In a country so rich in chateaux, palaces, cathedrals and monuments, it may be bordering on hyperbole to suggest that the fortified town of Carcassonne is the most breathtaking sight of all.
Suffice it to say that, seen from afar, it offers the extraordinary spectacle of a medieval fortress that seems to have changed little over the centuries. Imposing, impregnable and perfectly preserved, with massive stone ramparts, towers and barbicans adding to its authority, the town dominates a large area from its hilltop position. No wonder England’s Prince Edward, known as the Black Prince, took one look and abandoned his plan to attack it.
Today, Carcassonne can be entered peacefully, although the illusion of being back in the Middle Ages quickly evaporates. La Cite, as the walled town is known here, is one of provincial France’s most popular tourist spots, drawing more than two million visitors a year.
Most spend only a few hours here, which explains why the main street into the town is lined with shops selling postcards, plastic medieval armor, ice cream and sandwiches. Most also come in the steaming hot school vacation months of July and August. In spring and autumn, without the heat or crowds, La Cite is a far gentler experience.
The one image that does not change is that of the great fortress on the hill. And that sight alone justifies any detour.
Gustave Nadaud, a 19th-century French songwriter, wrote, “You should not die without seeing Carcassonne,” and it was this panoramic view that he had in mind. Today, we can add to that image the ramparts at night, bathed in light, floating magically on the horizon, beckoning like a dream castle in a fairy tale.
Visitors who watch the spectacular Bastille Day fireworks display on July 14 each year may even be forgiven for thinking of Disney. But La Cite was here first, by about 1,700 years.
The first settlement on the hilltop in fact dates back to around the sixth century B.C., although it was not until much later that the Romans constructed defensive positions on the site, with the first circle of ramparts and barbicans built in the third century to deter the barbarians.
By then, La Cite’s location astride the broad valley that leads to the Mediterranean between the Massif Central and the Pyrenees had given it immense strategic importance.
In the fifth century, the fortress was captured by the Visigoths, who strengthened it further, holding it until it was overrun by the Franks in the eighth century.
In the 12th century, a dissident Christian religious movement known to its enemies as the Cathar heresy became influential in the region.
Its attacks on the Catholic establishment for corruption and other forms of immorality enraged the Vatican, which eventually ordered a punitive crusade. The pontiff, Pope Innocent III, promised forgiveness of sins to all who joined the offensive, while the French king, Philippe II Auguste, hinted that captured land would be distributed to the crusaders.
On July 22, 1209, the so-called Albigensian Crusade sacked nearby Beziers, killing thousands of its inhabitants. One week later, it laid siege to Carcassonne until the fortress’s leader, Viscount Raymond-Roger Trencavel, surrendered on Aug. 15, 1209.
A monastic account written in 1218 described what would prove to be a turning point in the history of La Cite: “The crusaders considered how best to take the town. If it were destroyed like Beziers, then all it contained would be lost. So they decided to allow all the inhabitants to go free provided they left the town naked. Thus all their booty could be preserved for the new viscount. “So it was done. All the inhabitants left the town carrying nothing but their sins. The Count of Montfort then took over, to the glory of God, the honor of the Church and the ruin of the heresy.”
La Cite was never again conquered, its ruler safe inside his own castle, the Chateau Comtal, within the larger fortress.
The town’s military importance, however, gradually dwindled until, by the 19th century, its stones were being carried away to be used in other construction.
At this point, La Cite could easily have suffered the fate of scores of Cathar castles that stand in ruins on hilltops around this area of Languedoc-Roussillon.
Fortunately, the writer Prosper Merimee, who was serving at the time as Inspector General of Historic Monuments, came to the rescue, proposing its restoration.
In 1844, the influential French architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc arrived here to oversee the town’s restoration. He did a remarkable job, although he did stir a controversy by adding touches of his own, such as conical-shaped roofs to barbicans that were previously open to the skies.
In fact, even now some purists sniff that what we see today is a 19th-century creation. But they are too severe. La Cite may look more like a Loire Valley chateau than it did in medieval times, but Viollet-le-Duc deserves credit for the fact that it exists at all.
Besides taking one of the guided tours of La Cite’s towers and ramparts that leave regularly from the gates of the Chateau Comtal, the other monument not to be missed is the Church of St.-Nazaire.
There was a church at the site as early as the sixth century, although the earliest remains - a splendid Romanesque nave - date from the 12th century.
With Carcassonne brought under the control of the French monarchy in the 13th century, the church was largely rebuilt to conform to prevailing Gothic fashions.
The graceful narrow columns around the apse and transept make the church seem even taller than it is, while its magnificent north and south rose windows, dating from the 13th and 14th centuries respectively, cast beautiful light at dawn and sunset.
Wandering around the narrow streets of the overbuilt town offers a few surprises.
