The UNESCO World Heritage Site of the old city of Carcassonne is every bit as enchanting when you see it in real life as it is in the photos.
How Carcassonne got its name
Its legacy goes back centuries, ancient tribes inhabited the area, the Romans arrived and built a fort – they called it Carcasso. The city changed hands several times, its history was colourful, it’s always been sought after. There is a legend that the Emperor Charlemagne laid siege to the fortified city for five long years in the 8th century. On learning that her people had just one pig and a bag of wheat left to survive on, the reigning princess, Dame Carcas, had the pig fed on the wheat and thrown over the ramparts. Charlemagne, believing that the inhabitants must have so much food stored they could afford to chuck it away called off the siege. Dame Carcas had the bells of the city rung in victory, “Carcas… sonne” it was said, “Carcassonne is ringing” – hence the name. Dame Carcas’ likeness adorns one of the gates of the magnificent enclosed city, looking down on all who enter. She has a rather smiley face and no wonder – she beat Charlemagne!
In the middle ages the poorest people lived in ramshackle homes that leaned up against the ramparts. The more fortunate lived inside the protected walls. Over time the ramshackle homes spread and created the wider neighbourhood of Carcassonne.
The old citadel gradually fell into ruin until state commissioned architect Viollet-le-Duc took on the restoration in 1844.
It is now considered to be the largest and best conserved medieval fortress in Europe. Visit to discover a grand, imposing citadel, home to a labyrinth of cobbled streets, churches, a castle, towers and ancient buildings.
Of course all this beauty draws many visitors, around 4 million a year. If you want to see if without the crowds – avoid the summer months. You can visit for free to see most of it but there is a ticket fee to see some of it – it’s well worth it.
I’d recommend a whole day for really getting to know the city, it’s big and there’s lots to see and do and loads of restaurants, bars and shops to tempt you. A minimum of half a day is needed to see most of it without stopping for lunch.
Go in the evening when the tourists are gone and sip chilled wine while you contemplate the enormous history of this place…
More about Carcassonne
Bastide Saint-Louis, the lower town of Carcassonne, not to be missed
What to do and see in and around Carcassonne, best places for dining out, aperitifs and much more
Mazamet near Carcassonne, where the town and the country merge
Where to stay: Stay at: La Maison Vielle, 8 rue Trivalle at the foot of the citadel. It’s a charming B&B at the bottom of the ramparts. Ask for a room with a window looking onto the citadel for a great view, especially at night. There’s a lovely terraced garden, common room and a great kitchen where you’ll enjoy a stylish breakfast. When I was there it included a mini crème Brulée. I gulped at the calories I’d be piling on “you’re on holiday and besides, you won’t be able to resist walking it off in la cité next door” I was told!
Getting to Carcassonne: The train from Paris takes from 5 hours 22 minutes.
Nearest airport: Carcassonne Airport, shuttle service to city centre (connections to the UK, Brussels and France).