Back in the middle ages, a new Carcassonne was created at the base of the hill of the ancient citadelle of Carcassonne. The town of lower Carcassone was built on the left bank of the river Aude and is called the Bastide Saint-Louis. Most visitors to Carcassonne miss it completely and what a shame that is. Focused on reaching the old citadel, they don’t even notice the imposing gates across the old bridge to this fascinating area that’s rich in history, architecture, cafés and restaurants, shops and markets.
The history of Bastide Saint-Louis
Built in 1260, the Bastide Saint-Louis is connected to the old city via the picturesque Point Vieux bridge. It’s a spot that gets packed at night with photographers attempting to capture the beauty of the citadel when it’s lit up against a starry sky. Built in the 14th century, the bridge was the only link between the two towns until the 19th century. On the other side of the Bastide lies the Canal du Midi gently winding its way through Carcassonne. If you only have a short time in town, take a one hour boat ride with Bateau le Cocagne (who also hire bikes) near the train station. You’ll enjoy a tranquil taster of this historic canal and fabulous views to the Citadel.
There is a quite different vibe in the “new” city from the old. Although it too is ancient it has a more open feel and is very light and vibrant.
Inside the Bastide Saint-Louis
Inside the Bastide is a warren of streets and old buildings. It’s a cool place in several ways. Even on roasting hot days here in the far south, the city doesn’t overheat thanks to its design that channels the four winds that run through the area to flow through its streets. There are 300 days a year of wind here. You can expect to enjoy the breezy touch of the Tramontane, le Vent d’Autun, the Marine and Mediterranean winds.
The town seems to evolve outwards from the central square Place Carnot with its famous fountain, loved by famous French writer Balzac. This square makes for the most wonderful setting to take a relaxing break at a terraced café and watch the world go by. Where the moats of old once were, there are now boulevards lined with houses and shops.
You can’t help but notice that the pavement is made from rose coloured marble. It was laid to honour the visit of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and was quarried from Caunes, Minervois not far from Carcassonne. Marble from this quarry was also used at Versailles, the Opera Garnier in Paris as well as in the White House in Washington.
Magnificent mansion houses date back to the 17th and 18th century when the city was home to prosperous merchants. Many made their fortunes from the textile manufacturing industry that Carcassonne was famous for.
Fabulous market of Bastide Saint-Louis
The weekly market (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday) takes place here as it has done for centuries. It’s a vibrant, buzzing market and plenty of delicious smells scent the air.
At the popular stall of Chez Gaston, try the arachides, peanuts in a rice pastry shell dipped in mustard and spices. Or La Lucque – enormous olives that are rugby ball shaped. They’re considered the “rolls Royce of olives” by the locals and they’re grown in the area. From Monday to Saturday there is a covered market at Les Halles.
This is the place to come to order fresh cooked cassoulet to take home. It’s sold in terracotta bowls which make for great souvenirs. At one stall I spotted “La cargolade” tiny snails ready to barbecue, a speciality of the area. There’s “casser la croute” salted pastry with a meaty interior. It’s a recipe that dates back to the middle ages when makers would decorate the pastry as their signature. And, don’t miss a visit to the patisserie boulangerie shop of Chef Fuster who makes the special madeleine cakes of Carcassonne. Outside in the car park you’ll see a circle of stones, they mark the spot where the town pillory used to be in the medieval days. The history in this town is palpable.
Stop off at Bistro d’Alice (26 rue Chartran) where the friendly staff take real pride in the produce. Everything is home cooked and its loved by the locals. Outside you can enjoy the breeze on a hot day. Inside there’s a typically French brasserie atmosphere, banquettes and brass and a buzz of conversation. It’s the perfect place for lunch after a trip to the market or in the town.
The preserved 14th century Cathedral of Bastide Saint-Louis
There are several churches from the 13th and 14th centuries in the town but the 14th century Cathedral of Saint-Michel is speccial. All cathedrals used to have painted interiors and the artwork was covered with egg white as a preservative, but over the centuries the paint faded. Here though, the cathedral doors were closed in the 16th century. It was left like that for years. Amazingly it looks so fresh you’d think it had only just been done. While I was there an old lady with white hair and a black dress wielding a duster over the pews asked if I’d like to know more about the Cathedral and of her own story. Her name was Rose.
“I come here every day of the week. I clean and mend things and help the Bishop” she said proudly pointing to the furniture she’s restored and curtains she’s sewn. Rose’s work here is so important that its even been recognised by the National Monuments organisation of France.
“I come here to thank God for a miracle” and she tells me that her grandchild was gravely ill, suffering from multiple sclerosis and at 8 years old was in a wheelchair. She prayed to the Pope and to God “with all my heart and my prayer was heard. My grandchild is now 19 years old, healthy, no longer in a wheelchair”.
This is a city with a lot of soul.
What to see and do in Carcassonne – from the restaurants with the best views to the perfect picnic spot
Getting to Carcassone: 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).
Where to stay: La Vielle Maison is at the base of the citadel and a few minutes walk to both the old city and Bastide Saint Louis.
Tourist office information: www.tourisme-occitanie.com; www.tourism-carcassonne.co.uk