The first view of Carcassonne comes from the highway. Just a flash of walls and towers off to the side, it is enough to make me incredibly excited, and I know at once that this is going to be a very good day. We park the car and walk slowly up the hill toward one of the many gates into this fairy tale city, and my imagination begins to run wild. What magical adventures might have happened here? It appears as though knights would charge out to tilt with dragons at any moment.
I mean, just look at this!
While Carcassonne itself is larger than simply the medieval Cité de Carcassonne, that fortified city and castle is what has drawn visitors for decades, and inspired the creation of a series of board games around castle and city creation. Originally constructed as a Roman colony, the earliest walls and towers date from the year 333, with a second line of defenses built outside of the Roman walls in 1226. Today, there are two miles of double walls encircling the city, with 52 towers and their characteristic red and blue roofs.
The “money shots” are those with both colors of tower in them.
There is a legend associated with the name of the city. It says that when Charlemagne’s army was laying siege to the city in the 8th century, a princess named Lady Carcas ruled here. As supplies were beginning to run out, she ordered a pig and wheat to be flung from the battlements at the army. The siege was lifted, as Charlemagne believed anyone who could waste food like that could last forever. As the attacking army left, Lady Carcas ordered all the bells of the city to be sounded. A soldier exclaimed, “Carcas sonne!” which means Carcas sounds. While this legend has been thoroughly debunked from a historical perspective (Charlemagne’s father Pepin conquered the city in 759), it is still a bit fun.
The old city is dominated by two sights: a basilica (dedicated to Saints Nazarius and Celsus) which is free to enter, and a castle which is not. Admission to the castle also includes access to walk the battlements of the interior wall, although parts of the exterior wall can be explored for free, as part of the lovely walk between the walls that will (with the exception of construction blockage) take you in a complete loop around the city.
Why pay when this view is free?
As beautiful as the city is, it is no wonder it is filled to the brim with tourists (especially in summer) and all of the wonderful things associated with them, like ice cream parlors and shops selling replica weapons and armor, plus the normal tourist souvenir stalls. However, this doesn’t mean the entire city is worthless outside of the fortifications. We stumbled upon a wonderful (and not too expensive) restaurant for one of the better meals I’ve had in France thus far.
If you want to ignore the tourists, just focus on the towers.
Each tiny turn brings a new square or a new section of the walls into view. This is truly a photographer’s wonderland and, with less than a single square mile of area, the entire city is easily explored in a day!
Random turns bring stunning views.
Carcassonne is not a place I’d recommend spending too much time, however, as it boasts limited appeal outside of the castle city. It can be seen as a day trip easily from Toulouse, or as a longer day (or overnight) from Marseille or Montpelier. However, if you find yourself in search of a place where fairy tales just might come to life, this is a destination that should be on your France bucket list!
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