Visitors to France who fancy medieval times, Renaissance festivals, dragons and gargoyles must run — not walk — to the village of Carcassonne. It’s like stepping into the back lot at Universal Studios — except it’s for real.
Since the pre-Roman period, a fortified settlement has existed on the hill where Carcassonne now stands. The earliest known site dates back to the 6BC when a fort was built overlooking the ancient route that linked the Atlantic with the Mediterranean and the Iberian peninsula with the rest of Europe.
Between 1BC and 27BC the settlement, known as “Carcaso Volcarum Tectosagum,” became a Roman town, “Colonia Iulia Carcaso.” During the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, a wall was built around the settlement — a fortification that has been destroyed, remodeled and restored throughout the ages. to give Carcassonne it’s distinction as a World Heritage site and one of the best restored fortified cities in the world.
The walls of Carcassonne and the people who lived within were prime targets for those who desired to have such a prime location for their settlements. The Visigoths ruled the city through the 5th and 6th century and are believed to have erected a cathedral on the site of the present structure. After Arab rule, then a successful siege by Pepin the Short, work began on the Romanesque Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus in 1096.
The outside of the cathedral, like others of its kind in the south of France, has no flying buttresses.
Stability for the structure is provided by interior vaulting.
By the end of the 13th century, Carcassonne had acquired a castle, Château Comtaland, and an extension of the fortified wall. The castle, as today, has a drawbridge and a ditch leading to the entrance.
One section of the wall is notably Roman because of its red brick layers and the shallow pitch of its terracotta tile roofs. Architect Eugène Viollet le Duc is responsible for guiding the restoration of the city that is enjoyed today by so many. Starting in 1855 he completely designed the city, rebuilding what was nothing more than ruins.
Fact or Fiction?
One of the mythical, if not factual, stories about Carcassonne is shared by tour guides of the city today. It has to do with the naming of the city. The story claims that during one of the many sieges on Carcassonne, the people inside created a ruse to fool the aggressors. Because Carcassonne had so many attacks it was believed the inhabitants of the place might be suffering from malnutrition and lack supplies to defend themselves. Knowing they were at great risk, one resident, “Dame Carcas,” grabbed a healthy pig — one of the last in the city — stuffed its belly full with food, then threw it over the wall as a “present” to the enemy. On receiving such a well-nourished sow, the charging army retreated, assuming the entire population inside the walled fortress was well-fed and ready to defend their city. Hence “Carcassonne” is derived from “Dame Carcas.” Her image (or so they say) can be found on a city gate.
Visitors to Carcassonne today will find there are two parts of the city — the walled city and a “modern” city, founded by some of the inhabitants who were thrown out of Carcassonne in 1347. You can see the walled city for miles around. Its approach from below — after walking up quite a distance from the new city, or after walking from the parking lot at the top of the hill — is an amazing sight. Not many of us in the 21st century have had the privilege to see a “real” medieval castle — much less, enter it over what had been a drawbridge.
Once inside the huge, wide, stone passageway, the ancient-ness quickly fades away into modern-day tourism. Gift shops, candy stores and souvenir places are everywhere along the narrow streets.
If you’re not careful, you’ll miss the tourist office that’s just inside, to the right. My advice? Find it and schedule a walking tour. The guide for my visit was superb.
Another idea? Ride the small train that encircles the grounds, inside and out. It’s not just for kids … or should I say …. for kids of all ages.
Best Time of Year to Visit?
My first trip to Carcassonne was in November. As in the rest of Europe, tourists are mostly at home. That’s a good time to hire a guide who will walk with you inside and outside of the city wall. The stories and images recounted by an imaginative docent are priceless.
If you want to see Carcassonne with hundreds of thousands of others on one day, visit July 14th — Bastille Day. The crowds are as bad as you can imagine, but the fireworks display is magnificent. “The best show in all of France,” some say. Here’s a great map of the “modern city” that shows where’s the best view.
Another journey to Carcassonne is in my future, hopefully soon, as I venture through the Minervois region in the south of France.
P.S. Thanks to Pete Bine, my oldest son, for sharing some of his photos for this post