Carcassonne -- Medieval Marvel or Medieval Siege?
Updated: Jan 14
Here's my guide to visiting the UNESCO-listed medieval marvel of Carcassonne in southern France. I wasn't even sure if I'd get there. I have a rather severe tourist phobia. And, well would you venture to a well known tourist destination like Carcassonne in high season?
I pondered this question as I enjoyed a leisurely stroll through the unclogged and terribly scenic rose-hued streets of Toulouse in mid June. Toulouse was stress free compared to busy and frenetic Paris. I was reveling in its laid back vibe.
Did I really want to risk squelching my equanimity? Be subjected to tacky souvenir shops and massive crowds in choked alleys? And, even worse, be forced to wait in long lines? Ooh la la ...
No, not by a long shot, but I gambled that, in mid-June with French schools still in session, I might have a fighting chance.
Plus, as most travelers do, I wondered if I would have that chance again. With few exceptions, I don't tend to be a recidivist when seeking my geographical cures. It was now or very possibly never.
So, with my "ami de longue date" and rental car dubbed Enguerrand, I ventured forth from Toulouse for a day trip, hopeful for medieval marvel, but with some niggling anxiety about a possible medieval siege.
The sign below greeted us as we parked our car outside the walled city. I admit, it made us feel a tad guilty about our purist fear of tourists.
History is Alive: No Imagination Needed
The first site of medieval Carcassonne literally takes your breath away (and I mean that in the correct sense of "literally").
Carcassonne is a 13th century fantasy world of towers, spiky turrets, stout walls, winding alleys, and moats. It's a medieval junkie's dream city on steroids. As British writer Anthony Horowitz said, much more poetically, "In no other city I've visited does history feel so alive."
Carcassonne has a double row of fortified walls stretching nearly 2 miles with 52 watch towers, each one crowned with fantastical “witch hat” turrets.
History of Carcassonne: Saved From Ashes
Carcassonne is ancient. It dates back to the neolithic times.
The Romans began fortifying the hilltop around 100 B.C. Then, Carcassonne passed, in a long succession of regime changes, to the Visigoths, Saracens, and Franks, until ultimately landing in the hands of the wealthy Trencavel family. Under the Trencavels, Carcassonne became a power in the southern France, rivaling Toulouse.
Carcassonne was also a stronghold of the Cathars, a fastidiously monkish Christian sect (though most people thought they were either Christian heretics or not Christian at all). As part of the 13th century Albigensian Crusades, the bloodthirsty crusader Simon de Montfort vanquished the Carcassonne Cathars, and the Trencavels with them, in 1214.
Sadly, Carcassonne was thereafter left to rot, used as a stone quarry, and was almost demolished in the 19th century. Under Napoleon, it was struck off the roster of official fortifications. The French government even decided that Carcassonne should be demolished, causing an uproar among local citizens. The city was then reclassified as a historic monument.
The architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, France's leading Gothic revivalist in the late 19th century, was commissioned to restore Carcassonne. Though he may have over-embellished some parts of the old citadel, Carcassonne still has an authentically medieval feel.
La Cite de Carcassonne: the Citadel
Carcassonne’s ancient walled city was, quite justifiably, added to the UNESCO World Heritage List list in 1997.
It's stunning. The crenelated outer wall is the work of Louis IX, but parts of the inner wall date back to Roman times. The Roman "Inquisition Tower" housed the medieval Inquisition, whose barbaric purpose, as I've said, was to root out and prevent the spread of those dreaded Cathar rebels.
The citadel includes the Château Comtal, the central castle of the upper town dating from the 12th century with an amazing 31 towers. Cast your eyes to the roofline so you don't miss the gargoyles. The chateau is:
"a castle within a castle, where every possible military defense tactic can be seen: watchtowers, posterns, covered wooden walkways and machicolations the better for hurling boiling oil and stones on the attackers."
The Basilica of Saints Nazaire (Carcassonne's main church) also has lovely 12th century stained glass and stonework. The church itself is a mix of styles after numerous additions and restorations, though still mostly Gothic in appearance.
As Viollet-le-Duc put it: "the Saint-Nazaire Basilica represents the invasion of the ogival style of the North into a Romance monument of the South." It's open from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm each day.
The tourist offices are located at 28 Rue du Verdun in the lower city, La Bastide, with another in the medieval city on Rue Cros Mayrevieille. Bring your own map, and you won't have to wait in line for one.
Inside the Fortified Walls
The medieval streets within the citadel are cliched Disneyland perfect. They really are.
They'll appeal to fans of the knight in shining armor era, a group in which I unabashedly include myself. Despite the tourist hordes, the cobblestone streets retain their charm and mystique. You'll be enveloped in stone, exposed timbers, and ivy. There are even some secret spots where you can escape the crowds.
It's no mean feat if you can unglue your camera from your face. Here's my travel companion, hiding from tourists, with his iPad glued to his hand (not tucked away in his man purse):
Ignore the Tourist Junk
There are trinket shops galore in the old town of Carcassonne. You can get your own Lord of the Rings dagger or a silver plastic helmet.
The cheesiness of the shops does take a bit of thunder out of all the medieval magnificence. My advice for safeguarding your geographical cure: IGNORE, IGNORE, IGNORE the sleazy tourist gibe. Don't look and it won't blight your brain or unduly diminish your experience.
