Best times to visit: July 14th for the fireworks, June & September (to beat the crowds)
The medieval citadel at Carcassonne, known as 'La Cité', dominates Languedoc's tourism map. It is huge and completely over-the-top, encompassing no less than 53 towers, strung together by two enormous concentric walls, surrounded by a moat, and punctuated here and there by heavy barbicans, portcullis and draw-bridges. Within these fairy-tale fortifications sits a castle, a basilica (church), and a small town. And the whole thing struts its stuff at the top of a hill, giving it superb views of the modern city of Carcassonne to the west, the Aude river and Canal du Midi to the north, and the often-snow-capped Pyrénées to the south.
Such Medieval extravagance has made the citadel at Carcassonne France's second-most popular tourist attraction, and visitors from all over the world are bussed in in their thousands - to stroll around what has become the world's largest medieval theme-park, and one of France's UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
But don't get too excited. Carcassonne isn't the all-conquering tourism experience it might seem from a distance. Arguments rage about whether it has been over-restored, or even badly-restored. And the centre is a bit of a Disneyesque mess of overpriced shops selling cheesy trinkets and dodgy-looking nougat. It also sports more than its fair share of mediocre restaurants - serving bland salads and heavy 'cassoulet'. It's a pity, because the slightly too-perfect nature of the restoration coupled with the chintziness of the 'town' undermine the atmosphere and 'realness' of the fortifications. If you go expecting to be blown away, you'll probably come back feeling a little cheated.
So should you bother? Of course you should. You'll never get another chance to see Medieval (and Roman) military architecture on this scale, and the view of the castle from a distance, as well as of the modern city and mountains from the citadel itself, is unforgettable. The trick is, like so many of Languedoc's monuments, to visit Carcassonne in the right way.
How to visit the citadel at Carcassonne
The view of the battlements from the River Aude.
The old bridge is in the foreground.
Come early or late
Firstly, don't visit it in the middle of the day. You'll get trampled by crowds of Chinese tourists, end up hot and bothered, and have to suffer lunch within La Cité itself - which you'll probably find over-priced and rather ordinaire. Instead, come early in the morning (it opens at 10am), or better still, arrive in the late afternoon (it closes at 6:30pm).
View it from afar
Like an ageing model, Carcassonne is best viewed from a distance. The best spot to take photos of the castle is from the west (either from the A61 Motorway 'aire' and/or from the old bridge over the River Aude), and the light is far better in the evening, lighting the castle up with a warm glow (rather than in the morning, when the light is behind the castle.) It's this view of the battlements from a distance that is the most memorable part of a trip to the citadel, because once you're up to and in it, the sense of scale is lost somewhat. We'd recommend walking from the modern city of Carcassonne, over the old bridge, up the hill to the citadel. It only takes 20 minutes.
The 'List' between the two concentric sets of walls
Start with a 'List'
Enter the walls at the Porte Narbonnaise, and instead of walking straight across the drawbridge into the ‘town’, turn left into the 'list' - the gap between the two sets of walls. You can hop on a horse-drawn carriage from here should you want, for a guided tour - or simply walk. From here, you'll get a great sense of the sheer scale of the walls, as well as the mix of materials used over the centuries - from thin Roman bricks to piled up Medieval river stone to the more ordered blocks used in the 19th century restoration. Turn right when you get to the Porte St Nazaire, and you'll enter the town at the southern end, where you'll find the Cathedral St Nazaire. It's a beautiful structure and worth a quick visit - although apart from some magnificent windows, it's rather grey and disappointing inside. It was once the main cathedral that served the two towns but it was de-consecrated when Napoleon’s men rode on horseback into the sacred space.
The more simple church of St Michel in the Bastide de St Louis, down in the 'new' city, was subsequently up-graded to ‘cathedral’. It's a pity, as the Basilique is more impressive and has an amazing acoustic range.
The view down from the ramparts of homes and gardens
- and the Porte Narbonnaise in the distance
The ramparts walk
From here, wander towards the Château Comptal - the 'heart' of the fortified city. You'll have to pay to enter, but it’s definitely worth it. We'd recommend hiring an audio-guide - rather than taking a guided tour. The ticket you buy for access to the château will also give you access to the ramparts, which we felt were the most magical part of our visit to the citadel. The views from the ramparts are superb, both out across the new city, river, canal and Pyrénées, but also inward across the rooves and terraces of the citadel itself. You'll pass through some of the U-shaped Roman towers on this walk, with their distinctive pink brick and shallow terracotta rooves, as well as the massive medieval towers with their steep slate rooves and narrow arrow 'loopholes'.
The beating heart of the citadel - the Château Comptal
The Château Comptal
Now walk back to the château itself - and start your audio-guided tour. It's not terribly well sign-posted, so finding each number on the tour in turn isn't easy. But the audio-guide will give you some interesting background to the fortifications' history, and it proves very useful when you watch the short film about Carcassonne inside the château - as your audio-guide translates it from French.
A final wander
Once you're done, exit the château and take some time just wandering around the 'town'. The shops aren't great, and the buildings they're in are mostly modern, but as you walk around you should get more glimpses of the walls and towers.
