A few weeks before the renewed lockdown in France, we were having lunch with our friends Jef and Val at a pleasant restaurant in La Cité de Carcassonne.

The owners of the Restaurant Le Créneau are friendly, and the upstairs terrace offers lovely views of the château of La Cité. While we were enjoying lunch on the terrace, one of the owners told us of a special evening event later in the week. A local wine distributor planned to propose a few of their wines for tasting — and of course buying for dinner. The chef was developing a menu to accompany the wines. Wine and food tasting, just our thing. We decided to make an event out of the evening.

Jef and Val, for their company Le Centre d’Histoire Vivante Médiévale, work closely with lots of people and companies in the hospitality industry of the region. Including the owners of the five-star Hôtel de la Cité. We have long mused that, one day, we would splurge and stay there. We often enjoy a cocktail in the hotel’s lovely garden or in the club-style bar. But to fall asleep in the heart of the medieval Cité: that would be fun. Jef made a call, and fortunately the hotel was offering some nice prices. Probably a combination of Jef and Val’s personal relationship along with the beginning of off season. 

So, a spontaneous mini-vacation during this restrictive time of pandemic. A fun evening out with our friends, some wine and food, and a dose of five-star living.

We rendezvoused with Jef at the hotel at about 5 pm; he wanted to make sure we were treated well. The reception staff greeted Jef warmly. They quickly agreed to his proposal to escort us to our room. The room itself is classically charming, with lots of space. But through the exterior door lay the best part: a vast terrace with spectacular views of La Cité and the Bastide of Carcassonne. It was a sunny if chilly afternoon. The low-angle sunlight cast deep warm tones.

Jef wanted to take us on a tour of the interior of the hotel. We have visited the lobby, bar and restaurant spaces many times, so weren’t sure what he had in mind. He said that the hotel asks him to give special tours to some of their guests.

As you will probably recall from previous posts about La Cité de Carcassonne, in the last half of the 19th century and into the first decade of the 20th, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and his skillful team undertook extensive renovations of the decrepit medieval city. The site of the current Hôtel de la Cité was at that time the ruined foundations of the old palace of the bishop; the bishop had moved down to the “new town” in the 18th century. Two entrepreneurs commissioned the construction of a luxury hotel. By 1909, the hotel was ready to welcome well-heeled visitors to the newly renovated medieval city. While it is technically a modern building, Viollet-le-Duc and his team made every effort to make it look medieval.

In the early 20th century, royalty, celebrities, and very important people took grand tours of southern France. The itinerary often included the French Riviera, the Catalan Mediterranean coast, and the Atlantic-facing Basque Country — with Carcassonne as a midway stop. Queen Elizabeth,  Walt Disney (a bit of influence from the medieval towers of Carcassonne?),  Winston Churchill, and many more. Lots of movie stars too:

Today’s hotel is comprised of the original 1909 building, and an adjacent former hotel built in 15th century buildings. We hadn’t realized just how large the hotel is; it currently offers 61 rooms and suites. Jef led us down corridors, up a 15th century stone stair, across a connector bridge, through surprise event rooms, and back to the reception rooms.

Jef left us, but he returned an hour later with Val. We relaxed with cocktails in the hotel bar. Very charming multi-lingual staff.

Just before 8:00, we strolled through the darkening medieval streets of La Cité to the restaurant. The owners and staff welcomed us all warmly. We can’t do the traditional bises — kisses — for greeting any more, so there was a lot of elbow bumping instead. Our host led us upstairs to our table next to the window looking out on the terrace. When we arrived, there weren’t any other customers upstairs; we were counting on a sparse turn-out so that we could minimize exposure to other folks.

At the little bar on this level, a masked man with a line-up of wine bottles awaited us.

At the little bar on this level, a masked man with a line-up of wine bottles awaited us.

As we seated ourselves on the bar stools, he asked if we’d like to taste some of his wines. Silly question. He asked us which ones we’d like to buy. To buy? But a dégustation — tasting — is usually a free sampling, with the option to buy as much as you want. We looked confused; he looked confused. Lots of conversation all around — Jef, we, restaurant host — after which the naive wine-host relented. This wasn’t quite a polished as what we’ve experienced elsewhere. No matter, we were able to taste a couple sparkling wines, and two whites and two reds. This isn’t a specific wine producer; it’s a company that is developing a portfolio of wines from various regions around France, for local consumption and export. As always, we enjoyed the sampling, and comparing all our impressions. It was fun together. However, none of us particularly liked the wines! Being good customers, we bought one bottle each of a white and a red for dinner anyway.

By the time we had finished the wine tasting, the dining room had filled up completely. So much for a wise choice of social distancing and avoiding hanging out among crowds. Lots of 20- and 30-somethings. Mike and I quietly commented to each other that this would be the last time in a restaurant like this until the pandemic situation improves.

We had expected a three-course dinner tailored in some way to the offered wines. We did receive a three-course menu, but it was simple basic food. More comfort food than dining. That’s OK: the fun was being out with Jef and Val.

Since we didn’t have to worry about driving home after dinner, we did eat and drink with abandon. The walk back along the stone streets to the hotel was jolly!

Jef and Val live around the corner from the hotel. They have a large friendly dog who needed one of her walks. We strolled along the illuminated battlements while the dog romped in the grass and among the smells. It was a fresh clear night. 

Dog relieved and satisfied, we headed back. More elbow bumps to say goodnight.

Mike and I turned in. Nice big shower. Nice big bed. No problem tumbling into bed.

In the morning, our last mini-vacation pleasure was the hotel breakfast. We were happy to find a nice hot and cold breakfast buffet, befitting the quality of the hotel. The dining room is full of neo-gothic charm. We found a nice two-top at the window. Coffee, tea, juice, eggs, meats, cheeses, pastries, fruit — as you’d imagine.

From the window, we could almost see our house off in the distance. We were having a blast, but at the same time, we were ready to head home. Because, for us, it’s five-star too.

One Reply to “A Night in La Cité”

  1. Sounds like a fun night. And to stay in La Cité overnight with spend time with such nice people as Val and Jef. Have you been to most of the places offered on the tours?

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