We visited Carcassonne early this spring. The medieval city was a stopover in our long Europe road trip and we enjoyed one relaxing day exploring its picturesque corners. The drive from Dordogne to Carcassonne was a long and beautiful one and spring made it prettier. The sky alternated between cloudy and sunny, with cherry trees frothing out in pink flowers. Approaching Carcassonne was dramatic and the south of France showed off its much-famed beauty. We chose the country roads over the autoroutes with “Péage” (tolls) and ended up having a lovely drive.
Driving towards Carcassonne
The empty country roads undulated through the Black Mountain forests and the Pyrenees flanked us on one side. Vineyards stood in neat rows and the sun-dappled countryside was decked with crumbling villas. From the overview, the region looked more Mediterranean than classical French and sunny Spain was just an hour away. Our trusty car purred gently across the flat plains of the River Aude on a narrow highway picketed with two-hundred-year-old plane trees and the old fortified town peeked impressively at different turns. From a distance, Carcassonne fortifications looked like a fairytale castle and it crowned a rocky hilltop. Sturdy battlements, thick wall, and skinny turrets created a dramatic skyline against the blue skies and billowing clouds and in my eyes, Carcassonne‘s charms ended there. The famous French destination welcomed its guests with unassuming dusty streets of the modern lower town and till today, I have mixed impressions of the fortified medieval town.
Rude elbowing crowd and Disneylandish kitsch
That does not mean, that we did not have a good time in Carcassonne and honestly if given a chance, I would go back there again. As contradictory, as it may sound, the truth is that I liked our time in Carcassonne, though the fortified town failed to impress me much. The reason was the Dineylandish appeal of its highlight, the La Cité and I hated the rude elbowing rush of tourists. Though being spring, the crowd was supposedly much less than in summer, yet there were enough people to make it seem overrun. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Carcassonne receives more than four million visitors every year and the old town days are unpleasantly overcrowded. It is one of those places, where a million people are in your picture and you end up photobombing others as well and there was hardly any space for a quiet moment of contemplation. The crowd directly affected the mentality of the local residents and nearly everything was aimed at luring the tourists. This created the Disneylandish slightly tacky interiors of the La Cité and the prices were phenomenally high too.
It is also Europe‘s best preserved medieval fortified city
Carcassonne, however, was worth the visit. Nowhere in Europe, is there a fortified medieval city, which is as exquisitely preserved as the imposing La Cité and it came with a tremendous heritage too. Due to its strategic location of being perched on the rocky outcrop overlooking the River Aude, Carcassonne has been much coveted throughout history. Historians believe that the town may have been fortified even before the Romans started building their walled citadels there and the final touches to the magnificent fortified town are credited to Saint-Louis and his successor Philip the Bold. They completed its architectural glory towards the end of the 13th century and Carcassonne survived virtually intact until the mid-1800‘s owing to the protection of the French military. In the last half of that century, the brilliant architect Eugéne-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc took up the prestigious project of restoring Carcassonne and what we see today are the fruits of his hard labour.
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The polarizing effect of Carcassonne
Though we had just one day in the famous French town, we spent most of our afternoon exploring the old town. It was a typical spring day with moody skies, shy sun, and raw winds. A subdued light fell over the fortified old town and it made the surrounding countryside glow softly. La Cité looked ethereal in the moody weather and at some places, time seemed to have stood still. Those were corners overlooking the vast sweep of the countryside or the looming turrets under which the fortified old town lay still like a medieval tapestry. They clashed starkly with the glitzy busy lanes of chintzy cafés, craft shops, and the crowds and made Carcassonne seem like a deeply polarizing phenomenon, which could not make up its mind as to which way to swing. This lead to my travel mood to oscillate too and it shifted swiftly from awe to irritation. Thankfully, the town did not have many attractions to boast of except for the well maintained Château Comtal, and the beautiful church of St-Nazaire and we finished our tour quickly for a hearty lunch at a local restaurant.
Try the local dish, cassoulet…umm, also known as the “bowl of farts”
The cuisine was another letdown factor of the famous fortified town for me and while, normally the French chefs can do no wrong, the food in Carcassonne turned out to be unimpressive. I was particularly excited about the famous local dish of cassoulet and the one I got served had none of the velvety richness of French food. Funnily, it was not the restaurant‘s fault since cassoulet is originally a bland dish of haricot beans and old leftover meat and as I would learn later, is sneakily called by the locals as the “bowl of farts”. After the unsatisfactory meal, we spent the rest of the day, exploring the newer parts of the city, and it was a lovelier and more vibrant than the La Cité. We returned to the old town again after dusk and found ourselves immersed in a quiet floodlit magic. There was none of the childish greed for attention of the day and Carcassonne donned its true character of a beautiful medieval town.
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Moments of Middle Ages enchantment and a losing game of Carcassonne
Centuries melted under the night sky as we left the modern ville basse on foot, crossed the seven-hundred-year-old bridge over River Aude and looked up to the Medieval Ages. A magical lit up city of walls and towers and battlements rose like a mirage before our eyes and we walked in complete silence beneath the massively fortified gate, through the double line of enormous walls, into another world in another time. Incredibly ancient houses, shadowy and atmospheric stood in neat rows underneath the massive battlement walls and only the sounds of our footsteps echoed. Suddenly, a motorcycle roared past dashing our hours of enchantment and in one sweep the Middle Ages were gone. After that we ambled along in the steady light of cars coming our way and spent the rest of the evening, trying our hand at the intriguing board game of Carcassonne. Needless to say, I did not have much luck with the other Carcassonne either and Tarek hands down won all the games.
