When I’m in European cities that have been around for a while I usually visit the large, old churches and cathedrals that are inevitably there. They are typically one of the major tourist attractions and sometimes a significant focal point. That’s why I visited the Basilique des Saints Nazaire et Celse in the hilltop La Cité section of Carcassonne.
At least, that was one reason. Another reason was that the church was right next door to the hotel I stayed in. I’m a lazy bastard. Not having to go out of my way greatly increases the chances I’ll visit a tourist attraction.
There’s been a church on the site since at least the sixth century, although not the same one that’s there now. The current cathedral, which is at least the third on the site, was built in the late 13th century.
The Basilique des Saints Nazaire et Celse was named as the cathedral of Carcassonne at the time. However, it lost the title in 1883 to a cathedral built in the lower town.
As cathedrals go, this Basilique is not terribly large or awe-inspiring. Nevertheless, it gained about a thousand points in my book for one thing: A sign just inside the entrance.
To understand why the sign impressed me you need a little background information about me. I don’t visit old European churches for any sort of spiritual reason. I’m a devout atheist and not the least bit “spiritual,” whatever the hell that means. I go because they are old and beautiful; and because if I don’t go, upon my return home, people will say, “What the hell? You didn’t visit ___fill in the blank__? Are you a complete numbskull? How could you go all that way and not go to ___fill in the blank__?” I’m an insecure fellow who does worry about what other people think about me.
A Basilique for a Catholic Cult
So, why did the sign impress me? On the sign were the words, “The Basilique St NAZAIRE is a church always assigned to the Roman Catholic cult.” Really. I’m not making that up. I’ve even got a picture to prove it. You’ll find it on this page.
I finally found a church that adheres to a creed I strongly believe: Religions are simply cults that have gained wider acceptance.
But enough about that. What about the Basilique?
Upon walking in, my first impression was that it was an old—and I by “old” I mean ancient—musty church. It was bounded by mostly unadorned stone walls. For the most part, it was fairly dark and in need of some interior sandblasting, but beautiful stained glass windows brightened it somewhat. The ceiling was Romanesque and arched. (If you were impressed by that previous sentence, don’t be. I don’t know anything about architecture whatsoever. I read in a tour book that the ceiling is Romanesque.)
Off to the side of the sanctuary, the Basilique housed a cute little pulpit raised the equivalent of, what looked to me to be not quite one storey up, off to the side. An almost-spiral staircase led to the pulpit. It would have been a full twist of a spiral if the pulpit was higher off the floor.
An ornate, statue–bearing canopy graced the top of the pulpit. I don’t know why. Maybe the ceiling leaks and they wanted to keep the priest dry. But there might have been another explanation, such as aesthetics.
A big old pipe organ set in a beautiful carved wood frame hung off one wall of the sanctuary.
Many churches contain church bells. So did this one. The big difference is that the bell in Basilique des Saints Nazaire et Celse sat unadorned and unloved on the floor near the front of the sanctuary when I was there. I didn’t see any signage or any other indication as to why it was sitting there or if it would ever again (if it ever was) be mounted somewhere where it might serve some purpose such as, oh, I don’t know, maybe chiming.
Current Use or Not
I read somewhere that the church is not in use anymore because the old city, La Cité, where the Basilque resides, now mostly serves tourists. Very few locals live there. (This is not to say that very few people live in Carcassonne. It’s just that most residents live in the lower “new” part of the city. “New” is in quotation marks because some of the lower “new” town is much older than probably all of the currently standing buildings in my hometown of Toronto.)
The aforementioned sign stating that the church is “always assigned to the Roman Catholic cult” made me suspect that what I read about it no longer being in use was false. That suspicion was confirmed on my last full day in Carcassonne. I went back into the Basilique for a final look around. Just inside the entrance, there was a table where some nuns were hocking religious trinkets and trash. That hadn’t been there the first time I went into the Basilique.
What’s more, on my second and final visit I was told that I would have to leave shortly because the church was about to be used for a religious ceremony. It wasn’t explained to me why I couldn’t stay for the ceremony. It’s not as if I was wearing an “I am an atheist” t-shirt. Maybe god whispered in their ears that I was a heathen.