I just got back from a road trip through the Pyrenees, from the French Riviera to Barcelona. It was a gorgeous trip, a relaxing trip, a very, very food oriented trip (like you’re surprised). But you know what was surprising? How industrial, how work-oriented the landscape that we traveled through was. From Marseille and its warehouses to the industrial agriculture and viticulture of Languedoc, from large-scale salt production in the Camargue to the incredible manufacturing history and massive port of Barcelona, the places we traveled through were not exactly straight from the fairy tales. When we passed a nuclear power plant we were reminded that France gets 75% of its energy that way, and as we passed through the Pyrenees and saw the vast fields of air turbines we marveled at their size, the sheer engineering of them, and the marvelous contrast that they made against the romantic misty landscapes and medieval villages that surrounded them. It was so exciting to see up close the work of making a country run, the kind of thing that’s usually hidden from tourists as you’re whisked from antique train station to well-marked city center. Traveling by car helps you remember that France is a country that has to power its cities, feed its people, and ship its good just like everywhere else, something that you forget (and are often invited to do so) when you are a tourist.
Of course, the fairy tale is alive and well. Carcassonne, a medieval fortress town reconstructed by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century, is the second-most visited city in France. A classic case study in historic preservation, Carcassonne is the ultimate in fantasy cities, with the architecture itself mostly an imagined reconstruction from the mind of Viollet-le-Duc (though, to give credit, it appears that today they are using imaging and 3d modeling technology to help determine what of the reconstructions are accurate). Carcassonne’s reconstructed turrets, cobbled streets, and heraldic souvenir shops define medieval Europe for the contemporary imagination. The castle holds jousting tournaments and broadsword contests, even demonstrations of trebuchets and other medieval siege techniques. Yes, it’s like a RenFaire…year-round.
So, why Carcassonne? What about this tiny, turreted city has captured a nation’s, and, indeed, the world’s, imagination?
I think the answer is in the landscape. This part of France is called Le Pays Cathare, or “Cathar country”. It is a place of imagination, and has been, since the Cathar sect of Christianity defied the Pope and King in order to declare the primacy of their Gnostic philosophy. Aside from Carcassonne, they left behind countless fortresses and mountaintop refuges that now have tumbled into mysterious disrepair, inviting visitors and spotters-from-a-distance to imagine a time and a rebellion forgotten. Some of these castles have been stabilized and are now available for visiting, driving a vibrant tourist industry that, combined with the wineries that also dot the landscape, have helped this once declining former industrial region to regain its prosperity. Other of the castles are little more than piles of rubble perched atop rocky outcroppings in the distance, with no name, no map, and no memory.
Okay, so this is where the story of the Pays Cathare gets interesting. Sure, it makes sense: a region of well-preserved Medieval castles, easily accessible and safe to visit, with an awesome story and lots of good wine, that is a place where people visit. That is the stuff of good tourism. But it isn’t just tourism and clever marketing that brings people to the Pays Cathare. It’s a place of imagination, of recurring collective fantasy. Here’s what I mean.
We visited a town called Rennes-le-Chateau, nestled in the Pays Cathare, which is famous not for a medieval castle or fortress or Cathedral. Instead, it’s famous for a “mystery.” A turn-of-the (last) century mystery of the small-town priest whose flamboyant home building and church renovations has sparked a century of speculation about the potential mysterious, medieval source of his wealth. Not only that, he was branded as a heretic and defrocked because his for-reasons-unknown inflammatory preaching, creating a clearly understandable connection between him and the Cathars. Treasure-hunters, conspiracy theorists, and sensationalist writers have flocked to Rennes-le-Chateau at intervals since the priest’s death, somehow combining the Visigothic history (Dark Ages) of the region with the medieval Cathar mythology and a decidedly 19th century sensationalism to create a perfect storm of fantasy and pseudo-history that continues to fascinate writers and visitors (yes, including Dan Brown…there are legends of a mysterious holy grail burying place in the area) today. To highlight the fact that the story of the priest Berenguer Sauniere is not just a story about a mysteriously wealthy priest, the museum in his chateau is not about the priest himself, but in fact is mostly about the history of the town and the region, and the series of curious, lost, and mysterious events that have taken place there since the time of the Visigoths. Sauniere and the story of Rennes-le-Chateau shows, like Carcassonne, the recurring fascination that people have found throughout the history of the Pays Cathare.
To me, this is the definition of a cultural landscape. It is a place that has continued to generate meaning and excite imaginations over time, a place where the layers of history inform each other and create an environment that is unique and irreplicable, and irreplaceable. The showy reconstruction of Carcassonne, a 21st century consumer experience of a 19th century fantasy of the 12th century, provides a valuable experience of the medieval environment that helps you visualize tumbledown castles like Puilaurens. Rennes-le-Chateau is a 20th century mythical fantasy of a turn of the century story that was inspired by relics of the Dark and Middle Ages. The legend of the Cathars, their heroic resistance and mysterious relics and beliefs, fuels the imagination as much as the misty rocky mountaintops and the crumbling medieval city walls, and combines with the contemporary experience of industry, farming, and energy production. It is all of a piece, it is a singular experience. And it is definitely working for France.