Monday, October 26, 2015

In Cathar Country: Carcassonne

Carcassonne is one of those magical names that you come across one day and then dream of visiting ever after. I'm not sure when I first heard of the city, famous for its ancient citadel enclosed by three-kilometre-long double walls, but it's definitely been on my bucket list for some time. Back in 2010, when I was living in Nice, I read a book about the Cathar crusades which opens with dramatic scenes of the siege of Montségur, another destination on our trip, which further piqued my interest in visiting the region. So way back in January, when Jules and I were discussing our travel plans for the year, I suggested a Languedoc roadtrip might be perfect, especially since he loves a good castle.

We drove down early from Beaune, with an unscheduled detour to the Pont du Gard, a large and allegedly beautiful Roman aqueduct. We had just wanted to stop off for a quick selfie, since we were running on a schedule to meet the people at our AirBnb and get the keys, but once we got there we found out you couldn't see the aqueduct from the road at all, and it cost 18€ to park the car, which seemed pretty excessive for what was meant to be a five-minute stop.

So, disgruntled, we were back on the road, arriving in Carcassonne around midday. As you can see, for the most part we had pretty moody weather, which was setting the pattern for the rest of our stay. In fact, it rained every place we stayed on the trip at least once (Beaune, Carcassonne, Albi and Lyon), which isn't really what you have in mind for the south of France.

We spent the first afternoon walking around the walls - as I said, they stretch around 3 km, so that took up quite some time - and then wandering through the streets of the citadel mostly looking for somewhere to have dinner. We managed to find a great place, with a delicious starter of beetroot and goat's cheese salad and then a yummy cassoulet for the main. I love a good cassoulet. I think we struck it lucky (or the careful consideration of the options paid off), because in general I imagine the Cité is probably too touristy to have good food as a rule.

The main streets inside the second wall were pretty busy, but I imagine not nearly as bad as it must be in July and August. According to the latest statistics I found, between 4 and 4.5 million people visited the citadel of Carcassonne in 2011, and I can only imagine it's increased since then. On the second day, we went inside the castle of Carcassonne, another layer of fortification inside the double walls. Since you have to pay to get into this part, only about half a million people visit each year, thus it's a lot less crowded. You also get to walk on portions of the walls which are otherwise inaccessible and there's a free guided tour, so it's worth doing if you have the time and inclination.

Of course, the citadel has been much restored over the years (apparently 30% is restored i.e. rebuilt and the slum-like dwellings dating back to the Middle Ages were razed), beginning with the intervention of Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century, but you still can't help but be amazed by the size and completeness of the city and walls and by its turbulent (and confusing) history. In a nutshell, the fortified town was founded by the Romans, and some Roman walls and towers exist to this day. It used to stand on the border between France and Aragon, hence the need for its strong fortifications. It became the property of the Trencavel family in the 11th century, who built the castle inside its walls, and who would later shelter the Cathar heretics. Thus it got caught up in the Crusades, beseiged, and brought under the control of the French King. Much later on, the border moved and it became strategically unimportant, going into decline and ruin until Viollet-le-Duc intervened.

At the gate of the castle inside the citadel

A very nice lady took a nice photo of us, but failed to get anything interesting in the background

Between the two walls by night

Panoramic view of the walls and basilica


  1. Pont du Gard is really great, but it's true that they really get you with the parking fee. People who live in the Gard can get a pass to go for free, and people who know the area often park (illegally) on the side of the road on Rive Droite and then walk in to avoid the fee. Swimming in the river is really great on a hot summer day.

    Now you just need to watch Robin Hood to see where Kevin Costner was strolling around on Carcassone!

    1. Ah, I needed these tips! We sat there for about five minutes debating whether to go in and seriously every car that pulled up did a U-turn when they saw the price. I'm sure they'd make more money if they halved it or based it on how long you were going to stay like a normal carpark.

      It's been a while since I saw Robin Hood, I didn't realise it was filmed in Carcassonne. I've been to the big tree near Hadrian's Wall that is in the film though!

  2. That's what I call a castle!

  3. Nothing in the background? I could swear that the bloke on the bike is Jack Smith!


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