Carcassonne is situated in the Languedoc region of France, in the south of the country, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The old walled city, standing on a hill and capped by pointed towers, is like the backdrop to a medieval romance. On a clear day, there are views of the Pyrenees. The town makes an interesting stop on a touring holiday, and can be combined with themed trips to Cathar country, or to the haunts of medieval poets. Carcassonne is also a pleasant destination for the weekend tripper, with budget flights from Stansted making the town an easy and affordable destination.
Carcassonne is made up of two towns; the walled Cité on its hill, and below, over the River Aude, the Bastide Saint-Louis. The Bastide, or Ville Basse, is the lower town, a thirteenth-century development which was laid out to a gridlike plan and was surrounded by walls. The earlier, fortified hilltown dates back to the 6th century BC, when there was a Gaulish settlement on the site. This was succeeded by a Roman town. The large defensive walls which can be seen today were constructed over the centuries, as Carcassanne became a Moorish conquest, a feudal stronghold, a Cathar citadel, a frontier fort and finally a tourist honeypot. Although many of the foundations and lower stretches of wall date back to the Roman era, some of the upper sections are the results of a mammoth rebuilding project in the nineteenth century, led by one Eugene Viollet-le-Duc.
The cleaned-up and restored character of the town’s ramparts can diminish its appeal for the tourist seeking authenticity – there is something rather Disneyish about its eagerness to please. However, despite the facelift, most of the walls and towers are original. An exhibition of sketches and paintings in the castle show ‘before and after’ views of the reconstructions – it’s reassuring to see how much predated Viollet-le-Duc’s project, although fairy-tale lovers will be disappointed by the blatant inauthenticity of the pointed turrets.
Carcassonne Tourist Information
Carcassonne is an extremely popular tourist destination, particularly in the peak summer months. The steep narrow streets of the citadel swarm with visitors, while every other building seems to be a restaurant, cafe, gift shop or museum. Shops overflow with stocks of anything with a medieval connection: flails, swords, shields made of wood and plastic for bloodthirsty children; tapestries for their parents. A small general store on rue Cros Mayrevieille offers a chance to buy the basics, while specialist shops provide sweets, wines and regional delicacies … at a price. Every July the town hosts a festival of music, dance and theatre, the Festival de Carcassonne.
Carcassonne’s Castle (Chateau Comtal) is the town’s major tourist attraction, with queues to match. Visit the buildings and museum first, then join one of the regular guided tours (out of season, you may have to settle for French commentary). The tours are the only way to explore an exciting series of towers, turrets and ramparts, with fantastic views and countless photo-opportunities. The tour finishes by Carcassonne’s open-air theatre, next to the cathedral.
The Cathedral (Basilique Saint-Nazaire), which is dedicated to Saints Nazarius and Celsus, has been built and rebuilt several times since the 6th century. Today’s nave dates back to the twelfth-century Romanesque church, while the rest of the building is mostly Gothic. The cathedral has two beautiful and colourful rose windows, an early organ (dating to 1522), several interesting tombstones and statues, as well as the ‘Siege Stone’, a carving showing a detailed military scene.
It’s possible to pass several pleasant hours wandering the streets of the town, or walking around the ramparts. Children and the young-at-heart will be thrilled to discover just how accessible some of the wall-walks are, although care should be taken as you negotiate the imposing outer walls. When they’re not playing at being medieval knights, visitors of all ages can enjoy a spin on the beautiful vintage carousel which stands at the city gates.
When you’re ready to move on from the crowded lanes of the Cité, you can stroll down to the lower town, over the old bridge. There are benches and riverside walks, as well as a number of sights to see (pick up a map from the Tourist Information Office). The famous Canal du Midi passes through Carcassonne, with a charming little marina next to the station. Boat trips will take you on a leisurely canal cruise, or walkers may enjoy a ramble along the broad canalside path.
Carcassonne Tourist Information Office is at 28, rue de Verdun, with a secondary office just inside the main gateway of the Cité, the Porte Narbonnaise.
Carcassonne Travel Information
Carcassonne has a tiny airport which is served by budget Ryanair flights from London Stansted. A bus service connects the airport and town. Alternatively there is a taxi rank outside the terminal building – a trip for four people and luggage to the Cité will cost approximately €16. The town’s railway station is in the lower town, alongside the Canal du Midi.