Carcassonne City Guide
Carcassonne – A tale of two Languedoc cities
Set high up on a hill, Carcassonne’s ancient walled city is Disneyworld-perfect. This fairytale collection of drawbridges, towers and atmospheric cobbled streets was reputedly the inspiration for Walt Disney’s The Sleeping Beauty, and it’s a must-see on any trip through this part of southern France. Its medieval core, the cité, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1997.
Carcassonne is actually two cities in one. Besides the pretty-as-a-picture walled city and the hordes of visitors that throng its streets, there is a low-key, lower town that dates back to the Middle Ages. Known as the Bastide Saint Louis, it features typically French bars, shops, cafés and restaurants, as well as all the standard services and amenities you’d expect, and as such it’s the perfect antidote to the tourist attraction that towers above it.
The citadel of the upper town is really Carcassonne’s only major sight, and once you’ve exhausted the charms of the Cité, you can relax; there aren’t that many other hot spots to hunt down (see our Top Five things to see in Carcassonne below).
Instead, sample the city’s charms by simply strolling through the streets of the lower town. Drink in the atmosphere and enjoy this authentically gallic experience; this part of Carcassonne is home to a handful of charming boutiques, several great places to eat, and a couple of unusually stylish overnight options.
City 1: The 'Ville Basse' (Lower, main town of Carcassonne)
The best shops in Carcassonne
While not exactly a shopaholic’s paradise, Carcassonne’s lower town has some eye-catching boutiques that are a good source for take-home treats and self-indulgent souvenir purchases. They are all concentrated in the grid-system of streets leading off from the Place Carnot (home to the weekly food market, and in winter, the site of the temporary ice rink) and can be whizzed round in an hour or so, if you’re pushed for time.
La boutique de la Maison Coste
40 rue Coste Reboulh
A home accessories and décor shop selling soft furnishings, tableware, china, decorative items, fabrics, paint and even furniture (to order).
28, Rue Barbes
A small, independent boutique selling upmarket, trendy womenswear labels, opposite the post office.
Esprit de Sel
10, rue de la Republique
Three rooms housing a treasure trove of attractive items that would make ideal presents – L’Occitane soaps, fragrances and beauty products, distinctive bags, hats and other fashion accessories, jewellery, herbs and other similarly non-essential “nice-to-haves.”
Comptoir des Tisseurs
25, rue de la Republique
Just across the street from Esprit de Sel – a smart homewares and décor shop, with the accent firmly on subtle, muted tones rather than your more typical, brighter, south of France shades.
13, rue Chartran
A very chi-chi store that sells high end home deco and design wares plus furniture, as well as jewellery – and if you need a refreshing cuppa, there’s tea on offer, too.
Best of British
67 rue Armagnac
If you’re gagging for some English-language reading material, a decent greetings card or a jar of Marmite, you’ve come to the right place. Englishwoman Anne Dineage runs this small shop of Blighty staples for McVities Digestive-starved expats and tourists with a taste for something other than the quintessentially French. Open Tuesday to Friday, 10-12.30 and 14.30-17.00, Saturdays 9.00-13.00.
Corner of rue Verdun/rue Chartron (just off Place Carnot)
What the French call an “épicerie fine” – a fine food emporium, packed full of the most enticing goodies and accessories for foodies and wine-lovers. From luxury items like foie gras and caviar to fancy flatware and truffle slicers, via state-of-the-art corkscrews and champagne buckets: everything you could need to entertain in high style.
Just across the road from La Ferme are the newly-refurbished Les Halles (Carcassonne’s covered food market) – a must for foodies.
Also worth checking out are Galerie Artendances (18, rue Armagnac), a recently-opened furniture and art shop full of cool retro pieces (think Eames chairs, teak sideboards, 1960s lamps and the like); Galerie Lodziak'Art (29, rue Albert Tomey), a gallery featuring modern art and sculpture; and Deco Bastide (36, rue Verdun), selling upmarket, Provençal style furniture and home décor.
