There are certain places around the world, where you feel like time has stood still. Carcassonne in the south of France is one such place. Now the town centre itself may not seem overly special, but the town’s medieval hilltop citadel is another story. Found in the Occitanie region in a plain below the Pyrenees, Carcassonne is also close to the popular city of Toulouse. The town is pretty much in the perfect location to be included in a holiday through the south of France. If you’re not convinced, maybe these Carcassonne photos below will help.
I heard about the medieval citadel of Carcassonne in rather a strange way. You see, when I was young there was a Carcassonne board game, where you use tiles to strategically construct a medieval landscape. Ever since, I had the desire to visit the real life town. But Carcassonne is more than just a name of a boardgame.
In fact, Carcassonne is a modest town that hosts an immense medieval citadel drawn straight from fiction. A UNESCO recognised historical landmark, the citadel or Cité de Carcassonne, was once the site of the town before the modern town was built in the 13th century. Its fortifications date back to the 4th century when the Romans built them to defend the previously Gaulish town. Thanks to its location along historic borders, Carcassonne saw plenty of wars, passed hands many times and as such has a pretty intriguing story.
The Town Below
Before getting to the citadel in all its glory, first a little on the modern town of Carcassonne. Although the town is quite spread out, the town centre is actually compact and easy to navigate. Known as Ville Basse, there isn’t too much of note here, beyond several churches, a square or two and the town wall remains. However, Ville Basse is situated on the Canal du Midi, which is part of a popular canal network joining the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic. So it tends to support visitors from the canals as well as for the citadel.
The modern town is separated from the medieval citadel by the River Aude. Joining both sides is the distinguished Pont Vieux bridge, where you’re likely to get your first proper look at the citadel. As I was visiting in March, the feeling of winter still hung in the air, despite bursts of green life appearing occasionally. Below the citadel walls is a small residential district, with citadel towers popping up all over the place.
After crossing the Aude River and finding one of the paths up to the citadel walls, a short walk up will bring you to one of its gates. If the fortifications look mighty from afar, they’re even more imposing up close. They just seem to stretch off into the distance, making it hard to gauge how a big of a town exists inside.
During my two days in Carcassonne, I entered the citadel from both the Porte D’Aude and the Porte Narbonnaise, so as to not miss anything. From both of the main entrances, you enter through solemn gates and find yourself between the citadel’s two layers of walls. Different parts of these walls date from different periods, with some tracing their history back to the Romans and others from the 13th century. There were actually plans by the French government to destroy the citadel in the 19th century. Thankfully, a local couple fought to preserve it and instead architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc renovated its fortifications
Inside the Walls
Once within the citadel, you realise that it really was a fortified town in its day. Much of that medieval character has been preserved, from the cobbled streets to traditional medieval houses. Because tourism is so important to Carcassonne, you can find a number of hotels, auberges, restaurants and boutique stores. Even still, you barely have to imagine what Carcassonne must have been like during the Middle Ages.
Probably the biggest change is how peaceful the citadel now is. As a desirable strategic fortification, Carcassonne belonged to amongst others the Romans, Visigoths and Saracens. It was also a setting for possibly the Crusades against the Cathars in 1209. After a lengthy siege, the residents of Carcassonne were exiled from their homes. Afterwards, the town passed into the hands of the Kingdom of France, where it remained important until the French border expanded in 1659. Then came the decline.
Exploring the Castle
Although the citadel walls protected the town and its people, they also protected the citadel castle. Known as Chateau Comtal, this large castle is separated from the town by a small ditch and is integrated into the inner town walls. The castle was added to the exisiting fortifications in the 11th century, under the ownership of a local dynasty, the Trencavels.
Visiting the citadel is free to the public, but the castle has an entrance fee and opening hours. While you can take a guided tour, you’re also welcome to explore on you own. A visit to the castle includes walking through interior chambers, courtyards and a museum with artwork and a large marble fountain.
From the castle, you also gain access to two stretches of the inner walls and can walk along them. From the walls you’re able to look back into the citadel as well as be treated to some spectacular city views. The walls offer unique vantage points that you’re unlikely to encounter elsewhere in the citadel. The walk along the castle walls also includes several watchtowers, some that were important symbols of feudal power. Up on the walls you may feel one of the two strong regional winds, the freezing Cers off the mountains or the warm Altanus off the sea.
- My choice in airbnb was rather disappointing, but thankfully for you there are a wide range of hotels and guesthouses available for Carcassonne, most of which are in Ville Basse;
- There are lots and lots of bars and restaurants found around Place Carnot in the town centre, but if you are looking for some delicious crepes, I suggest Le Ble Noir;
- Carcassonne train station sits on an important train route connecting Narbonne and Toulouse. This means the town is easily accessible by train, although driving and by canal are other options.
Have you ever been to Carcassonne or played the board game even? Does this look like somewhere you’d love to explore? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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