Visiting the South of France has to include a stopover in Carcassonne’s medieval fortified citadel. Even though it is on the must-see list for many, many people, especially during the peak summer season. Therefore, if you ask me, spring or autumn is the best time to go. These seasons allow you to discover the historic citadel at a leisurely pace. And if you look further than the obvious tourist traps, you will appreciate its charm. Find out more about this beautiful walled town in part 2 of La Ramoneta’s guide to Carcassonne. (Click here for part 1).
The citadel of Carcassonne dates back a long time and covers more than 2,500 years of history. Already by the third century A.D., the Romans had made a fortified town out of the pre-existing Gaulish settlement along the banks of the Aude River. After the decline of the Roman empire, Carcassonne was taken over by respectively the Visigoths, Muslims and Francs. And halfway through the Middle Ages reflected a period of power changing hands between counts and viscounts, in favour of Cathars or their opponents, the Crusaders. By the 13th century, the French crown officially annexed Carcassonne. However, within a couple of centuries, the once prosperous town fell apart and was on the edge of demolition by the beginning of the 19th century. It was architect Viollet-le-Duc who brought back its 13th century glory with his restorations of the royal fortifications.
Back in time
Although not every decision made by Viollet-le-Duc was received with great enthusiasm, notably by history buffs. Eventually UNESCO added the citadel to its World Heritage sites. And today, crossing the main gateway’ La Porte Narbonnaise’ is like stepping several centuries back in time. Of course, you will have to look a bit past the many shops selling plastic swords and other touristy paraphernalia. But if I use my imagination when following the maze of small cobbled streets, I can still reflect on bygone times. I always like to start my little tour by taking the little Rue Saint-Sernin to the Place Marcou with its numerous restaurants.
I prefer eating in another restaurant though- L’Escargot– so I head to the Rue du Plo to reach the Basilique Saint-Nazaire. This former cathedral has Roman origins, and parts of it date back to the twelfth century. By the end of the thirteenth century, the basilica was enlarged in a Gothic style. And in 1801, the cathedral became a church, giving its title to the Saint-Michel church situated in the Bastide on the other side of the Aude River. Years of neglect followed until Viollet-le-Duc got his hands on it, and it was the first building in his gigantic restoration job. We’re very lucky he made the effort, as nowadays you can still admire the mixture of Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
Castle of the Counts
From the Saint-Nazaire Basilica, I like to continue my walk to the Place Auguste Pierre Pont. I really love the house right on the corner where the Rue du Four and Rue Saint-Louis meet. Here, you can feel history in the air. In the summer, this modest square becomes a stage for street artists. And you might even meet a real knight… After a short stop for an ice cream, I arrive at the citadel’s castle. As one of the biggest fortified cities in Europe, the citadel of Carcassonne couldn’t go without a proper château. Le Château Comtal was built in the twelfth century by the Viscounts of Carcassonne. You can visit the castle by paying an entrance fee. Once inside, you can climb even higher and walk on the castle walls. With good weather, you can see as far as the Pyrenees.