Carcassonne's best restaurants
68 boulevard Barbes
Tel. +33 (0)4 68 47 93 64
Make sure you ask for a table in the pretty courtyard garden with vine-covered pergola – perfect for a family lunch or romantic evening, dining out under the stars. Choose from the variety of menus (from 16 to 40 euros) or go à la carte – it is all excellent, and fish fans and vegetarians are well catered for.
18 rue de L'Aigle d'Or
Tel. +33 (0)4 68 71 38 43
Not the best location, but locals tell us the multilingual staff are wonderful and the cooking is extremely good. The two-course set lunch or dinner, including a glass of wine, is good value for money, and the modern, air-conditioned interior is a delight on a hot sticky day.
43, boulevard Barbes
Tel. +33 (0)4 68 72 04 04
Located on the ring road just outside the city walls of the Bastide Saint Louis, this marvelously atmospheric restaurant occupies a former 18th century stable. A pretty, shady courtyard lends itself well to summer dining, while inside, the wooden features and olde-worlde vibe provide comfort on cooler days. Weekday lunch menus from €15, or set menus at €23 and €30 at all times. A charming, friendly place where you can eat well without having to dress up.
Carcassonne's best accommodation
For authenticity and more accessible prices, lay your head in the lower town, where two smart options await you.
42 rue Victor Hugo is a luxury bed and breakfast with an upmarket twist, in an 18th century townhouse. A minute’s walk from the market square of Place Carnot, this super-stylish chambre d’hôte is tastefully decorated (chocolate brown, inky black and dramatic dark green are key colours), furnished and run by ex-Londoners Peter and Debrah.
There are two independent apartment-suites, each with reception room, double bedroom (one is actually a mezzanine), swanky shower room and well kitted-out kitchen area. Original features include moulded ceilings, parquet floors, carved double doors and stunning marble fireplaces, but ipod players, wifi access, huge flat screen TVs and DVD players add a touch of 21st century convenience;
Weekend packages include airport transfer, breakfast, cocktails on arrival and a four-course dinner (all drinks included), and are good value for money (check their website for details of special offers tied in to major arts festivals and concerts in the town. A three-night package ranges from £450 - £475, with extra nights charged from £95 (shorter stays with/without dinner available on request).
42 rue Victor Hugo
Tel. +33 (0)4 68 25 14 08
Located on rue Coste Reboulh, a short walk from the main square of Place Carnot, Maison Coste is more than just a B&B. Within the same walls are a tea room and a small homewares and decor boutique selling brands such Farrow & Ball, Casamance, Nina Campbell and Osborne & Little.
This cute address boasts three rooms and two suites, a lounge, dining room, garden with terrace, solarium and jacuzzi, arranged over three floors. There is also a small loft apartment on the third floor that can sleep four maximum (prices on request).
French owners Emmanuel and Michel have worked hard to create a comfortable base from which to explore Carcassonne and its surroundings (be sure to take in a Cathar castle or two and the Corbières and Minervois wine-making areas). Prices start from €70 euros a night for single occupancy of a double room, breakfast included, and go up to €160 for double occupancy of the Tosca suite.
40, rue Coste Reboulh
Tel. +33 (0)4 68 77 12 15
City 2: La Cité (The fairy-tale castle of Carcassonne)Shopping, eating and sleeping in la Cité
We would advise against over-nighting in Carcassonne’s ancient walled city because prices tend to be geared towards tourists, making it hard to find really good value-for-money options. However, if you do find yourself up on the hill and in need of sustenance or souvenirs, here are a few suggestions.
La Maison du Sud is in the heart of la Cité, just opposite the Brasserie du Donjon restaurant. Of all the souvenir shops – and there are many – this is arguably the most tasteful/least offensive. Its merchandise is resolutely safe but stylish – no garish colours here. Tasteful lavender bags, savon de Marseille, fine cotton and linen shirts, hessian bags, tiny soap roses, and a selection of dashing straw hats and pashminas. One for the Country Life set.
