Throughout the centuries the historic site of Carcassonne has played a decisive role in the history of Languedoc. although both the Romans and the Visigoths ruled over Carcassonne, the city-state flourished in the possession of the powerful Viscount Trencavel who ruled over Bas-Languedoc. At the end of the crusade against the Albigensians the city, with its improved fortifications, became one of the strongholds symbolising royal power on the frontier between France and Aragon. However, after the Treaty of the Pyrenees made the Roussillon a French possession, the city lost its strategic role and its defence works were neglected. In the 19th Century, the residents of Carcassonne and the Historic Monuments Department (Service des Monuments historiques), commissioned Eugène Viollet-le-Duc to restore the ancient fortress to its original appearance. It was this project which helped save Carcassonne and ensure that the city of today is so outstandingly beautiful.
Our visit to Carcassonne was in late September, the perfect time of year for a stress-free short break, in the summer months the city can be over populated and cramped. After a short, 10 Euro taxi ride from the airport to the13th century Porte Narbonnaise to the east of the walls, if , as we were, you are booked into one of the two hotels inside the cite, a smart car appears from nowhere to take you into the city itself.
Manoeuvring through some of the tightest gates and round the sharpest corners, this (free) journey itself brings a huge smile to your face before your adventure has even began.
The cite is truly captured in time, tiny, winding cobbled streets opening out into glorious squares lined with cafes and restaurants make you almost feel like you are on a film set (in fact parts of the city have been used as a backdrop for many Hollywood blockbusters, most notably Robin Hood, Prince of thieves with Kevin Costner).
We decided to use our first day to discover the new town or low town (Ville Basse). The Ville Basse is located on the left bank. It contains most of Carcassonne’s business activity, and two 13th century churches: The Cathedral of Saint Michael and the Church of Saint Vincent.
Whilst the medieval Cité is Carcassonne’s main attraction, there is plenty to do in the Ville Basse, the modern town. In 1260 the Bastide Saint-Louis was created to house the population whose villages flanking the Cité had been destroyed. This new town now lies at the centre of the Ville Basse, and the main Tourism Office runs guided tours of its main attractions. One of these is the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which houses a collection of paintings from the 17th to the 20th century. Within the Bastide, at the Place Carnot, there is a lively food market on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The Ville Basse also offers a wide selection of restaurants, some specialising in local produce, and cuisine such as the famous cassoulet stew.
The Cité is a very popular tourist attraction. Within the ramparts, the Cité still houses a resident population of about 120 people, and alongside the many bistros and gift shops, there are also all the usual facilities that you would expect for a small town - a post office, a school, a hotel, etc. The Cité includes the Basilique Saint-Nazaire, an open air theatre and the fortified Chateau Comtal within its double ramparts. The walls consist of a vast circle of double battlements, enclosing medieval streets, containing many boutiques, souvenir shops, and restaurants. It relies heavily on tourism. The outer ramparts connect 14 towers, and are separated by the outer bailey and inner ramparts, which has 24 towers. On the 14th July there is a massive firework display to celebrate Bastille Day, in which the whole of the Cite appears to go up in flames.
The Tourist Information Centre houses a scale model of the Cité - a very useful way to view the immense size, and complexity of the fortified town, and to get your bearings.
- The walls of the Cité. The upper town is surrounded by a double wall – the area in-between is known as the lices or “lists” where medieval knights once did their thing. Whilst the outer wall is the work of Louis IX, parts of the inner wall date back to Roman times.
- Château Comtal. The citadel of the upper town dating from the twelfth century with an amazing 31 towers. There are mandatory guided tours of the château which also take in sections of the walls and the amphitheatre.
- St-Nazaire basilica. Pope Urban V (born near Mende in the north of Languedoc) visited here in 1096 and ordered the construction of the basilica. However, the original Romanesque style is now predominantly Gothic after alterations over the years – the best features are its enormous rose windows and the weird gargoyles.
- Pont Vieux and the banks of the Aude. A wonderful place for a picnic once you’ve done the upper town. The bridge dates from the fourteenth century and boasts a Gothic chapel at its western end dating from 1538.
- Local delicacies - Place du Château. This gloriously old-fashioned store is stuffed full of regional specialties such as cassoulet and olives aux herbes. If you’re craving cakes and pastry, it’s also the place to stock up on grés de la cité, a Carcassonne favourite that features a heavenly mix of almonds and vanilla wrapped in puff pastry.
All photographs by Tony & Michelle Bonson 2010