Since the lockdown of northern Italy had forced changes to our travel plans, we decided to do a roundtrip drive to/from Barcelona. After a couple days in Costa Brava, I decided we should go as far north as we plan to go and then come back slowly. And Nîmes, France was the destination before turning back. So that’s where we headed. But first to Carcasonne, the medieval fortified citadel of the Cathars.
The city of Carcasonne is divided into two parts, mostly by the river L’Aude. The lower and newer part of town is called the Bastide Saint-Louis, while the part we were interested in called the Cité Médiévale, the small city inside the fortified walls, atop the hill. The first evening we explored the Cité with very few tourists around.
We liked the Cité so much, I decided to book a hotel for the second night of our stay in Carcasonne. At 11am, I booked the Best Western Le Donjon with my phone. At 1pm, I go to the hotel to check in early. The doors were now closed with a sign saying the hotel was now closed until April 12. What?!? I just walked by the place 2 hours ago and booked it, and now it’s closed. Well the owner decided to close this hotel and consolidate with his fancier Hôtel de la Cité 2 buildings down the road. It was definitely an upgrade for us, but a sign of the times to come.
The hotel used to be the bishop’s house. It spans multiple buildings in the city, with archway bridge between the buildings. Tapestries and stain glass adorn the walls, stone spiral staircases, grand piano in lounge, beautiful landscaped gardens, secret bookshelf door at the bar (can you see the vertical crack of light coming from the bookshelf in the picture above), etc. It was a pretty magical stay considering we never would have booked this in the first place.
That night at dinner, we saw some French patrons looking at a news conference on their phone. It was French President Emmanuel Macron announcing the closing of schools and the impending coronavirus crisis. The previous day, Trump had announced no visitors from Europe are allowed in the US for the next month. Macron was not happy with that. He stated that what happened to Italy is happening to France and everyone should prepare for an eventual lockdown.
I had booked an AirBnB in Nîmes a couple days ago, so this was disheartening. We decide to go for it anyway. France is as good as Spain if we’re stuck. So off we drive the next day.
I did not know before the trip, but Nîmes has some of the best preserved Roman ruins including a Roman amphitheatre (Arena) and temple (Maison Carrée ). There were only about 30 other people in the Arena, with us. At the time, France was limiting public gatherings to 100 or less. They still hold concerts and events like bullfights in the arena. The next day we go to the Tour Magne and the Maison Carrée, Unbeknownst to us, France shut down all non-essential stores and gatherings including tourist attractions. We truly did not know, because we did go to a cafe the day before with all the other French. They knew it was their last hurrah, but we were just dumb tourists, literally.