Vignette: Carcassonne market
Author Kate Mosse is always entranced by the Saturday market in Place Carnot
Known by local Carcassonnais residents variously as Place Royale, Place Vieille, Place Impériale, Place de la Révolution, not to forget Place Aux Herbes - the most ancient of the names - Place Carnot is the beating heart of the Basse Ville. This is the lower town of Carcassonne which sprang up when Saint Louis expelled the remaining inhabitants of the medieval Cite on the hill following the vicious 13th century Crusades launched against the independence of the Midi.
It is where my husband and I first arrived in November 1989, at the beginning of our quarter of a century love affair with Carcassonne. Under a blue cathedral sky we walked from the railway station at the top of the town and along the rue pieton (in fact, called rue Georges Clemenceau, though no one ever calls it that), the damp Cers wind announcing the rain to come. We strolled over the criss-cross of streets - New York style - and found ourselves in Place Carnot. It was a Saturday morning and the market was in full swing.
We found a table at Bar Félix and drank chocolat chaud, surrounded by old men drinking panaché or delicate thimbles of Corbière rosé. Fifteen years later, when I was finishing the novel that would become Labyrinth, one of the lead characters - Audric Baillard - makes his entrance into Carcassonne by the same route. When he reaches Place Carnot, he knows he is home. I felt - and still feel - the same. In Sepulchre, my heroine Léonie is beguiled by the impressive department store, PARIS-CARCASSONNE selling everything from fabric to fishing tackle. In Citadel, the courageous men and women of the Résistance pass information to one another in a bar backing from Place Carnot on to the narrow rue de l’Aigle d’Or.
In those days the Saturday market in Place Carnot was rather less tranquil and beautiful than today. Something of a traffic island, boxed in on all sides by vehicles. Now, in 2015, it is paved and with bars and restaurants all around. Awnings of yellow and green and blue, orange cushion covers and red and white stripes. Six-storey buildings on all four sides, the centre dominated by an ornate eighteenth-century fountain dedicated to Neptune, complete with dolphins and naiads, fashioned from marble quarried from nearby Caunes.
I like to imagine the market has changed little for generations, though of course it has. The branches of the spreading platanes, green in summer and painted in tones of copper, pale green and gold in autumn. Beneath them, umbrellas and brightly coloured parasols shelter the farmers and sellers from the wind or the sun. Willow paniers contain fresh vegetables, fruit and garden herbs, cut flowers and planted baskets, tall orchids and delphiniums.
My favourite stall in the market sells upwards of twenty kinds of olives - black, green, imported purple Kalamatas, spiced and herbed and oiled and served from large plastic bowls. Cashew nuts and pistachios, too; yellow mais grillé and sour black-pepper biscuits to serve with a glass of the local liqueur, Guignolet. The next stall along sells tomatoes, water melons and apricots. In June, cherries. Figs in July. Later in the season, blackberries. At the far north-east corner, a bread stall with plaited couronne and pain bio, as well as ficelle and brioche and home-baked Madeleine biscuits. The last stall on the row sells chèvre, goat’s cheese, of three days’ strength, five days or a week. Honey, too - a local Midi speciality.
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There are, of course, markets just like this all over France. One of the attractions for most British tourists is this insistence on fresh and local produce wherever one goes in France. But for me, Place Carnot is special because it remains so utterly and completely itself. It is manageable, this riot of Saturday colour. It has everything you need and nothing more. You can watch or shop, buy for a picnic, for a banquet or simply for the lunch to come a little later in the day. All of us in the same shared space. Most of all, it is a mixture of history and tradition. The cheese and the bread, the flowers and the wine, and the saucisson sec. Place Carnot is not just somewhere to buy or to sell, but a place to dream and feel part of something. Just as it has been for hundreds of years.