This town in Aude county, southwest France,is where you can find a fortified medieval city of breathtaking beauty, listed as world heritage since 1997. Carcassonne is an architectural and historical gem, it is not however the only treasure to be found in the region, well known for its gastronomy and good living.
"When I find myself alone, in front of my pillars, my cornices, then I allow myself to gaze lovingly at these silent stones". This, in essence, is what the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc said about Carcassonne, the mediaeval city that he ardently protected and lovingly renovated in the middle of the 19th century. Carcassonne is a discreet town, stretching out at the foot of the Montagne Noire, in the middle of Aude county, and the region of Occitania. Its simplicity contrasts starkly with the medieval city that overlooks the town on the right bank of the Aude river, southeast of the current town. It is impressive: 3 km long, with 52 towers, some of which date from the GalloRoman period, with double surrounding walls, a fortress and a superb basilica, this ancient city has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997
This citadel is the largest in Europe and one of the main cultural sites in France. It is visited by around 2.5 million visitors every year, putting it just behind Mont-Saint-Michel, another emblematic site, in terms of tourist numbers. Once you have entered through the gates and drawbridges that surround the entrance, the visitor is wanders along cobbled roads and through narrow passageways and marketplaces typical of the urban Middle Ages. Along the path, between the stone-buildings, there are hosts of restaurants, ice-cream vendors, jewelry stores and guesthouses. If this commercial frenzy is distracting for those more interested by contemplation than consuming, you can visit the fortress and basilica dedicated to Saint Saint-Nazaire and Saint Celse. For the careful observer, every step you take within this city offers up a slice of Occitan history.
Carcassonne : the history of this gigantesque complex
Carcassonne holds a strategic position, facing the Pyrenees at a crossroads between the Southern routes between the Basque Atlantic and the Mediterranean. The Romans were the first to realize the significance of its location. They built a fort there in the 3rd century. However, with the fall of Rome two centuries later, left it to be occupied successively by the barbaric Visigoths, the Saracens, then the Francs, before coming into the possession of the Trencavel family in the 11th century. It is they who started to build the medieval city that we know today. Initially they built a church and a dungeon on Carcassonne hill, surrounded by a first line of walls. The town could have stayed a small regional center, handed down from Trencavel to Trencavel, but for Catharism, which wrote Carcassonne large into France’s history books.
Catharism was a religious movement that arose in the South of France during the 12th century. Its hostility towards the clergy and its beliefs that differed from the Roman credo attracted the Pope’s ire, labelling it as heresy. In 1208, Pope Innocent III started a crusade against the Cathars. The Trencavels defended them. Carcassonne came under siege by the crusaders and the town fell in 1209. The Trencavels were dispossessed, the town falling into the hands of the French Crown that developed its military defenses. The fortress was extended and reinforced with its own protective wall. Another enclave was built, alongside the preexisting one. This monumental construction work was justified by the threat of invasion by the neighboring Spaniards or rebellion by allies of the Trencavel family, still present in the region.
The citadel reached its existing form during the 14th century. From then on it fell into a gradual decline, caused by the economic development of the town below it and the development of heavy artillery that made medieval castles obsolete. This effect was amplified by the changing Spanish border, that was moved considerably further away, Carcassonne lost its strategic importance and so the ancient city quietly fell into ruin, that is until the 19th century. Squatted in, partially dismantled, it would be saved and restored thanks to the efforts of Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille, a local historian, and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the renowned architect responsible for the institution of French Historical Monuments, a brilliant conservator and father of modern architecture. The restoration work required to save the site came at enormous cost. Started in 1840, it was not finished until 1913 and then just 30% of the citadel was restored… As we have already seen faith has played a significant role in Carcassone’s past. The town was deeply scarred by the Cathar period and the horrors of the crusade. But it is also one of the main stops along the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, making it a significant place for French Christianity. Visitors of the citadel should not be surprised to meet numbers of pilgrims from across the world with scallop shells wandering the streets near the PontVieux, disdainfully overlooked by the towers and imposing curtain walls. When exploring the region, you can almost feel the breath of past ages just by raising your gaze to look up at this extraordinary medieval site.