The history of Carcassonne citadel
Carcassonne in 1490 - with both sets of walls now built, the citadel
provided vital defense of France against the Kingdom of Aragon to the south
Like so many historic sites, the history of La Cité at Carcassonne is one of rise and eventual fall, with the citadel’s big 'denouement' being in 1209 - when it fell to Catholic crusaders. Its success lay in its positioning. During the medieval period, Carcassonne (like so many of the castles in Languedoc) sat on a fault line between the two great warring cultures of the age - the French and the Spanish (the Kingdom of Aragon), and it was this strategic positioning that fuelled the castle's growth from trading post to medieval power-house.
The records are scant, but the first Celtic settlement on the hill here (an 'Oppidum') is thought to have started in about 3,500BC. The settlement became quite an important trading post, especially in Roman times (when it was named 'Carcasum', being half-way between the burgeoning towns of Toulouse (Tolosa) and Narbonne (Narbo). It was the Romans who built the first fortifications here, to protect their trading town from marauding tribes, and you can see remnants of the thin bricks they used in parts of the northern ramparts today. Languedoc (Septimania) eventually fell to the Visigoths in 462AD, who in turn added to the fortifications. In the 8th century, power had shifted eastward and southwards, and it was the conquering Saracens (Arabs) who pressed up through Spain and into southern France to take Carcassonne in 725. As the Saracens fell back over the centuries, the castle was re-taken by Frankish kings, and in 1067, it was secured through marriage by Raymond Bernard Trencavel, a local lord.
The Cathar Tussle
Much of present day southern France was in the hands of the English (Plantagenets), Spanish (Aragon) and various local lords.
The 11th century had seen the rise of Catharism, a break-away sect of Christianity that eschewed the lavish pomp and corruption of orthodox Catholicism, promoting a more acetic life of purity and self-denial. To the Cathars, the physical world was Satan-made and rife with corrupting influences that were to be avoided. They believed all people were gender-less souls trapped in physical shells of evil. They also believed in reincarnation. Thus the objective of all true Cathars was to live life as purely as possible - and with each reincarnation get closer and closer to becoming a 'perfect' soul, at which point one entered heaven.
As eventually with the Protestants 300 years later, the challenge to Rome was one of influence and power - and so the spread of Catharism in southern France, southern Germany and northern Italy was viewed with great alarm. Pope Innocent wrote to King Augustus of France, asking him to send a crusade to Languedoc to rid it of heretics, and so a war began, between ambitious northern nobles promised any lands they could conquer, and the southern French nobility - sympathetic to the Cathars in their midst, and keen to hold on to their lands.
Simon de Montfort sieges Carcassonne. The Cathars are driven from the city.
Raymond Bernard Trencavel, sitting in the Château Comptal of Carcassonne, soon found the city sieged by the ruthless northern armies of Simon de Montfort in 1209. Catholic armies had just slaughtered the entire population of Béziers, and so Carcassonne soon fell through a mix of fear and lack of water. De Montfort threw Raymond Trencavel into a dungeon, where he died - either of dysentery or poisoning. The Catholics now had Carcassonne, and from it they pursued their rein of inquisitorial terror, eventually ridding the entire region of the Cathar threat. In the process, they built the outer (second) of the concentric walls of the citadel, and added much to the central Château Comptal. Not long after its capture, Raymond Trencavel's son, Raymond Roger, attempted to re-seize the city, but he failed. His camp, on the other side of the river Aude, became the modern city of Carcassonne that we know today.
Carcassonne was now considered impregnable - and it became a vital strong-point along the volatile border between France and Aragon. It was France's super-weapon, a point from which the growing kingdom could project power. But in a way, Carcassonne's success contributed to its own downfall. As France grew, its border moved ever-outward, until in 1659, the province of Roussillon was subsumed into the kingdom, and Carcassonne found itself well inside the borders. No longer strategically-placed, the citadel's influence dimmed, and over the following few hundred years, the castle and its walls fell into disrepair.
From fortress to fun-house
The citadel in 1833 - a sad, crumbling ruin
By the 19th century, Carcassonne had become a crumbling ruin atop a hill manned by a small garrison of French troops. Below it, the new city of Carcassonne, larger and also walled, had become a buzzing centre for textiles and trade. Napoleon had suggested the citadel be dismantled - as much of the walls' stone had already been pilfered. In 1849, the French government decreed that Carcassonne should be destroyed, but resistance to that idea grew, from a newly-prosperous populace with enough money to begin valuing luxurious concepts such as 'national heritage'. The fight to save the citadel reached a crescendo in 1853, and in that year, architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was appointed (he of Notre Dame renovation fame) to restore the castle to its original glory, a process that took 50 years and that outlasted the architect himself. It's clear that 19th century ideas of 'restoration' differed markedly to those of today - with 'authenticity' taking a back seat to 'spectacle'. Viollet-le-Duc was criticized for over-restoring the walls and citadel, and for imposing too northern a look on the structure, with steep slate rooves replacing what was more likely to have been no rooves at all or rooves or terracotta tiles.
The romanesque towers on the north battlements
- with their lines of thin terracotta brick and shallow rooves
In the 1960, in an attempt to introduce a more naturally diverse look to a structure that now looked too northern, too medieval and too consistent, some of the towers of the ramparts were returned to a late-Roman look - U-shaped towers of soft pink brick, with shallow-sloping terracotta rooves. Since then, the purveyors of plastic knights and even more plastic salads have moved in - turning what must have been hugely atmospheric into something altogether more cartoonish in feel. But ignore the shops and snacks and slightly-too-perfect turrets, and you can just about make out what was once the scene of great tragedy, struggle, cruelty and triumph - the massive jewel in Languedoc's historic crown.