Cathar castles & Roman ruins: The top historic sites of Languedoc Roussillon
Languedoc Roussillon, in the south of France, has an amazing history - and all the castles, forts and ruins that go with it. Below are what we think are the 'Top Hits'.
We've included Carcassonne's medieval fortress, the Roman arena and temple in Nimes, The Pont du Gard roman aqueduct, Aigues Mortes fortified town, the castle and village of Castlenou, the Spanish fort of Salses, the world's tallest suspension bridge, the cathar castles of Villerouge, Puilaurens, Peyrepertuse and Queribus, and the roman ruins of Oppidum Enserune.
La Cité, Carcassonne
Yes it's touristy and slightly over-restored - but 'La Cité', just outside Carcassonne, Languedoc Roussillon, south France, is still magnificent in its size and and fairy-tale majesty. It's basically a huge walled and moated castle with a village at its centre - built in phases from the 10th century. More impressive, we think, from a distance. Try the viewing spot on the A61 motorway. Entrance is free.
Perhaps the world's best preserved Roman amphitheatre, it dates back to the 1st century, is 21m high and holds a audience of 20,000. In the 12th century, it was used as a fortress, and after that became a slum. Today, it hosts Languedoc Roussillon's bull fights and rock concerts. Entrance €4.27.
Combine with: La Maison Carée (see below) and the Pont du Gard (see below)
Pont du Gard, roman aqueduct
Languedoc Roussillon's superb 'Pont du Gard' is a 1st century Roman aqueduct and part of an elaborate water system designed to carry water from the Eure river to Roman Nimes, 50km away. Restored in the 18th century, it is 50m high and an amazing 275m long. You can now walk across it.
A stunning walled town built in the 13th century by Louis IX in the style of walls built in Damietta, Egypt. It was built to be Languedoc Roussillon's and the south of France's main mediterranean port, until silt from the Rhone turned port into inland town. Inside the impressive walls lies a pleasant town - mostly souvenir shops, cafés and restaurants. It lies on the western-most edge of the famous marshlands of The Camargue. Entrance free.
Languedoc Roussillon's 'Maison Carrée' is said to be the world's best preserved Roman temple - with all of its roof and columns intact. Built in 4AD. A small, free museum is inside. Best viewed, perhaps, sipping a drink on the roof of Norman Foster's superb 'Carrée D'Art', just opposite.
Massive Spanish fortress, built in the 1500s to defend the old border of Spain. The walk around is impressive, with 10m drops into the moat, and huge stone and brick walls towering above you. Inside, join a guided tour, or just walk around the courtyard and flanking corridors where you'll find maps, models and depictions of battles.
Recently opened, the Millau Bridge (Viaduct) was designed by UK architect Norman Foster, and is the world's highest road bridge. 300m high, it is higher than the Eiffel Tower, and is an amazing 2.5km long. Drive across it on the right day - and you'll pass over low-lying clouds. Follow the signs to the Visitors' Centre on the southern side of the bridge.
Perhaps the best-preserved of Languedoc's many cathar castles of the area, Puilaurens sits on a 700m high rocky outcrop. Originally built by the Visigoths, it offers breathtaking views of the surrounding valleys. Very atmospheric. Entrance €3.
This is the largest of the cathar castles, and relatively well-preserved. Again, the views across Languedoc are spectacular, with sister castle Quéribus, the Pyrenees and even the Mediterranean, clearly visible. Wear walking shoes. Entrance €3.
One of the 5 most famous Cathar castles, Quéribus was built in the 10th century, and became the property of the counts of Barcelona and then Aragon. After the fall of Montségur to the crusaders, some of the last Cathars retreated to the castle and the relative safety of its sheer mountain walls.
Smaller and better preserved than Peyrepertuse, but perhaps slightly less atmospheric. Inside you'll find a stunningly beautiful carved column. Entrance €5.
Combine with: Peyrepertuse castle (see above) and lunch in Perpignan.
Castelnou castle & village
Nestled in the foothills of Languedoc Roussillon's Pyrénées, Castlenou is a beautifully preserved village crowned by an equally-well preserved 10th century fortress. The views are spectacular - both from the fortress and from the valley looking up at the village with the mountains beyond. You'll find an assortment of oldy-worldy craft shops in the village. Entrance to the castle €4.
Hilltop ruins of a 2,500 year old settlement, occupied by the Greeks, then Hannibal then the Romans, who used it as a postal station on the famous Via Domitia. Don't go out of your way to visit this - as there's not much left except broken pots and a few columns, but if you happen to be passing, the view from the top of this hill is worth it - a spoked-wheel arrangement of fields first laid out in the 13th century. View - free. Ruins - €5.