The medieval magic of Carcassonne

Carcassonne-hero

Carcassonne, overlooking the Aude river, is the archetypal medieval fortress.

The silhouette of Carcassonne looms big against the sky as you approach. Its imposing fortified walls leave no room for guesswork as to how it’s still standing after all these years. Granted, a lot of restoration was carried out by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc from 1853 to 1879, but this town was built to last.

Carcassonne

Where in France: Occitanie
Drive from Calais: 1053km / 10h 20m

Carcassonne sits on top of a hill next to the Aude river in the middle of an historic trade route linking the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea. The area of Carcassonne has been inhabited since the Neolithic era, but it was really the Romans who recognised its strategic importance. It was later taken over in the 5th century by the Visigoths, who formed the city itself.

It then passed from hand to hand, as various successors and conquerors took control, until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659. The medieval fortress underwent extensive and faithful restoration in the 19th century, and in 1997 it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

An aerial view of Carcassonne and its strategic hilltop position
An aerial view of Carcassonne and its strategic hilltop position.

Carcassonne is the second most visited place in France after Paris, which makes it an absolute must-see. Fortunately, much of the citadel can be visited for free and without the need for a tour guide. You can visit both day and night through either the Narbonne or the Aude gateway, the latter of which offers particularly spectacular views across the open plains.

Château et Remparts

The town is surrounded by two walls topped with defensive battlements, with a total of 52 towers keeping watch. If you want to walk on the ramparts themselves, you have to pay to enter the Château et Remparts. Ticket prices vary for adults, students and groups, so check ahead of visiting. Similarly, opening hours vary throughout the year.

To make the most of the Château, give yourself at least an hour to explore the exhibition rooms covering over 2,500 years of history, the keep, and the internal and external defensive walls. The ramparts are divided into two sections, the northern Gallo-Roman rampart and the western medieval rampart. Both offer spectacular panoramas of the surrounding landscape, across the Montagne Noire and the Pyrenees.

La Porte de Aude, or the Aude gateway is simply stunning
La Porte de Aude, or the Aude gateway is simply stunning.

Musée de l'Inquisition

This one may not be for everyone, but for those with a morbid sense of curiosity or an interest in medieval history, it’ll be right up your street. The Museum of the Inquisition is dedicated to the instruments of torture used in France from the 12th century up until the French Revolution.

A tour of the museum will take you through dungeons and chambers filled with all sorts of nasty things, explained in fascinating detail in French, English, Spanish, Italian and German. The way that the museum has been curated isn’t just for the sake of telling a gory tale, but rather to denounce the intolerance and fanaticism that reigned at the time.

If nothing else, it’ll make you glad to be alive in this day and age rather than back then! Ticket prices vary for adults, students and children, but the museum is open all year, seven days a week, between 10am and 6pm, extended to 8pm in July and August.

Basilique Saint-Nazaire

Often referred to as the ‘Jewel of the City’, the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire is truly stunning. From the outside, you can admire the striking Gothic-Romanesque architecture, but the beauty of the church is really best appreciated from the inside.

It is thought that this site originally had a church on it as far back as the 6th century, but the current basilica can be dated to the late 11th century after Pope Urban II blessed building materials before construction in 1096. Gothic alterations were made in the 13th century, as well as general renovations in the 19th century, so it really is a church of the ages.

The Basilica of Saint Nazaire is even more stunning from the inside than it is from the outside
The Basilica of Saint Nazaire is even more stunning from the inside than it is from the outside.

Inside, particularly on a sunny day, the stained-glass windows will take your breath away. The central window in the choir dates back to 1280, one of the oldest in France, and depicts the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Place Carnot

In all honesty, what you end up doing in Carcassonne doesn’t really matter. The magic of the place permeates everything, so even if you just spend the day strolling around hopping from café to café, browsing the shops en route, you can’t go wrong.

If a relaxed day of wandering the streets of this ancient town sounds like your idea of heaven, make sure you head to Place Carnot. This is where all the local Carcassonnais gather and meet up with each other.

The Neptune fountain in the centre of Place Carnot
The Neptune fountain in the centre of Place Carnot.

In the centre of the square is a beautiful fountain with a marble statue of Neptune stood pride of place. And on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturday mornings, there’s a lovely little market selling fruits, vegetables, and flowers.

Feeling inspired to discover the medieval citadel of Carcassonne? Be sure to book your tickets with us early to take advantage of the best fares.