Carcassonne (fr. Carcassonne) is a fortified town in the Aude department, Occitania Region, France. ‘The town is one of the most important historical sites in France; it is not only because of the ancient fortress itself but also due to its size. It consists of a picturesque medieval town with streets, houses, churches inside three lines of fortified walls.
The city is an important stop on the Canal du Midi tourist route.
History and legends
The town is along a historical route connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea and the Central Massif with the Pyrenees. People have inhabited this place since Neolithic times. The first mentioning of Carcassonne dates back to the first century BC. Galls established the first settlement here. We know that Romans recognized the strategic importance of this place; they conquered it in the year 118 BC. Carcassonne citadel, the medieval fortress, dates back to the Gallo-Roman period.
Visigoths took control over the oppidum (the town-fortress from the Roman Empire surrounded by a moat and earth mound) in the V century; Saracenes conquered it in the VIII century, franc got rid of them. Francs called it Karkashuna town.
The town of Carcassonne has its own legend dating back to the beginning of the ninth century. It was at that time that the Saracens ruled in the city and Charles the Great (Charlemagne) decided to conquer it. The town’s siege lasted five years. A lady named Carcas stood at the head of the city’s defensive knights in the sixth year. The town residents experienced hunger, were greatly exhausted, and were on the verge of life and death.
All they had left was wheat and a single piglet. Lady Carcas decided to try to demoralize her opponents with a trick: she fed the piglet and ‘accidentally’ threw it from the city walls. Seeing the fattened piglet, Charlemagne thought that the town was full of food, lifted the siege, and withdrew his starving troops. Seeing the enemy retreat, Lady Carcas ordered to ring all the bells. One of Charlemagne’s men exclaimed: “The carcass is ringing!” (Carcas sonne! in French). This explains the origin of the name of the town of Carcassonne.
Carcassonne became famous for its role in the Crusades when it was a stronghold of the Occitan Cathars. Abbot Arnaud Amalric crusader army forced the town to surrender in August 1209. They imprisoned Viscount Raymond-Roger de Trencavel, and he died three months later under mysterious circumstances in a dungeon in his own town. They allowed Carcassonne’s residents to leave the town and so the exiles left Carcassonne in what they were wearing. Simon de Montfort became the new Viscount.
The town fell under the rule of the kingdom of France in 1247 and became a border fortress between France and the Aragonese Еmpire in accordance with the Treaty of Corbeil (1258).
King Louis IX founded a new part of the town across the river. He and his successor Philip III built its outer ramparts. The fortress was really impregnable. Edward Black Prince (Prince Noir, also known as Edward of Woodstock) could not capture the town during the Hundred Years’ War, although his troops destroyed the lower part of Carcassonne.
It is known that Charles IX visited Carcassonne during his royal journey through France (1564-1566), accompanied by the court and the Great Kingdom: his brother Duke Anjou (le Duc d’Anjou), Henry of Navarre (Henri de Navarre), Bourbon and Lorraine Cardinals (les Cardinaux de Bourbon et de).
The Treaty of Pyrenees transferred the Roussillon border province to France in 1659, and Carcassonne’s military powers decreased. Its fortifications were abandoned and the city became the main economic center, concentrating on the wool and textile industries. A sewing factory opened in the town and the production of fabrics brought prosperity to it. They built luxurious hotels in the town and a water supply appeared. Old walls were demolished in the eighteenth century.
However, the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc restored the walls in 1853. They restored the medieval fortification (more than 3 km of walls with 52 towers), and it was here that some episodes of the film “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” were shot much later on.
German troops occupied the town of Carcassonne in 1944 and used the castle as a storehouse for ammunition and explosives. They expelled residents from the town. Joë Bousquet, (a French poet and writer, bedridden since the age of 21 due to wounds during the First World War, and commander of the Legion of Honor), was extremely outraged by this fact and wrote to all authorities demanding the liberation of the town, which was considered an international work of art.
Tourism, main sights and attractions
The Town of Carcassonne has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997.
The two most important quarters in Carcassonne are Cite (upper town) and Bastide (lower town).
Three rows of ramparts surround Cite. The whole town is a medieval monument. There are two entrances to the fortified town. The main entrance is through the main gate and the bridge from Nadaud street. The second entrance is through the lower gate, which you can arrive to via Saint Gimer church.
