

Once you’re inside, the atmosphere is instantly magical – and this is despite the fact that you’ll almost certainly be competing for elbow-room with thousands of other google-eyed tourists. In fact, the best time of the day to visit the town is in the early evening as dusk descends. This is when the heat and the chaos have both calmed to manageable levels and fading light accentuates the atmosphere.

Sure, it’s all trinket shops full of expensive jewellery, art produce and over-priced knick-knacks, but it’s charming

Walled Perfection: Carcassonne from the air.

Walled Perfection: Carcassonne from the air.

in spite of it all. There is quite a mixture of ages and one of the reasons that Carcassonne looks so well-kept is because it has been built up and added on to at various stages over the centuries. The Cathedral of St Etienne, for example, dates from the 12th century, yet the building next door – the landmark Hôtel de la Cité – is an early 20th-century construction. It all blends beautifully together in a fairytale higgledy-piggeldy, up-down-and-all-over-the-place sort of way. It’s a city meant for wandering around and getting lost in. Plenty of ordinary residents live here too and it appears as if it’s a 50% tourism and 50% normality

Back on the Quai Bellevue, kick-off time was about to start. You need to be early for this and even though the fireworks don’t start until 23:00, we were there (as advised by the tourist office) a good hour and a half beforehand. Most people had come prepared, with sandwiches, snacks and even the occasional bottle of alcoholic beverage. The French don’t drink half as much as they used to and you can really see it on occasions like this one. If this was in Ireland, the occasion might be a decibel or two higher and there would be drink involved on a more widespread scale.

Citadel Under Siege: Carcassonne is lit up by giant fireworks half-way through the show.

Citadel Under Siege: Carcassonne is lit up by giant fireworks half-way through the show.

In any case, the atmosphere was electric – full of excited laughter. At 23:00 on the dot, all the public lights in the park went off. A great roar that sounded like “Woooooaaaayy!” went up. I’ve seen some fireworks displays in my time but this one was something really special. There was a storyline involved. In most fireworks displays, it’s all lost on the audience, but in this one, you could make out the plot points – like when the city was burning, for example. However they achieved the effect, the entire citadel looked as if it was on fire. Red flames were licking up the ancient walls, columns of smoke were rising and sound effects of crackling added to the effect. If it really was on fire, they were all in trouble because nobody was going to help. We just sat and stared. Battle scenes evidently followed, with huge bright fireworks seeming to light up the entire sky. About five spectacular climaxes later, the show finished. All we could say was “Wow!” Not easy to capture on camera.

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