When Traveling through the South of France the city of Carcassonne can not be skipped, in fact it should be on the top of your list. The charms of this French Medieval town are immediately felt the minute you arrive.
We arrived by train from Barcelona after a five and a half ride past beaches, hills and small French villages. Our stay began in an adorable little Airbnb in the historic part of town, just blocks from the castle. The small streets lined with quaint buildings, filled with apartments, restaurants and shops, were quiet but inviting. The Carcassonne streets were quite the contrast to Barcelona. They are narrow, spotless, and quiet, with buildings only two to three stories high at most. The shops were small, but filled with personality and charm, as were the restaurants.
Our first night in Carcassonne we ended up hiking up to the castle, which stood majestically on the top of the hill watching over everyone in the city. The walk up to the castle is a bit of a climb up a residential street, but is very rewarding when you reach the top. Once there you are treated to a great view of the surrounding countryside with its lush green rolling landscape along with the walls of the ancient cite.
The ancient Cite walls erection began in the 13th century. I could only imagine how imposing they were then as I stood in awe of the beauty of the massive stone structure which protected a community from numerous attacks over the centuries. Immediately we felt compelled to walk over the massive bridge and into the ancient Cite, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city felt welcoming at first glance. I am not sure if that was because of the beauty, the size, or the perfection of the entire area, but I had to go in and explore what was hidden behind the ancient walls. Luckily, our first exploration was around 4:30 so the day tourists were gone, and the evening diners had not yet come out. We were able to explore the old stone streets, cute shops, and fabulous buildings with relatively no interference. If you ever want to know the value of a UNESCO World Heritage site certification then visit Carcassonne. The incredible authenticity of the fortified city is not only a unique lesson in architecture but history as well.
Dinner proved to be a challenge for me, and it was only the beginning of the struggle I would face in France as a vegetarian. J was excited to try a cassoulet (traditional southern French casserole with meat and white beans). He was not disappointed in Carcassonne. We dined in the ancient Cite and then walked back to our apartment completely excited about the next day and our tour of the castle.
Carcassonne was the first castle on our 8 month journey. When we began the tour I didn’t have any understanding of how incredible this fortified city is. The area of Carcassonne has been inhabited for 5,000 years at least, and has been an important center for over 2,500 years. The double exterior walls were constructed in the 13th century to protect the city which was of great importance to the development of France. The castle and gothic cathedral along with the within the walls were imperative to protecting the growing country. Unfortunately by the 19th century the castle and the walls had fallen to ruin. The mayor at the time called on an incredible architect, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. He was charged with rebuilding this once vibrant city from the rubble and stone quarry it had become. With no photos, drawings or records he set out to rebuild the castle, the walls and to reestablish the city as it was. During his life he endured much doubt and ridicule for his methods and accuracy, but eventually (within the last 30 years) all were proven to be revolutionary and exemplary. He was able to restore to life a gift for all of us lucky enough to visit. As we walked through the turrets, the rooms and along the wall it was impossible not to be touched by the tremendous undertaking of this brave man. It is such an example of a man following his heart and gut to do the right thing despite what his peers and the world had to say. We felt transported to the early 13th century as we touched the rugged stones, felt the coolness against our skin and the breeze on our faces. The views of the surrounding country were a patchwork of colors and textures. It was easy to stand on top of the massive walls imagining what life was like through the years of this amazing structures existence.
After the castle tour I wanted to tour the cathedral and have my first French crepe of this trip. We ate in front of a picture perfect stone building which served as the divider of one main street into two side streets, one leading to the wall and a beautiful country view while the other road led to the rest of the town. While we sat on the small stone wall in front of the building, surrounded by ivy climbing the sides of other stone buildings, massive walls of the gothic cathedral loomed over over us, gargoyles and figures protruding from the historic building, it was hard to remember the year is 2017. I was mesmerized by this perfectly maintained ancient city.
I definitely have a thing for perfectly preserved walled cities. For me they have the ability to not only transport me back in time but to also help me feel protected from the craziness outside of the walls. Maybe it helps to explain my quite new propensity for smaller spaces, I feel less overwhelmed and more able to focus on my life, and what is happening around me. Less distractions!
In the late afternoon we hopped on the (quite expensive) little train which took us on a tour around the city outside of the walls. It wasn’t my favorite part of the trip, but I did enjoy seeing the 18th and 19th century buildings which make up the “newer” area of Carcassonne. (I may have also fell asleep on J’s lap during part of the trip which could have resulted in my less than enthusiastic response to the little train ride.)
We had dinner outside of the walls, down the street from our apartment and then enjoyed a quiet stroll through the quaint streets. There is a tremendous charm to this city that I was very sad to leave behind.
My tips for visiting:
Get to the castle early to avoid the line. Watch the video inside the castle which does an excellent job of explaining the history.
Skip the little train ride.
Spend time just hanging out in the fortified city, there are nooks where you can get away from the people.
Buy soap in the soaps shop. It is the authentic French soap, which is yummy.
Train travel to and from Carcassonne is super easy so don’t feel you need to rent a car.
If you decide to visit Carcassonne our apartment there was so perfect with stone walls, an amazing view and PERFECT location. Check it out. J said he would easily live there it was so homey.