Carcassonne and Southwest France : things to do and see in the surrounding region
It would be impossible to list all the activities offered by emblematic Carcassone and its surrounding region, to be convinced you just need to visit the place and let yourself explore its treasures and experience the warmth of its population.
Bastide Saint-Louis in Carcassonne:
Bastide Saint Louis, in the center of the ancient town surrounded by 18th and 19th century boulevards, has traces of the old checkerboard of streets. The area reveals a striking architectural wealth, as much for the small hotels as the religious structures. Among other things you can visit the house of the poet Joël Bousquet (1897-1950), wounded in the first great war. It was a meeting place for artists like Dali, Magritte, Paul Valéry, Aragon and André Gide.
The Midi Canal:
The town also opens onto the Midi canal, which crosses it. Built in the 17th century, to connect the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, it was previously used to transport merchandise and people. Today it is reserved for pleasure boats and tourists. Since 1996, it has been listed as a UNESCO Human Heritage Site. It is a 240km watercourse complete with locks, bridges, aqueducts and canal bridges that you can visit with the family on foot, bicycle or boat.
A 10 min car journey from Carcassonne takes you to Cavayère Lake. This 40ha recreational area is a haven of peace and coolness, an ideal place to relax with the family. There are three beaches with sand and grass, during the summer there are lifeguards, watersports and tree climbing trails. An ideal place to pass a summer in the shade and in the water or for a quiet stroll during the low season! You can also go around the lake on foot or bike.
Châteaux cathares GR® 36:
The region is crossed by the GR® 36, le GR® Châteaux Cathares GR® (editor’s note: GR® stands for grand randonnée, a long hike, they are marked trails with itineraries that can be done over several days or weeks). Arriving from Mazamet, the trail crosses Aude from North to South. It is an opportunity for a hike in the countryside through an infinite array of spectacular panoramas, through a preserved environment that boasts an exceptionally rich flora and fauna.
Gastronomy and wines in Carcassonne :
Carcassonne is a wonderful place for fine cuisine, as well as the excellent local produce, there is also a mix of rustic and Mediterranean flavors. Thus, you find orchard fruits, vegetables from Aude, cheeses from the Montagne Noire and Pyrenees, chestnuts, truffles and other forest mushrooms. The typical dish from the region is of course the ubiquitous cassoulet. The famous chef and author of many books about food, cookery and gastronomy, Prosper Montagné (born in Carcassonne in 1865), attributed the origin of cassoulet to the town of Castelnaudary, during the Hundred Years War (13371453). During the siege of Castelnaudary by the English, the starving population within the town walls gathered together all the foodstuffs they had left (beans and meat), mixing it all together to make a huge stew or estofat, to reinvigorate the soldiers.
Thanks to this dish they were able to chase away the English and liberate their village. An exciting region for its variety of high-quality produce, Carcassone is home to more than its fair share of great chefs. Three restaurants are even found in the celebrated Michelin guide: Le Parc de Franck Putelat (2*), La Barbacane, and the Relais & Châteaux Le domaine d’Auriac, which has kept its star over 39 years now. This cuisine based on local produce is intimately linked with a passion for good wine. Nature is particularly kind in the region of Carcassonne, as much for the grapes as for the sun itself.
A traditional vintner’s domain since the 19th century, it is today known as one of the "shining lights" of the Minervois. The property is 15mins from Carcassone’s medieval city. There are fifty-two hectares of vineyards, 3 hectares of olive groves and 55 hectares of other crops, making up this enchanting domain. We can see the mountain of Alaric beyond the horizon.
Liz et Jon O'Connell's domain:
Different style, same passion: at the foot of the Montagne Noire you find Liz and Jon O'Connell’s domain, an invitation to discover their wines in a convivial atmosphere. It is also a fine restaurant in the region where wine-tastings are offered in both English and French. Of course, it is to be enjoyed in moderation !