The dramatic fortress town of Carcassonne has kept the spirit of the Middle Ages alive in the Languedoc region of France - to visit it is to find yourself in a fairy tale
Thanks to some gruesome episodes in history, Carcassonne really does tell a tale of two towns. During the 13th century, it had the misfortune to be populated by a heretical sect , the Cathars, against whom the Catholic church waged relentless war. Those who survived were allowed to rebuild their town on low ground by the river Aude in the western part of the Languedoc region. This lower town, aptly called Ville Basse, is a pleasant and well-preserved space, with attractive squares and architecture. It has the added bonus of being on the Canal du Midi, that wonderful 17th-century feat of engineering that crosses through most of southern France.
But it’s the medieval citadel, the Cité, that makes Carcassonne one of the most visited tourist sights in France and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This double-walled fortress town sits on the hill overlooking the river Aude, its many stone turrets whisking you straight back to the Middle Ages and into one of its more romantic fairy tales. The Cité had been more or less a ruin until 1844, when it was enthusiastically restored to its medieval splendour – and then some. Purists think it has been Disneyfied, that the restoration is too perfect. The majority of visitors, however, beg to disagree.
Certainly it is busy during the tourist season, its narrow cobblestone streets thronging with people wandering in and out of the craft and souvenir shops. The pretty squares with their cafés and restaurants fill up quickly in the height of summer, when it makes sense to reserve a table during the day for that evening’s dinner. At times you can take only so many people in a relatively small area. And it can be irritating if you’ve got a car, because of the necessary parking restrictions within the citadel. But it is captivating nonetheless. Just slow down the pace and drift with the crowd as you explore the winding streets and chance upon another tiny square with a doll-sized restaurant and outdoor terrace.
On your wanderings, do try to find Rue Plo and enjoy one of the most relaxing places for a drink and some tapas. Le Bar à Vins de la Cité has an enormous shaded terrace within its stone walls, the vines overhead providing a welcome coolness on a hot day. After you’ve had your aperitif, head to Place Marcou, one of the main squares in the Cité, for a reasonably priced supper at L’Abre de Vie. Unlike the other restaurants on the square, it hasn’t got a terrace, but it does have better food.
There’s a good range of accommodation in Carcassonne, in both upper and lower towns. The neo-Gothic Hotel de la Cité is the luxury option if you want to stay in the Cité. It’s certainly not cheap (doubles from about €300) but some rooms have terraces and balconies overlooking the city, and there’s also a swimming pool. The Best Western Hotel Le Donjon, which used to be an orphanage in the 15th century, is more affordable and still in the heart of the Cité. You’ll find plenty of cheaper accommodation in the lower town, where there’s a respectable number of Ibis, Kyriad and Logis de France hotels. Just outside one of the Cité’s two main gates, the Porte Narbonnaise, is the Hotel du Chateau and its slightly cheaper sister, Hotel Montmorency. Their proximity to the Cité is appealing, as are their swimming pool, landscaped gardens and more affordable rates, starting at €110.
You won’t want to spend all your time in the Cité, even during a short break. You’ll find the Ville Basse a more spacious place for a stroll, and that’s also where the majority of the shopping is found. Every Saturday, the huge fruit and vegetable market takes over Place Carnot, with a smaller version on Tuesday mornings. And then there’s the Canal du Midi, where you can hire boats and take a leisurely trip along this stretch of the 240km-long canal that runs from Toulouse to the Mediterranean. Or just stroll along the footpaths and enjoy the peace of the water and the greenery of the overhanging trees.
If you happen to be in Carcassonne during the Bastille Day celebrations every 14 July, you’re in luck. The city hosts France’s second largest fireworks display (after Paris), and it is not to be missed. The fireworks, which last for about half an hour, are launched behind the citadel’s walls overlooking the river Aude, and it’s like watching a mini five-act play. By the end of it, the fortress appears to be on fire, its smoke smouldering in the night sky. The show doesn’t start until well after 10pm, but even at 7pm you’ll find people tucking into their picnic supper on the Pont Vieux, the bridge that links the Cité to the Ville Basse. A better place to pitch your blanket is on the Ville Basse side of the river. Get the rosé out, enjoy the chicken you would have bought at the market and watch one of France’s greatest spectacles. For free.