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Carcassonne: Medieval and Marvellous

Updated: May 30, 2023

The medieval double-walled city of Carcassonne is simply outstanding. Since learning about it waaaaay back in the 8th Grade, it has been on my list. It did not disappoint. Carcassonne is in the Occitanie region of France along the Aude River which divides the town into two sections: The more modern La Ville Basse (the lower city) and the historical Cité. It has been well-preserved, refurbished, and in some places, rebuilt. It is one of the most intact medieval fortifications in Europe.

We were staying in La Ville Basse about 5 minutes walk from La Cité in an apartment we found through called La Secret de la Taverne. We found the entrance, put in the codes, and were presented with 3 flights of narrow, winding staircase and no elevator. It was near the end of our trip and our bags had gained weight. We were absolutely delighted when we swung open the door to see this amazing space.

It's decorated in a medieval theme, including a full suit of armour (we dubbed him Sir Kenneth of Carcassonne), and huge table with grand chairs, and a magnificent 4 post bed.

Another special treat was a treasure hunt which included finding clues hidden in the walls and around the flat. The first clue in the treasure hunt led us to an old compass with Robert Frost's "A Road Less Travelled" etched onto the lid.

The treasure was a souvenir coin of Carcassonne.

Our route to La Cité took us across Le Pont Vieux (The Old Bridge), built in the middle ages and now a pedestrian crossing. This bridge links the lower city to the medieval city and is the perfect place to get photos of La Cité.

Carcassonne was once known for its textile industry and this area at the foot of the Cité was once full of weavers, dyers, workshops, and their employees. The neighbourhood is in the process of revitalization as new businesses and residents are returning to the area.

La Cité was occupied as early as the 5th Century BC by the Iberians. The inner rampart was built in the 6th Century AD. The main building began in 1096 and continued throughout the centuries. In the mid-1600s, the area was claimed by France and the fortress was left to decay until the mid-1800s. La Cité is home to about 1,000 people today.

La Cité's refurbishment was undertaken by the same architect who oversaw the refurbishment of St.Michel, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Viollet-le-Duc added some controversial embellishments, including sloping roofs, adding battlements and a drawbridge.

The Porte de Narbonne, with a drawbridge across a dry moat, is the main entrance gate on the eastern side of the city. The plaza outside the gate is a busy place with many groups and tourists. The original gate was built in the Visigothic times and was considerably embellished by Viollet-le-Duc who added the drawbridge.

It costs nothing to enter the city but it will cost 9.50€ to tour the castle and ramparts. The narrow streets and open plazas in the city are lined with specialty shops, souvenir/tourist stands, and restaurants.

The Château Comtal (The Count's Castle) is the medieval castle inside the walls, dating back to the 12th century. The castle has two single-storey buildings and a square tower arranged around a courtyard. The walls and round towers have slits for firing arrows. There are a variety of building styles as parts were added on over the centuries.

There are many, many food and restaurant choices and we wanted to enjoy some local specialties. With this in mind, we began scouting the cassoulet restaurants. We chose La Maison du Cassoulet. Cassoulet is a traditional hearty white bean casserole usually cooked with duck confit, sausage, and pork. The best versions are cooked for hours until the beans and meat meld into a dish of luxuriant, velvety richness.

The Basilique Saint Nazaire, considered the "Jewel of the City" was built in the twelfth century. It was originally a cathedral but is now considered a minor basilica. It contains some magnificent medieval stained-glass windows, notably two beautiful rose windows.

While the interior is largely medieval, the exterior was embellished by Viollet-le-Doc's restorations in the 19th century, including gargoyles.

With the main attractions visited, we took time to wander and wind our way through the streets.

We wandered the rest of the village and took a long route back to our flat, after picking up supper of baguette, goat cheese and fruit, which we enjoyed with a bottle of red Chateauneuf du Pape.

While the Lower City is not part of the UNESCO zone there is still plenty to explore and discover. La Ville Basse was founded in the 1200s when rebellious citizens were banished to live outside the protective walls. Later, when the safety of the fortifications were no longer needed, wealthier citizens moved down to the flatter lands. Ville Basse is the business center of Carcassonne which relies mainly upon tourism as its primary industry. Place Carnot is the bustling center. There are approximately 46,000 residents living in the Lower City today.

Another UNESCO site, the Canal du Midi flows through Carcassonne. The canal is part of a network of waterways that link the Mediterranean and the Atlantic ocean with more than 300 structures (locks, tunnels, bridges, aqueducts, etc). It was built in the last quarter of the 17th century and is considered essential in the progression of the Industrial Revolution.

Square Gambetta is a lovely park area that we walked through to get to the Old Bridge. It has some pretty plantings, a big wading pool/water feature, and some statuary. There were always children and young people enjoying the area.

While we were in Carcassonne, we also took a special foodies Market tour with Carcassonne Food Tours with owner Cristelle... but you will need to wait until next week. There's so much to share that it deserves its own post.

We had 3 nights in Carcassonne and saw everything we planned and discovered places we hadn't expected. We loved our flat (hated the stairwell) and ate and drank lots of local specialties. We were there in shoulder season, just as the tourism industry was reopening after two years of mainly domestic tourists.

We were greeted enthusiastically and warmly at every step. As budget travellers, we found excellent food, accommodations, and tours well within our budget. Service in English was widely available and my poor French was responded to with a mixture of patience, delight, and gentle corrections. I would enthusiastically recommend Carcassonne for anyone as there truly is something for everyone here.


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