While walking to a screening at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills, I passed a storefront featuring a toy castle similar to this one. My comment at the time was “Look, it’s our vacation!” While we skipped any historic reenactments on our trip to southern France, on the recommendation of my good friend-the-New-York-Times-Film-critic, we stretched our 2000-mile road trip to include the village of Carcassonne, which largely dates to the 12th Century.
Carcassonne is one of those places in which one could have created the word “awesome.” It would not have referred to a plate of freedom fries or a new brand of sneakers. It would not accompany the word “dude”. The word really means something in a place like this. This was my third trip to France and I love nothing more that traipsing through ancient villages and I’ve clambered through more than a few at this point. Still, when the road finally turned to the formidable walls surrounding the medieval village and château, I gasped and “awesome” was the first word that came to mind.
An epic and storied city, Carcassonne would be a field day for a photographer gifted in shooting elegant images of grand places. I’m thinking Gustave Le Gray or Michael Kirchoff or Debra DiPaolo or Jonas Yip. Oh, for a deep gray day in the dead of winter – too cold for the hoards of tourists, but with a somber sky and subtle middle tones. September was as far from the peak travel season as our schedules would allow, so armed with my trusty Canon G9, I photographed to kindle memory recall, not for art’s sake.
We had a few ideas of sights to see in Carcassonne, knowing full well that in most good adventures the best parts are usually what happens along the way. My traveling companion is an excellent planner so between the unstructured and the structured, there is more often than not, a compelling path.
While walking through the modern city outside the medieval walls, I spotted a young woman trying hard to be French-looking. Or perhaps, she was French, just trying too hard in general. Whatever it was, she was a wonderful extreme stereotype, enraptured by every word her boyfriend uttered over lunch and a mid-day carafe of wine.
Her table was near the entrance to the Chapelle de Dominicaines, a former church from 1860, which serves as an exhibition space and interpretive center for the City. Sadly, I don’t speak French and the handful of phrases in my repertoire allowed only limited comprehension of, well, basically, everything. Nonetheless, I was impressed by the exhibition called “Perspectives,” presented within the Chapelle. The installation was an educational tour of the development of the Bastide de Saint Louis, which is the more modern, lower city of Carcassonne built primarily in the 18th and 19th Century.
I’ve always been a sucker for installation design. My father managed women’s clothing stores when I was a kid and two of the stores were particularly appealing visually. As my brothers climbed around the mannequin displays, I marveled at the tufted upholstery and wallpaper and the jewel-box design of the showcase windows. Even now, I find myself in restaurants, museums and shops looking with proprietary interest at grommets, steel bolts, Plexiglas, airline cable and fabrics. I’m fascinated by the ways signage and images are mounted and how lighting is designed, sight lines are directed. It was a happy accident then, to stumble upon the “Perspective” exhibition and find myself in a miniature photographic street. I suddenly became a giant doll – a Gulliver walking down the Lilliputian block, able to peer into upper story photographic windows without looking up. The photos mounted on foam core or some sort of board, along with an extensive time-line, told the lesson of the city and it’s origins.
Drawings, text and photographs set within the beautiful old church informed the viewer of the rich architectural history of the city. Photographs became the buildings rather than just being images of buildings hung on a wall. As a pure craft thing, it was an innovative use of photography. It wasn’t commercial and it wasn’t art. It was purely educational visual record keeping manifested in an engaging way. It’s a rare thing to be able to participate in photographs physically and then step outside to the street beyond and have some sense of how a place came to be (sort of a live-action Google maps).
Amusing distractions aside, our mission this particular day, was to find the Canal du Midi and hire a boat to drift down the calm waters through the 200 year-old Plane trees (in North America we know them as a type of Sycamore). The 150 mile long canal was constructed in the 17th Century to connect the Mediterranean with the Atlantic – an engineering feat in any era. We hoped to experience a few miles of river before the stately trees are gone. Suffering from a wilt disease, 42,000 Plane trees are slated to be cut down and replaced with another species over the next twenty years. The Plane trees are superb, not only in the way in which they support the riverbanks, but also in their symmetry. It’s not easy to locate a more beautiful site than a road or canal lined with Planes, so the necessity of removing them is heartbreaking. This classic location must have hosted numerous painters, photographers and filmmakers in its lifetime and we were appreciative of the chance to see even a small stretch in the few hours spent on the canal before darkness and a thunderstorm set in.
Only mildly soaked by the sudden downpour on the walk back to the medieval castle and our hotel within, I was relieved to be carrying only the small point and shoot and not a larger more vulnerable camera. Yet I always think, it would be so great to come back with a good camera with more interpretive abilities and more time to shoot. That won’t happen though, because I know I would rather just go and discover some other place where I can be reminded that life is too short to see it all, much less do it justice with great photographs. I leave that to others, whose mission is less restless. Someone else will take the time to find the photographs or drawings that these special places hold in potential. I, on the other hand, needed to retreat to glimpse the sun break through the surreal view of the 12th Century castle wall that would so many years later inspire a manufacturer to make a toy semblance out of plastic.