Admission is free in Cite; it is just a town district, albeit a tourist-oriented one. The main attraction is the Count’s Chateau (Chateau Comtal), in which you can also find the museum. Opening hours are from 10:00 to 18:00 (daily except holidays).
Gothic-style Saint Nazaire Basilica is in Cite’s central square. It is open for visits from 9:00 to 12:00 and from 14:00 to 18:00.
In the rest of the citadel there are souvenir shops, cozy restaurants and pastry shops; everything is decorated in a traditional medieval style.
In the Trivalle quarter between the upper and lower Carcassonne district, there is the Old Bridge (Pont Vieux). The lower district is in the shape of a hexagon, at the corners of which rise the bastions. The streets are at right angles to each other.
Central Square of Bastide is Carnot Square. There is a fountain and many outdoor cafes on the Central Bastide popular among the locals and tourists.
Many narrow streets of Lower Carcassonne are only for pedestrians. The main street of the lower town is Avenue Clemenceau Courtejaire.
Bastide preserves ancient mansions, houses from St. Louis times, and the Palace of Justice.
It is also worth stopping at Saint Vincent church to admire its beautiful stained glass windows. The church’s tower offers magnificent views over Carcassonne, the lower city, and the fortress. Climbing the tower is free. The church is open to visitors from 10:00 to 12:00 and from 14:00 to 17:30.
You can get great pleasure from walking among the citadel’s souvenir shops. You can buy clothes, jewellery, perfumes, and find some original gifts here.
Cuisine and restaurants
Most restaurants are concentrated in the old city and uphold the festive and colorful atmosphere of the Middle Ages. There are also snack bars, bars and cafes.
The town’s traditional dish is cassoule (a bean stew with duck legs and aromatic spices). They serve it in clay pots, which is said to give it its special taste. You can also try foie gras (duck liver pate), or duck breast with confiture (a kind of jam served with meat or cheese).
Given that Carcassonne is one of the winemaking centers, we recommend trying a glass of the soft and aromatic local wine.
How to get to Carcassonne?
Distances by car:
From Biarritz (tolls): 3 h 40 min (395 km) via A64
From Dax (tolls): 49 min (67.1 km) via A61
From Nantes (tolls): 6 h 14 min (676 km) via A10 and A62
From Bordeaux (tolls): 3 h 17 min (335 km) via A62 and A61
From Toulouse (tolls): 1 h 6 min (93.4 km) via A61
From Monaco (tolls): 4 h 50 min (491 km) via A8 and A9
From Nice (tolls): 4 h 36 min (470 km) via A8 and A9
From Marseille (tolls): 3 h 4 min (312 km) via A9
From Avignon (tolls): 2 h 23 min (239 km) via A9
From Montpellier (tolls): 1 h 40 min (152 km) via A9 and A61
From Béziers (tolls): 1 h 3 min (89.5 km) via A9 and A61
From Perpignan (tolls): 1 h 16 min (116 km) via A9 and A61
From Andorra (tolls): 2 h 50 min (178 km) via D119
The town has a train station that connects Carcassonne with Toulouse (travel time 1 hour, Narbonne (40 minutes, Beziers (1 hour 9 minutes) and Montpellier (1 hour 59 minutes).
Carcassonne has an airport, which offers regular connections with the UK (London, Liverpool, and Nottingham), Ireland (Dublin, Cork, and Shannon), and Belgium (Charleroi).
Area: 65.08 sq. km
Population: 47 560 (2019)
Coordinates: 43°13′N 2°21′E
Languages: French, Occitane
Time: Central-European UTC +1
Gauthier Langlois, La rébellion contre le roi, le siège de la Cité de Carcassonne (1240), dans Archéothéma no 23, juillet août 2012, p. 45-50.
Martial Andrieu, Carcassonne, mémoire en images tome 3 éditions Alan Sutton (2011)
Claude Marti et Patrice Cartier, Je t’écris de Carcassonne (1905-1914), Éditions du Mont (2011)
Martial Andrieu, Carcassonne, mémoire en images tome 2 éditions Alan Sutton (2008)
Claude Marquié, Carcassonne, hommes et métiers au fil du temps, édition du Lions Club Carcassonne Cité, (2008)
Jean-Louis Bonnet, La Bastide de Carcassonne en poche, édition La Tour Gile, (2007)