The ancient walled city of Carcassonne perched on a hill over the more modern extended town is an historical treasure, a delight to visit, and a good reason to discover what else the city and region has to offer.
How to Get to Carcassonne, France
Carcassonne is one of the most accessible historical sites in France. There are good rail links from Paris and from Barcelona, so the tourist can incorporate an overnight stay in Carcassonne when travelling between these major centres, or make Carcassonne a base or jumping off place to see the entire Aude region in Languedoc, or even the nearby Lot and Provence regions.
Carcassonne also has its own airport, with budget flights by Ryanair to Britain. It is also on the major highway that cuts across France, known as the Autoroute des Deux Mers (Highway of the Two Seas).
The Medieval Walled City of Carcassonne
It is obviously this wonderfully preserved medieval city that draws tourists from all over the world. Tourists should note that it is quite a walk on the outskirts of town and the walk becomes progressively steeper. Entry is free to the bulk of the city; only the castle and towers attract a fee. In truth, there is enough to inspire awe and to keep shutterbugs delighted in the city in general, without museum entrance.
Once the visitor enters across the drawbridge over what is now a dry moat, it is possible to appreciate how the double set of walls would have made the city practically impenetrable. It is possible to walk along the outer wall and peer down at the surrounding lower city and the countryside for miles around. It is fun to peer through the arrow slits in the walls.
The Tourist-Traps of Carcassonne
The first sight of the city interior might be a little off-putting. The street is jammed with tourist souvenir shops, selling plastic swords, fake chainmail and miniature castles. There is a dungeon treat for the kids and plenty of coffee shops. It is all very Disneyland and detracts from the sense of stepping back in time that the slow approach to the fortified city on foot engenders.
Nevertheless, once the visitor escapes the razzmatazz, other streets are as they might have been several centuries ago. There is the beauty of the old stone buildings and the wonder of treading worn cobbles that have seen countless generations since the city’s foundations 2000 years ago.
Brief History of Carcassonne
There has been a settlement of sorts at Carcassonne since 3500 BC. However, the Carcassonne seen today began with Roman occupation in 10 BC. Over the centuries fortifications were increased and improved. In the 5th Century AD, the Visigoths made the walls almost impenetrable. The city came under control of the French Crown in 1247, giving Louis IX and his successor Phillip III a chance to do even more to the fortifications. It was during this period that the ‘new’ town was developed. In the 17th and 18th Century, pressure was taken off Carcassonne as a strategic military site and the walls were allowed to crumble. In the mid-19th Century, the French Government, under pressure from the locals, employed the architect-historian Eugene Viollet-le-duc to restore the city to its former glory.
The Lower Town (Ville Basse)
Drawn to Carcassonne by the enormous chunk of intact medieval history sitting on the hill, the visitor is often surprised to find that the castle-city does not sit in isolation. Carcassonne proper is a pleasant, lively French provincial city with an excellent shopping centre and several great restaurants serving traditional local dishes
. It has sufficient quaint, attractive buildings, squares and cobbled streets to give the overseas visitors a sense of being somewhere totally different. There is also the delightful Canal du Midi running through town. The view of the moored barges from the bridge is a photographer’s delight. Inexpensive 2 hour or day canal cruises are available, and it is possible to hire a boat and start a barging holiday from here.
Accommodation in Carcassonne
As might be expected of a site that receives 3 million visitors per year, the town has plenty of hotels and rooms available. Tourists arriving by rail need look no further than Le Terminus, which is quite close to the station. Cross the bridge over the canal and look to the left on the main street. This is very much a period hotel and the 1920s style, if a little faded, has been retained. Rooms have high ceilings, tall French doors, and some have balconies over the street. There is a bar, bistro and restaurant attached.
Carcassonne is a long way from Paris, but well worth including in any broader visit to France. It is a medieval gem, recognized as such by a UNESCO World Heritage listing.