Most people’s view of ‘Carcassonne’ is the massive medieval citadel sitting on the hill overlooking the ‘new town’ of Carcassonne. It’s no wonder the castle dominates the town in people’s minds – it is France’s second-most visited tourist spot after the Tour Eiffel. However there is another part to Carcassonne, commonly referred to as the new town, ‘town’ because Carcassonne, although officially a city, doesn’t feel city.
It’s rather sleepy and small, more of a pleasant town with a nice square in the middle and a few nice shops and restaurants. The trick to appreciating the ‘La Ville Basse’ as Carcassonne is known locally, is to see it as a jumping-off point to more interesting sights just outside the city walls. The castle just over the river, La Cité, is the most obvious example. The Canal du Midi is another – Carcassonne is a great launch pad for a day trip along the canal.
About Carcassonne Town
In the shadow of its smaller but more famous sibling, the ‘La Cité’ citadel, Carcassonne’s (lower) town dates back to the Middle Ages. Known as the ‘Bastide Saint Louis’, it features typically French bars, shops, cafés and restaurants and markets, and as such it’s the perfect antidote to the tourist attraction that towers above it. Sample the town’s charms by simply strolling through its streets.
Drink in the atmosphere and enjoy the authentically French experience; this part of Carcassonne is home to a handful of charming boutiques, and several great places to eat.
The Carcassonne Citadel
Set high up on a hill, Carcassonne’s ancient walled city is Disneyworld-perfect. This fairytale collection of drawbridges, towers and atmospheric cobbled streets was reputedly the inspiration for Walt Disney’s The Sleeping Beauty, and it’s a must-see on any trip through this part of southern France. Its medieval core, the cité, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1997.
Although both the Romans and Visigoths were here, Carcassonne really flourished under the well-to-do Trencavel family of the late 12th century.
In 1355 the lower town was burnt to the ground by the Black Prince, one of the key figures in the Hundred Years’ War of the Middle Ages, miffed at his failure to capture the citadel. Carcassonne’s key role in cross border trade with Spain, however, dried up with the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, when Roussillon was restored to France.
As trade dwindled, the city walls, no longer needed for protection, fell into disrepair and it wasn’t until the architect Viollet-le-Duc began restoration in the 1800s that things started to improve. It was this project which helped save Carcassonne and ensure that the city of today is so outstandingly beautiful.
The best things to do in Carcassonne
1: The walls of the Carcassonne ‘La Cité’ citadel.
The upper town is surrounded by a double wall – the area in-between is known as the lices or “lists” where medieval knights once did their thing. Whilst the outer wall is the work of Louis IX, parts of the inner wall date back to Roman times. The citadel includes the Château Comtal – the central castle of the upper town dating from the twelfth century with an amazing 31 towers. There are guided tours of the château which also take in sections of the walls and the amphitheater. St-Nazaire basilica. Again set in the Carcassonne citadel, Pope Urban V (born near Mende in the north of Languedoc) visited here in 1096 and ordered the construction of the basilica. However, the original Romanesque style is now predominantly Gothic after alterations over the years – the best features are its enormous rose windows and the weird gargoyle. Pont Vieux and the banks of the Aude. A wonderful place for a picnic once you’ve done the upper town. The bridge dates from the fourteenth century and boasts a Gothic chapel at its western end dating from 1538.
2: Carcassonne Town’s central square
A nice place to chill out after you’ve shopped, and enjoy a cup of coffee or an al fresco lunch. There are outdoor cafés and restaurants here, all offering simple but tasty fare. The square sits in the very centre of Carcassonne, and is dominated by a huge fountain. A bustling fresh produce market takes place every Saturday morning.
3: The Canal du Midi
The canal port at Carcassonne is one of the busiest, and from here you can hop on a half or whole-day canal trip, or even rent a boat for a week or two. Even a half-day trip is lots of fun – get a picnic together at one of Carcassonne’s épiceries, and flat down the tunnel of plane trees either to the west towards Bram or to the east through Trèbes.
4: Château Las Tours
About 20 minutes north of Carcassonne town, in the undulating hills of the Haut-Minervois, you’ll find 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. Whereas Carcassonne’s ‘La Cité’ is huge and very touristy, Las Tours has a far more intimate and atmospheric feel. On the way back, why not pop into the pretty village of Caune-en-Minervois, with its medieval abbey and winding streets.
5: Wine Tasting
Wine is everywhere in the Languedoc, it’s the biggest wine producing region in France, but Carcassonne is ideally placed as a jumping-off point into two of the region’s finest wine-growing areas – the Minervois to the north, and the rugged Corbières to the south. Whether you decide to go on a Wine Tour or just pop into domaines for a bit of wine tasting, you’ll find plenty of excellent options.
6. The Carcassonne festival
The annual Carcassonne festival looks like it’s going to be another corker!
This unique Festival in an exceptional setting brings together some of the greatest national and international artists, in each of the themes proposed, in the heart of the Mediaeval City of Carcassonne Festival. Watch out too for the ’OFF’ programme 2015, with free concerts in locations throughout the town.
Check out the festival programme too for theatre, circus, classical music and open air opera, ballet and contemporary dance. Prices are around 45 euros per event.