I’ve survived the 4.30 a.m. start and reached Carcassonne from Andorra. This is another bucket list tick - I've wanted to go ever since I read Kate Mosse ( and others), on the mysterious history of the city. The main interest is the eleventh century medieval citadel with ‘A veritable anthology of stone: throughout its three kilometres of ramparts, through its 52 towers, two gates, its barbicans, its castle and its basilica, in the labyrinth of its crenellated ramparts, its stairs, chicanes and gates, you can read the whole architecture of the Middle Ages'. Thus runs the promotional blurb.
The citadel was a strategically placed fortress to defend the border with Spain. The earliest signs of settlement date back to 3500. The fortress began life as a Roman hilltop defence. The Romans ceded to the Visigoth king Theodoric, who founded the first St Nazaire basilica,in the fifth century. Over the years the fortifications were strengthened and towers and barbicans added to bring it up to the 52 said to be on site today. The most notable additions were those of Viscount Trencavel, who developed the walls and constructed the castle, the Château Comtal inside. But Carcassonne is probably most well known for acting as a stronghold, for the Huguenot Cathars during the Albigensian Crusades (Read about the city of Albi here). They were defeated by the crusader armies and most of the inhabitants expelled.
When France's border was moved further south, after peace with Spain was negotiated, there was little need for the castle and the citadel fell into disrepair. The government was going to demolish it, but there was an outcry and instead restoration began in the nineteenth century. The architect, Viollet-le-Duc, took a somewhat controversial approach, removing some of the most ancient structures and incorporating grey witches' hats instead of the traditional southern red tiled ones. He argued that this was probably authentic, as the original inhabitants had come from the north. He completed 30% of the restoration. Red hats seem to have prevailed after that.
Carcassonne is named after the original hillfort - Carsac. There's a lovely legend telling of a châtelaine, Lady Carcas. She is said to have ended a siege, when the town was on its knees and starving, by fattening up a pig and letting it escape to the enemy. They naturally became downhearted when they saw how well the besieged were living and they duly departed. The success of the ruse was celebrated by the joyous ringing of bells ("Carcas sona") and so Carcassonne got its name. Sadly, the historians are having none of this tale, but there is a modern statue of Madame Carcas on a column near the Narbonne Gate.
Modern and Old Cities
This 'anthology of stone' is approached through a pleasant pedestrianised area in the lower city. The 'ville basse' isn't exactly modern. It dates to the late Middle Ages, founded as a settlement for the expelled inhabitants of the town. a criss- cross of shopping streets, past the Portail des Jacobins (the last of the city gates still standing) and the remains of some of the old walls, which once encircled this part of town. A church or two, and the cathedral. Some pleasant squares lined with museums and civic buildings. Then, I cross over the Aude River.
Le Vieux Pont certainly looks battered enough to be ancient. It's where I get my first glimpse of the lines of turrets atop a hill. Next, a winding stretch of older streets, crammed with restaurants and boutiques, laid out enticingly, to entrap the tourists, as they promenade through. The regional offerings featuring heavily are cassoulet and pigs trotters. And finally, a climb up to the medieval citadel.
Inside Carcassonne Castle
I’ve been warned that Carcassonne can be horribly crowded in summer, but I was hoping for a Venice like outcome. The streets are still bustling however and I queue for maybe 15 minutes to buy my ticket. Perhaps that's good compared to a normal summer. Though of course this is the New Normal.
The city in the bailey consists of more winding streets and many more shops and restaurants. All very quaint of course. There are more witch hat topped towers than you can shake a stick at. I'm hoping for a view from the ramparts; you have to buy a ticket for nine euros to see that and the castle - the Chateau Comtal. There are two different rampart walks so I ask to do both, but I'm told I have to choose one. If I want to do the second I can come back and queue again and buy another ticket. I'm not impressed.
As well as the plethora of towers in the castle, there are views of the thirteenth century St Nazaire Basilica (the one that replaced Theodoric's). To my surprise, there's also a sports stadium, the Stade Albert Domec, one of the oldest in France, squeezed in behind the church. The 52 towers are photogenic, the views fair. There are plenty of red tiled roofs below to admire, but it's not as pretty as Verona. And on the way out I discover yet another rampart walk with a view - and it’s free.
My Hotel in Carcassonne
Another bridge, the Pont Marengo, crosses the Canal du Midi and provides access to the railway station. And my hotel. The Astoria is cheap, and clean and basic. Not remotely stylish and somewhat awkwardly modelled. But it’s fine for one night and the owner is helpful. I just wish it was better sound proofed.
Read more about France here.