One very touristy, but still not-to-be-missed monument is the Citadel of Carcassonne. It is even in the top ten most visited monuments in the whole of France! No wonder, as it is one of the best-preserved citadels in the world, with over 2,500 years of history. Its Gallo-Roman military architecture, 3 kilometres of ramparts, 52 towers and 4 gates appeal to the imagination of many people. There’s so much to discover that I had to write two posts about it, and here’s the first part. (Click here for part 2).
In fact, Carcassonne is two medieval cities. On the south side of the River Aude, you will find the bastide, built in the thirteenth century. And on the north side of the river is the citadel, called cité in French. The citadel is beautifully perched on a hilltop, and you can see it from afar. The best spots to take a picture are from the Pont Neuf and the rest area Belvédère d’Auriac along the A61 highway between Toulouse and Narbonne (not on the other side!). You can enter La Cité by two gates: La Porte Narbonnaise and La Porte d’Aude. I usually take the first one, which you are automatically directed to when following the signs from the motorway. Here, you will meet ‘Dame Carcas, or a replica of the original 16th-century statue. The real one is safely kept at the Château Comtal in the heart of the citadel.
According to the legend, the Saracens took over Carcassonne’s citadel in the 16th century. As their king- Ballak- was killed, his wife, Dame Carcas, took his place. Of course, Emperor Charlemagne- king of the Franks- wanted to reconquer the citadel, so he held it under siege for five years. The last defenders were outnumbered and hungry. However, to give the besiegers the impression that there were still lots of them with plenty of food, Dame Carcas fed the last little pig with a handful of wheat and threw the pig from the highest tower of the city wall. Times were harsh back then… Seeing this well-fed pig made Charlemagne think. If the Saracens could still feed their pigs, there was clearly enough food. Conclusion: Charlemagne decided to call it a day. To celebrate this victory, Dame Carcas let the bells chime, or in French: ‘Carcas sonne’.
Bright blue sky
Carcassonne is a perfect example of a fortified medieval city. It used to be an important stronghold, as the citadel has two city walls for extra protection. The best time to visit Carcassonne is spring or autumn, as it does get quite crowded in summer. Off-season, you can still walk around the town peacefully. I have visited Carcassonne numerous times, but I had never walked around the citadel before. As the weather was perfect, not too hot with a bright blue sky, I enjoyed a breathtaking panorama of ‘La Bastida’, the other medieval part of Carcassonne. And leaving the citadel from the other entrance, the Porte d’Aude, gave me another magnificent view of the ramparts and the castle. There are so many different angles from which to admire this historical site!
Love it or hate it
In 2018, you could admire the ‘Concentriques Excentriques’ artwork on the Port d’Aude. Felice Varini created it to celebrate the town’s 20th anniversary as a Unesco World Heritage. This gigantic piece of art, consisting of bright yellow lines, was painted on the actual citadel itself. Once standing in front of the gate, the yellow lines merged to form 15 circles. Back then, this artwork was a hot topic for discussion in Carcassonne and the surrounding areas, as it seemed that you either loved it or hated it. I belonged in the first camp: I absolutely loved it. No worries if you didn’t like the yellow stripes on the historic site though, they were removed at the end of September 2018. But if you look closely, you can still see a difference in colour on the facades. It seems like this piece of art is here to stay after all…