A new Greek-style amphitheater behind St.Nazaire offers a busy program of classical and pop concerts in July each year, followed by a medieval show in August.
Nearby, at 3 Rue du Plo, there is the Musee de l’Ecole, a delightful little museum housed in an old primary school that shows how French classrooms looked 70 or 80 years ago, flip-up desktops and fountain pens included.
Vacationing children, on the other hand, are more likely to be drawn to the Cartoon Museum, on the Rue du Grand Puits, which shows how cartoons are made.
Inevitably, outdoor cafes and restaurants take full advantage of the splendid setting, with the shaded Place Marcou a popular spot for a snack. Fortunately, there are also ample opportunities to taste the cuisine of this region, notably its famous cassoulet and foie gras.
Carcassonne’s Tourist Office is eager to draw visitors to the “modern” city, but perhaps the only reason to go to Ville-Basse is to see the market that fills the Place Carnot on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings. Fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats and a rich selection of pates and terrines serve to remind that, no matter how much they complain about their economic troubles, the French continue to master the art de vivre.
Indeed, for a taste of farm life, there are a number of fermes-auberges in the area that offer lodging and excellent meals for reasonable prices.
Still, for me, the best reason for leaving La Cite is also the main reason for approaching it - to peer once again in amazement at its majestic profile, to wonder what medieval peasants and warriors alike thought when they saw it, to know that, generations hence, it will still be there. In that sense, then, there is no hurry to see it. On the other hand, don’t forget Gustave Nadaud’s sound advice: “You should not die without seeing Carcassonne.”
Map of area
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Visitors can take a train from Paris or almost anywhere in France, connecting in Toulouse or Narbonne (Paris-Carcassonne round trip: first class, $243; second class, $174, calculated at the rate of 6 francs to the dollar). For train information, call the S.N.C.F., (33-1) 220.127.116.11. Or you may take a plane from Paris, either to Toulouse, where you can make connections with the train or rent a car, or direct from Paris to Carcassonne by TAT/Air Liberte, with one stopover, three times a day on weekdays, once a day Saturday and Sunday (round trip: $125 if you book two weeks before departure; $174 if you book one week in advance; $418 if you book at the last minute). Where to stay: Hotel de la Cite, 1 Place St.-Nazaire, Cite de Carcassonne; (33-4) 68.25.03.34, fax (33-4) 18.104.22.168. Occupying a former bishop’s palace, with splendid gardens leading up to the ramparts, this hotel likes to boast of the rich and famous who have stayed here over the decades. It offers respite from the crowds at the same time as being a few steps from the sights. Doubles in summer season (through October), $210; in winter, $175. Domaine d’Auriac, Route de St.-Hilaire, Carcassonne; (33-4) 22.214.171.124, fax (33-4) 126.96.36.199. This former wine domaine on the outskirts of Carcassonne has been converted into a first-rate hotel, with a swimming pool, tennis court and ample shaded gardens. A perfect place to relax between sorties to La Cite, it looks onto an 18-hole golf course. Doubles in summer, $90; in winter, $83. Hotel le Donjon, 2 Rue du Comte Roger, Cite de Carcassonne; (33-4) 68.71.08.80, fax (33-4) 68.25.06.60. Linked to Best Western and popular with Americans, this 37-room hotel is well situated for visiting La Cite. Many of its rooms have views over the ramparts or along moats. Doubles: $64 to $81. Chateau de Cavanac, Route de St.-Hilaire; Cavanac; (33-4) 68.79.61.04, fax (33-4) 188.8.131.52. This chateau about three miles from Carcassonne has just 15 rooms, all decorated differently and charmingly. For anyone visiting the region by car, this is an ideal jumping-off point for an outing to La Cite. Doubles: $53 to $86. Where to eat: Domaine d’Auriac, Route de St.-Hilaire; (33-4) 184.108.40.206. Dinner on the hotel’s terrace overlooking its gardens is a summer evening’s delight. Its cuisine earned one Michelin star, with its foie gras poile with mushrooms worth a return visit. Menus from $32 to $65, with wine from $17. L’Ecurie, 1 Rue d’Alambert, Ville-Basse, Carcassonne; (33-4) 68.72.04.04. A friendly family restaurant in Ville-Basse, this is a good place to mix with local residents. It offers delicious regional dishes and good local wines. Menus from $28 to $43; wine from $13. Bar le Senechal, Rue Viollet-le-Duc, Cite de Carcasssone; (33-4) 220.127.116.11. This open-air cafe opposite the Chateau Comtal offers a variety of snacks; its pates fraiches au foie gras de canard should not be missed. Dinner for two with wine: $20. Bistro’Fruit, Place Marcou, Cite de Carcassonne; (33-4) 18.104.22.168. One of several outdoor cafes in the Place Marcou, with a cassoulet bistrot - for just $15 - that was among the best I have tasted. A meal for two with wine: $33.