Carcassonne: The Fairy Tale City of France
The 19th Century French poet Gustave Nadaud famously said, “don’t die without seeing Carcassonne.”
Each year 4 million tourists take his advice and flock to historic town perched atop a hill and surrounded by mountains and vineyards in the Languedoc Roussillon region of South-West France.
We went to find out more…
Carcassonne is the country’s most visited tourist spot after the Eiffel Tower and is one of the most spectacular medieval fortresses in Europe.
The Medieval citadel, with its 53 watchtowers and two concentric walls, is a unique architectural complex, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
The view of the glowing fairy-tale castle from a distance at night is unforgettable and without a doubt Disney World perfect.
With its fairytale collection of drawbridges, towers and atmospheric cobbled streets, Carcassonne was reportedly the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty after he visited the picture perfect fortress.
The breath-taking location has featured in several Hollywood blockbusters, including ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Labyrinth.
The 25 square mile city has plenty to offer visitors from restaurants to quaint shops and a wealth of history and myths to discover.
The oldest fortified town in Europe, Carcassonne takes its name from the Legend of Dame Carcas. At the beginning of the 9th century, the city, besieged by Charlemagne, held out thanks to Dame Carcas the lady of the city, who fed the last remaining pig with the last remaining sack of grain and threw the fattened animal over The city’s ramparts. On seeing the pig, Charlemagne concluded that the city still had plenty of food in stock and decided to lift the siege. Dame Carcas had the trumpets sound to celebrate the victory, whence the name of the city, Carcassonne (from the French for Dame “Carcas rings”)
There is plenty to see and do within the city walls over a long weekend from visiting its quaint shops, cafe, restaurants and historical monuments.
A tour with an audio guide or guide from the tourist office is highly recommended to learn about the Gauls, Romans, Visogths, Saracens and Franks, who have all left their mark on its 2500 year-old history.
The Town Central Square is a nice place to drop after you’ve shopped and enjoyed a cup of coffee or an al-fresco lunch. The square sits at the very centre of Carcassonne and is dominated by a huge fountain.
The acclaimed author, Kate Mosse fell in love with the city as soon as she laid eyes on it and it later became the setting of her novels ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘Citadel’.
HÔtel De La CITÉ Carcassonne
The finest hotel within the city walls is the five star HÔtel de La CitÉ lies in the heart of this unique historical site and offers views over the city, its gardens and ancient walls.
Built on the site of a former Episcopal palace in 1906, the 61 bedroom hotel is right next to the Saint-Nazaire Basilica and overlooks the lower town from the ramparts.
Famous guests include Sir Winston Churchill, Princess Grace of Monaco, Rudyard Kipling and Sting. A glance at the visitors’ book offers a genuine journey through time. The black and white portraits in the ‘Chez Saskia’ restaurant also bear witness to the hotel’s roll call of famous guests.
On arrival guests are welcomed at the foot of the city by the hotel porter in a tiny vehicle and accompanied to the hotel as the city is virtually car-free. In order to preserve the site, traffic is restricted from 10am to 6pm.
Once over the drawbridge, you enter the city gates and discover the fortress, arriving in the Place Auguste-Pierre Pont, bordered by the Romanesque facade of the Saint-Nazaire Basilica and the rue Saint Louis with its charming little shops.
At the hotel, each guest is handed a welcome booklet and a plan of the hotel, becoming a temporary “citizen of the City”.
The hotel’s timeless charm and Neo-Gothic architecture takes hold from the lobby of the hotel. The great wooden staircase on the ground floor, classified as an historic monument, adds to the overall sense of grandeur.
The “sale des correspondence” invites guests to relax and quench their thirst in comfortable leather armchairs while perusing the books and registers in the hotel’s library. Every night, you can enjoy the sounds of jazz piano in the cozy elegant area around the fireplace.
The rooms feature an ipod dock, luxury toiletries, free wi-fi access
Guests can enjoy the uniquely beautiful heated swimming pool nestles amid the greenery at the foot of the imposing Saint Nazaire Basilica as well as a range of beauty treatments.
Where to eat?
The city’s only starred-restaurant ‘La Barbacane’ offers exquisite fine dining with a huge selection of dishes, all created with the imagination and know-how in the most charming and elegant ambiance.
‘Chez Saskia’ with its relaxed ambiance, is the ideal place to start the day with a breakfast buffet featuring fresh seasonal fruits, preserves and compotes, home-baked breads and pastries, cheese and delicatessen meats.
L’Ostal Des Troubadours
With a traditional medieval feel, the restaurant lies within the city walls and uses an open wood fire to cook your meal.
L’Escargot is a bistro/wine bar close to the hotel that serves Mediterranean cuisine using local produce.
Le Jardin de la Tour is a delightful summer outdoor restaurant, only a minute from the hotel, offering traditional cuisine. Chef Bernard nuances his dishes with the most beautiful Mediterranean accents and the menu varies with the seasons.
www.mgallery.com or www.accorhotels.com
RATES double room from 169 Euro
Things to see
Carcassonne Tourist Information offer a guided tour of the city. Visit the Tourist Information Centre and gift shop at the city gate.
The Basilica of Saint-Nazaire –‘The jewel of the Medieval City’, an example of harmonious co-existence of Ro manesque and Gothic architecture with the finest stained glass in the south of France.
The Tourist Train- Complete tour of the rampart walls looking at the architecture and defences.
The Theatre de la cite This theatre, located inside the Medieval City, was founded in 1908 on the site of the former Saint-Nazaire cloisters.
Middle Ages on stage In a reconstructed medieval village, you will witness medieval performances featuring dancing, music and fighting, interactive workshops and a children’s playground. Medieval barbecue with entertainment on the weekends and in July and August.
TOP TIPS: Don’t visit in the middle of the day due to the heat and crowds, instead visit early in the morning (it opens at 10am) or arrive late in the afternoon.
The best spot to take photos of the castle is from the west or from the old bridge over the River Aude in the evening light.
In Carcassonne Lower City
Le Defi – This boat offers cruises on the Canal du Midi with lunch or dinner included. Visitors step aboard at the Port of Carcassonne and discover the preserved landscapes of the Canal du Midi.
Museum of Fine Art Ornate Neo-Classical facade – The museum boasts a rich collection of paintings and ceramics from the XVII to XXI Centuries and also hosts excellent temporary exhibitions.
The Church of Saint Vincent and its Bell Tower – Illustrating the gothic art of the Languedoc region with its nave, it’s the largest in Southern France.
Facebook: Tourisme Carcassonne
HÔtel de la CitÉ, Place Auguste-Pierre Pont, 11000 Carcassonne, France.
How to get there:
Fly to Carcassonne from London (Stansted) East Midlands, Edinburgh and Manchester on Ryanair. The airport is ten minutes by car from Carcassonne. (Flights July 2021 cost on average £25 return from www.ryanair.com)
Other main local airports: Toulouse-Blagnac (TLS) (60 minutes by car)
Train from Toulouse to Carcassonne: Around one hour (several trains a day).