Carcassonne was the best beginning of our exciting pan Europe road trip
Today, in retrospect, I recall our Carcassonne visit as a very enjoyable time. We loved the beautiful drive to the fortified city, found the ville basse to be a perfect place for hanging out in the evening, and cooked a delicious dinner at our apartment hotel, a habit which we repeated throughout the rest of our trip. Complete with a delicious bottle of local red, oysters, and a large pasta salad, it was the highlight of our day and marked the end of the beautiful first day of our amazing pan Europe road trip.
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Carcassonne travel tips
Located right on the main Toulouse–Montpellier train link, visiting Carcassonne is a must for anyone traveling through the Languedoc region. Though popularly believed to be one city, Carcassonne is made up of two towns and this division is due to the war against the Cathars. Separated into the lively ville basse and the dramatic La Cité, Carcassonne is the second most visited destination in France after the Eiffel Tower. Its highlight is the double-walled and turreted fortress that crowns the hill above the River Aude and from a distance, the fortified old town seems to be straight out of a fairy-tale medieval. Admission to the streets or the grassy lices – “lists” – between the walls is free in Carcassonne and cars are banned from 10 am to 6 pm. A guided tour is required for exploring the inner fortress Château Comtal and walk the walls. The beautiful church of St-Nazaire with its tranquil combination of nave with carved capitals in the Romanesque style and a Gothic choir and transepts, along with some of the loveliest stained glass in Languedoc, is also not to be missed. Climb the tower for most spectacular views over the La Cité.
How to reach
- By Car – Autoroute A61: Exit Carcassonne Ouest (n°23) – Exit Carcassonne Est (n°24), RD6113 ( Toulouse – Narbonne), D118 ( Limoux – Mazamet), D119 ( Pamiers). The distances are – Toulouse: 90 km, Montpellier: 150 km, Bordeaux: 340 km, Marseille: 320 km, Lyon: 450 km, Paris: 730 km, Barcelona: 300 km.
- By Train – Carcassonne is easily reachable by TGV from Dijon, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Lyon, and Marseille. Intercité and TER take you to nearby cities of Narbonne, Limoux, and Perpignan. Night trains coming to or from Paris also stop at Carcassonne train station.
- By Air – Carcassonne is well connected with most major European cities by Easyjet and Ryan Air. The nearest airport is Aéroport Sud de France Carcassonne.
If you are staying in Carcassonne, then everything is within walking distance. La Cité (Medieval town) and La Bastide (lower town) are only 15 minutes apart from each way.
When to visit
Though summer is the liveliest time to visit Carcassonne, it is the peak season for tourism there. Go there either in autumn or spring, for quieter moments and beautiful change of season landscape.
Things to do
- Exploring La Cité (Old Medieval Town) – You can walk around the old town of Carcassonne in about 30 minutes but give it about 3 hours to enjoy the historic place to the fullest. Highlights include spectacular views of the Pyrenees, The Black Mountain, and Bastide Saint Louis, or the lower town.
- The Basilica of Saint Nazarius and Celus – Located inside the ramparts, it is a national monument whose architecture is inspired by the Gothic-Romanesque tradition. Complete with stained glass windows that filter and refract the beauty of the afternoon sun in an almost ethereal manner, it is an experience not to be missed. Go inside the Viscount’s Castle to take in the medieval artifacts and explore the Cathar history of the region. Make sure you are there before 4 pm to have at least an hour to get around.
- Explore La Bastide, or the lower town – Dating at least 4 centuries back, some old buildings of the lower town are from the 17th and 18th century. It is a lively place for relaxing, people watching, and shopping local produce. At the main square of Place Carnot, a little market is held on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. There are loads of lively bars, restaurants, and cafes to for relaxing at the main square. Take a short stroll from Place Carnot to go to the church of Saint Vincent. An epitome of Languedoc Gothic architecture on the outside, it has beautifully decorated interiors with paintings from Gamelin, Nicolas Mignard, and Pierre Subleyras. Enjoy the breath-taking views from the tower. The Fine Arts Museum is 10 minutes walk from Church Saint Vincent and it is a cultural must-see. It houses a collection of paintings and ceramics from the 17th century to modern day and hosts three temporary exhibitions per year. Entrance is free.
- The Canal du Midi – The canal port at Carcassonne is one of the busiest, and you can enjoy a half or whole-day canal trip from here. Renting a boat for a week or two is also possible. Have fun on a half-day trip by getting a picnic and floating down the tunnel of plane trees either to the west towards Bram or to the east through Trèbes.
- Château Las Tours – In the undulating hills of the Haut-Minervois, around 20 minutes north of Carcassonne, lies one of the most picturesque of the region’s Cathar castles. Las Tour’s four towers sit along the spine of a hill, just above a small village and it is a very atmospheric place. On your way back, it is advisable to explore the pretty village of Caune-en-Minervois, with its medieval abbey and winding streets.
Avoid Mondays, since everything is closed. In July, catch the Festival de Carcassonne. This a multi-stage festival that runs throughout July with over 120 performances, out of which 80 are free. It is hosted in Medieval City which offers one of the unique backdrops for any festival in the world. Another major summertime event worth catching is the mammoth fireworks display on Bastille Day (July 14). For more information, visit Carcassonne Tourism
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