Carcassonne is the quintessential fairy-tale medieval city, a truly unique and captivating destination that unsurprisingly attracts millions of visitors in the summer months. Bathed in late-afternoon sunshine, La Cite, as the old walled town is known, is simply breathtaking. Yet there is far more to Carcassonne than medieval streets and squares; the Ville Basse (Lower Town) established in the 13th century is altogether more authentic and less touristy. With its superb position on a hill overlooking the river Aude and Canal du Midi, it is of little surprise that the site on which Carcassonne now stands has been coveted for centuries.
History records that the first inhabitants were neolithic tribes, who founded a settlement in about 3500 BC. Carsac, as the settlement was known in the Celtic tongue became an important strategic outpost and trading center for the various Celtic tribes of the Languedoc-Roussillon.
However, after the Romans arrived in Gaul the settlement fell under their jurisdiction as an important Roman outpost or Colonia known as Carcasum. For centuries, Carcasum enjoyed a relatively peaceful and prosperous existence until the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. In 453, after months of fighting the Romans finally lost Carcassonne to the Visigothic king Theodoric II, who subsequently fought-off attacks from the Franks in 508. However, in 725 the Saracens took Carcassonne from the Visigoths, who were driven out of Western Europe in the 8th century. Saracen control of Carcassonne was relatively short-lived, however, as the French King Pépin le Bref recaptured the city in 760.
During the Middle Ages, Carcassonne was a medieval fiefdom, eventually falling under the control of the Trencavel family, who ruled Carcassonne until 1209. Thereafter the city was taken in the Albigensian Crusades and the last Trencavel ruler, Raymond-Roger, died soon afterward. The cruel Simon De Montfort was appointed Viscount of Carcassonne, and the ruled the city with an iron fist.
In 1226, Carcassonne was incorporated into the Kingdom of France by King Louis VIII, finally submitting to his rule in 1247. It is during this period that Carcassonne’s Lower Town was founded on the other side of the River Aude. A place of increasingly strategic importance, the French kings strengthened the citadel and built several fortresses along the French/Spanish border, ever-fearful of an invasion. Nonetheless, for a time Carcassonne would enjoy a relatively peaceful and stable existence.
Sadly the 14th century heralded dark times for the citizens of Carcassonne. For a start, the Black Death, which was wreaking havoc across Europe, decimated the city’s population in 1348 and left Carcassonne with a chronic shortage of labor. The city was also directly affected by the outbreak of The Hundred Years’ War between France and England. Repeatedly attacked, Carcassonne’s Lower Town was completely destroyed by Edward of Woodstock KG, also infamously known as the Black Prince. He was merciless in his treatment of the populace, and Carcassonne bore the scars of this terrible conflict for many decades after the attack.
Carcassonne’s revival came in the 16th century when the Lower Town was awarded the coveted status of “Ville,” granted by the overlords of the Languedoc region. However, there was also much religious turmoil during this period and a bloody conflict erupted between the newly converted Protestants of the Lower Town and the fiercely Catholic inhabitants of La Cite. This conflict, brought about by the Reformation of the 16th century, would cause decades of bloodshed and warring across France.
In the 17th century, Carcassonne’s strategic and political importance waned significantly, following the Treaty of Pyrenees in 1659. The Treaty formally annexed the Roussillon region into France, and so Carcassonne became a political backwater in the French Empire. But conversely, its economic importance actually increased during the period, with the development of the city’s textile industry.
The outbreak of the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century had little effect on Carcassonne, although the city would see many substantial social and political changes through the 1800s. At the dawn of the new millennium, Carcassonne’s two districts – Cite and Lower Town – merged into one administrative entity, and in 1802 the Bishop’s Palace relocated to Carcassonne’s rapidly expanding Lower Town. This marked the beginning of the end for La Cite – Carcassonne’s industries were concentrated in the new part of the city, while the historic Citadel sank into neglect and poverty as people relocated to the wealthier Ville Basse.
However, this historical treasure was saved from total neglect and demolition, when it was classified as a historical monument in 1849. Eight years later the first railways would arrive at Carcassonne and the region gave birth to a dynamic new wine industry, designed to satisfy the thirst of the recently industrialized north.
Carcassonne was generally unaffected by the First World War; however, its citizens were forced to live under a puppet Vichy government as part of the Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War. The city was finally liberated by the Allies in 1944, although many civilians were killed during the brutal fighting.
Today, Carcassonne remains one of the south of France’s most alluring cities. The charms of the beautiful Cite are all too obvious, yet it is arguably the Ville Basse that keeps visitors coming back for more. Packed with lively bars and restaurants that stay open until the wee hours, it offers an exciting introduction to the heady nightlife of the Languedoc-Roussillon.
Gastronomy & Wine
Even if you arrive on a boiling hot summer’s day, you cannot leave Carcassonne without trying its signature dish – cassoulet. A piping-hot dish of white beans, juicy pork cubes and locally a slab of duck, cassoulet is a fitting symbol of Languedoc-Roussillon cuisine – hearty, rich and totally unpretentious.
The region’s cooking is heavily influenced by its former status as a territory under the Catalan empire, so expect olive oil, tapas, grilled pork sausages, a particular favorite being the hearty soup known as ollada, popular on both sides of the Pyrenees, which is justifiably known for its lumps of pork. The surrounding area is also renowned for dishes with figs, local goat’s cheeses, and lavender honey.
Carcassonne itself is bursting with restaurants, although some are nothing more than shameless tourist traps, so be judicious in your choices, especially in La Cite during the high season. However, you won’t go far wrong at Au Bon Pasteur in the Ville Basse. A welcoming, intimate family restaurant, the simple décor belies the wonderful skill in the kitchen. The Cassoulet is outstanding, as is the service from the charming and affable tram of young waiters. Chez Saskia is la Cite’s most celebrated address, a brasserie attached to the Hotel de la Cite. All around its walls are photos of the great and the good – Jacques Chirac and Winston Church being the most famous.
But while Carcassonne’s restaurants can be somewhat hit and miss, there’s no excuse for drinking plonk in one of France’s most exciting wine regions. A mosaic of different wine styles are made across the Languedoc-Roussillon’s various appellations, nearby Limoufor example specializes in sparkling wine of the highest quality. In fact, Blanquette de Limoux can lay claim to being the first sparkling wine of modern times: its history begins many years before Champagne when that region was still focusing on still wines. It was reportedly invented by monks at the Abbey of St-Hilaire in 1531. Today in the hills around the town of Limoux, cool hillside vineyards are crafting a formidable reputation as one of the best sparkling wine zones outside of Champagne.
Dramatically illuminated at night, La Cite is one of Europe’s largest city fortifications. A thorough walking itinerary would start the Gambetta square and then meander towards Pont Vieux, along rue de la Barbacane and then up through Porte d’Aude. The sights, smells, and sounds are unmissable.
The 12th century Chateau Comtal is surely the main highlight of any trip to Carcassonne. Built in a variety of styles, the oldest parts of the castle can be seen from the courtyard today, and are mainly medieval, as well as Romanesque and Gothic structures. It merits at least a full day’s exploration.
One of the south of France’s most pretty Churches, highlights are the graceful Gothic transept arms with a pair of stunning 13th and 14th century rose windows at each end
Carcassonne is the perfect base from which to explore several important regions in the Languedoc, including Limoux and Cabardès. Cellar Tours will help you to organize the perfect tour.