Felice Varini Installation
On my visit, I was also treated to a hefty cultural counterpoise to any niggling tourist gall -- the "Eccentric Concentric Circles" installation by Swiss artist Felice Varini.
To celebrate the 20 year anniversary of Carcassonne's designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Carcassonne tourist board covered the medieval stones with an eye deceiving optical illusion of concentric yellow aluminum circles.
The circles' appearance changed depending on your viewpoint. To see it -- abstract art imposed on a vast architectural space -- was to be disoriented, most certainly, but in a pleasant way, at least to my mind's eye.
Varini described the installation as shedding a "new light" on Carcassonne:
"It took the public on a veritable aesthetic experience that enhances their walking visit, as the yellow lines spread out into the space like a wave."
The brilliantly composed and stunning finished effect was best seen at the entrance:
It Was Only Temporary
The locals were appropriately angry. They claimed the Varini installation "was ruining their lives," sounding like the disgruntled Londoners who dislike the The Shard projected on their famous skyline.
To me, the ephemeral nature of the installation made it eminently enjoyable. And I loved, as I so often do when traveling about on my geographical cures, the stark juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern.
On October 1, 2018, Varini's installation was removed and the torment of the locals ceased.
La Ville Basse: The Lower City
The Bastide St-Louis is inappropriately named the "new town," when in fact it was built in the 13th century. It has a magnificent tree-lined square, the Place Carnot, where cafes, shops, and restaurants abound.
You can also visit the Cathedral of Saint Michael and the Church of Saint Vincent. Or, just wander along the boulevards taking in the lovely 18th and 19th-century mansions. If you must shop, do it here. Market days are Thursday and Saturdays.
Victuals: It's Not All Tourist Rubbish
We lunched on some quite good homemade tapas and salads at the unassuming L'Escargot at 7 Rue Viollet le Duc in the old town.
While restaurant reviewers grumble about rubbish cassoulets and lackluster service in Carcassonne, there's still an abundance of good restaurants at various price points in both the upper and lower city:
▲ Adélaïde, 5 Rue Adélaïde de Toulouse (outdoor terrace, spectacular views)
▲ Auberge des Lices, 3 Rue Raymond Roger Trencavel (fine dining)
▲ Brasserie de DonJon, 4 Rue de la Porte D'Aude (lovely stone walls and
▲ Château Saint Martin, Hameau de Montredon (fine dining)
▲ Chez Felix, 11 Place Carnot (unpretentious cafe in main square)
▲ Chez Fred, 26 Rue de Albert Torney (cassoulet)
▲ Chez Saskia, Place Auguste-Pierre Pont (delicious daily breakfast)
▲ Comte Roger, 14 Rue Saint-Louis (lovely terrace, contemporary cuisine)
▲ Creperie Le Ble Noir, 15 Rue de Verdun (crepes and desserts)
▲ La Barbacane, Place Auguste Pierre Pont (Michelin Star)
▲ La Table de Franck Putlelat,Chemin des Anglais (fancy)
▲ L'Ecurie, 43 Boulevard Barbes (lovely courtyard)
▲ Les Halles, Place Eggenfelden (stone walled covered food market)
▲ Le Trouvère, 1 Place Marcou (casual cafe in cluttered main square)
Best Day Trip Detours from Carcassonne
If you're exhausted after exploring all the niches and parapets or tripping over map toting tourists, you can escape via the Pont Vieux. The bridge dates from the fourteenth century and boasts a Gothic chapel at its western end dating from 1538.
There are many nearby detours to be had.
1. Canal du Midi
Just across the Pont Vieux sits the Canal du Midi, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The canal was a major 17th century feat of engineering, designed during the reign of Louis XIV to link the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.
You can stroll along the banks or take a guided boat tours. There's a quite nice 8 km circular walk of the River Aude, starting at the Pont Vielle in the medieval city. If you've been besieged by tourists, this is your chance to escape to the peaceful countryside with only the occasional jogger for company.
2. The Eerie Lastours
The village of Lastours with its vestiges of mythical medieval Cathar castles is only 10 miles north of Carcassonne. The castles are perched on a rocky spur of the Black Mountains. You you can hike up the incredibly steep gorge via a rugged mountain trail. Access was obviously not meant to be painless.
Le Puits du Trésor, a renowned Michelin-starred restaurant, sits on the banks of the River Orbiel, if hiking stokes your appetite.
The lovely medieval village of Mirepoix is just 50 minutes from Carcassonne. It's a real working village. Unlike Carcassonne, is not overly commercialized.
The 800 year old main square, Place des Couverts, has quaint half timbered buildings that delightfully lurch and sag. Monday is market day. Mirepoix boasts one of the oldest markets in this part of France. This is a nice spot to be catapulted back in time.
4. Other Cities in Southwest France
If you're in the mood for a city break after being medievalized, Carcassonne is also conveniently near Toulouse (1:00), Montpelier (1:40), or Narbonne (:50). But probably my personal favorite detour would be to the town of Albi (1:30), an underrated gem in southern France. Here's my guide to Albi.
Albi is a red brick clad episcopal city with militaristic architecture. It symbolizes the Catholic defeat over, yes, you guessed it, the pesky Cathars. Albi has imposing citadels -- the Albi Cathedral and the Berbie Palace -- and is also home to the fabulous Toulouse-Lautrec Museum.
Carcassonne: The Bottom Line