Updated: Jun 18
Rue du Pont Vieux, Carcassonne
Old Bridge Street is narrow and not very long – just enough to mark a transition between two worlds. On the side of the town, i.e. of “Lower Carcassonne,” it starts at Square Gambetta, with its gracious Musée des Beaux Arts gleaming amidst the greenery. The street ends, after perhaps 200 paces, at a small chapel at the head of the Old Bridge. (The chapel also marks a point along the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage track towards Santiago de Compostela, on the western edge of Europe.)
If you cross the river Aude, a climb up the steep hill takes you straight to the citadel, at present but a stage for theatrical performances played out, over and over, for the benefit of an endless stream of international visitors. That’s the famous Cité de Carcassonne, a bright star on the tourist circuit. In 1940 the castle was dormant, a part of it occupied by the French airmen. Bobkowski liked to roam there at night, a short walk from his hotel on Rue du Pont Vieux:
I approach the ramparts and circle the walls along the outside. Stars appear in the sky, like bubbles in soda water, the dusty cloud of the Milky Way stands out clearly. The castle, the entire town, encircled by inner walls appears mysterious. Like illustrations to a fairy tale. Across the bridge, once a drawbridge. I enter the interior. I already know all the passages and entryways. I climb along the wall, then up the stone steps to the tower. I deeply inhale the fresh breeze wafting in from the Pyrenees. I lie down on the floor and stare at the sky….
July 28, 1940
More modest “Carcassonne basse,” between the Aude and the Canal du Midi, feeds on some of the tourist traffic but otherwise, like many smaller towns in southern France, navigates the best it can between its glorious past and uncertain future. The old streets - de la République, du Général de Gaulle, Voltaire, Georges Brassens - are marked with signs of the new presence of international chain stores and chain hotels, halal butchers, Indian and Vietnamese restaurants…
Rue du Pont Vieux is a pause rather than connection between these two realities of the “high” and “low” Carcassonne. It dozes in the midday sun as if lost in time, full of ghosts. In a plot overgrown with wild grasses, a few steps from Pont Vieux, an abandoned building - an old school? a hospital? – stands silent, attracting just a few and rather timid graffiti artists. A once gracious figure looks mournfully over the fountain devoid of water. The bistro Ȏ Gambetta might place a few tables on a sidewalk. Just across from the bistro, on the southern side of the street, there is a solid two-story building, an old hotel turned into a kind of tenement lodging. The word ‘Hotel’ still clings above the entrance. But of its name only the metal nails are left that once held the letters VITRAC.