On rue Saint Louis, L’Art Gourmand is what the French call an artisan chocolatier – a fancy chocolate shop that also sells nougat, caramel, toffee, fudge and marzipan. It’s not cheap (nothing is up in La Cité) but the chocolate-covered marzipan bananas are cute, and toothsome to boot.
Place Marcou is a pretty square in the heart of la Cité with a nice, buzzy atmosphere and umpteen dining options. You might not hear much French spoken, but you won’t go short for choice – crêpes, steak-frites, salads or full-blown four-course meals: it’s all on offer here.
La Barbacane (Place Auguste-Pierre Pont, tel. +33 4 68 71 98 71) is the
Michelin-starred restaurant at Le Hotel de la Cité and is perfect for a special occasion; the cuisine, service and ambiance are exceptionally good. The décor is medieval, and the food is out of this world, as are the prices, but hey – you’re worth it.
Chez Saskia is just next door to the Hotel de la Cité. It’s light, modern and upmarket, and offers menus at €28 and €45 (on the day we visited, the pricier menu comprised snails in parsley sauce, tagliatelle with asparagus and truffles, grilled sole with artichoke, fennel and white wine sauce, goat cheese with honey, and a special Coupe Saskia dessert of chocolate, pistachio nuts and Amareno cherries).
Nearby, on rue Saint Louis, Comte Roger (04 68 11 93 40) has a pretty courtyard and a four-course menu gourmand at €42 that features king prawns or duck foie gras, a choice of lamb or monk fish, cheese and dessert.
If you really must lay your head within the walls of La Cite, be prepared to shell out some serious money. At the very top of the range, the four star, ivy-covered Hotel de la Cité is as good as it gets. It’s very traditional in style, but the gardens are lovely and the sheer cost keeps out the crowds. Do dress up, and book ahead.
If you’re traveling on a tight budget, there’s always the youth hostel on rue du Vicomte Trencavel (tel. 04 68 25 23 16). Bed and breakfast comes at the bargain price of around €17 a night, which is impossible to beat in this UNESCO-classified location. For more details, see their website http://www.fuaj.net/homepage/carcassonne/
Although both the Romans and Visigoths were here, Carcassonne really flourished under the well-to-do Trencavel family of the late 12th century. In 1355 the lower town was burnt to the ground by the Black Prince, one of the key figures in the Hundred Years’ War of the Middle Ages, miffed at his failure to capture the citadel. Carcassonne’s key role in cross border trade with Spain, however, dried up with the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, when Roussillon was restored to France.
As trade dwindled, the city walls, no longer needed for protection, fell into disrepair and it wasn’t until the architect Viollet-le-Duc began restoration in the 1800s that things started to improve. It was this project which helped save Carcassonne and ensure that the city of today is so outstandingly beautiful.
Carcassonne’s Top 5:
- The walls of the Cité. The upper town is surrounded by a double wall – the area in-between is known as the lices or “lists” where medieval knights once did their thing. Whilst the outer wall is the work of Louis IX, parts of the inner wall date back to Roman times.
- Château Comtal. The citadel of the upper town dating from the twelfth century with an amazing 31 towers. There are mandatory guided tours of the château which also take in sections of the walls and the amphitheatre.
- St-Nazaire basilica. Pope Urban V (born near Mende in the north of Languedoc) visited here in 1096 and ordered the construction of the basilica. However, the original Romanesque style is now predominantly Gothic after alterations over the years – the best features are its enormous rose windows and the weird gargoyles.
- Pont Vieux and the banks of the Aude. A wonderful place for a picnic once you’ve done the upper town. The bridge dates from the fourteenth century and boasts a Gothic chapel at its western end dating from 1538.
- Local delicacies - Place du Château. This gloriously old-fashioned store is stuffed full of regional specialties such as cassoulet and olives aux herbes. If you’re craving cakes and pastry, it’s also the place to stock up on grés de la cité, a Carcassonne favourite that features a heavenly mix of almonds and vanilla wrapped in puff pastry.