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Review: Carcassonne



La Cité, a stunning site, but one which may be best admired from a distance….

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2378 reviews

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  • May 2013
  • Husband

117 people found this review helpful

There is a good view of La Cité from the motorway with the walls and pointed towers. We could understand why it is twinned with Tallinn. It is a popular tourist spot and even on a dull damp day in May, when the car parks weren’t busy, the streets were crowded with tourists. On a nice day in high summer it could become unbearably busy. We have a feeling La Cité may be better admired from a distance when it does look spectacular.

Carcassonne is divided into two main parts, La Cité, the medieval fortress on top of hill which has been settled for 2500+years and the Lower Town and Bastide St Louis. The Gauls settled the area around 6thC BC. Later, the Romans fortified the settlement and the lower courses of inner ramparts to north date from this time. The town fell to the Visigoths who settled here 5th-8thC and built the first Basilica. It had a brief spell in Moorish hands before becoming Frankish city. By the 11thC, it passed to the Trencavel family, one of the most powerful families in the South of France. It was a Cathar stronghold in the 12thC until it surrendered to Simon de Montfort and was handed to the French King. The walls were further strengthened and the outer ramparts built.

In the 13thC, the French expelled the citizens from La Cité not trusting them to help defend the place against allies of the Trencavels. A new town, Bastide St Louis, was laid out in the latest grid pattern on the opposite bank of the River Aude and still has the regular street plan. The Black Prince failed to take La Cité during the Hundred Years War although his troops destroyed the Lower Town.

Carcassonne was important as it protected the border between France and Aragon until the Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed in 1659. The old town lost its military significance and gradually inhabitants moved into the lower town. by the 19thC many of fortifications of the were in poor condition and stone had been robbed for building material. There was a major programme of restoration by Viollet-le-Duc, the state appointed architect and much of what you see today is the result of his work, including the pointed roofs on the towers.

We just visited La Cité. Visitors cars are not allowed in La Cité and there are well signed car parks to the east. On a dull, damp morning the parks were quiet. They proclaimed ‘libre’. It is as well we checked at Tourist Information as this just means there are spaces, not that there is no charge. Parking was €5 for all day. It is a short walk to La Cité. The tourist train was waiting for punters who didn’t want to walk and there were several school parties.

La Cité was the largest fortress in Europe, built round the Château on the west and the Basilica to the south. The area is surrounded by a ditch and double curtain wall. The outer ramparts built between 1228-45 are lower and have 14 towers. They are separated from the taller inner ramparts with 24 towers by the outer bailey (Lices). This was used for weapon practice and jousting. In the summer months a tourist train gives 20minute rides along the Lices. Alternatively it is a nice walk for close up views of the ramparts.

The inner ramparts were reconstructed in the 13/14thC on the line of the 3rd/4thC wall. If need be, wooden hoardings could be fixed to the outside of the walls to improve defence. A short section of the original Roman ramparts with a tower can be seen to the north. Built from red bricks in a zigzag pattern, they were resistant to battering.

Three original gateways still exist, Porte Narbonnaise, the main gateway used by visitors, Porte d’Aude giving access to the bastide and Porte St Nazaire which controlled access from south.

Armed with a map from Tourist Information, we set off to explore. Approaching Porte Narbonnaise, the first thing to catch the eye is the modern statue of Dame Carcas on column near the gate. This replaces an older, very eroded one now in the château museum. According to the story, a châtelaine of the city, named Carcas, foiled a attempted siege by the Franks or (in some versions) the Saracens. On the point of surrendering through starvation, Carcas found the last animal alive in the city – a pig – and fed it with all of the remaining vegetables and scraps that remained. She then threw the well fattened pig over the walls to the besiegers who, assumed the city was well provisioned. With little prospect of the city’s surrender, they upped camp and left.

There is a low archway through the outer ramparts. The 13thC gateway has two massive towers with a 13thC statue of the Virgin Mary between them. Arrow slit windows overlook the lices. The gateway was a statement of power as well as a line of defence with double portcullis and murder holes. It could maintain a garrison for an extensive period of time in case of attack.

Tourist Information is in one of the towers, and it is worth going in to see the vaulted ceiling and recessed arrow slits with stone benches. The other tower houses temporary exhibitions of modern art, so we gave that a miss.

Rue Cros Mayrevieille leads from Porte Narbonnaise to the Château, and is the main shopping street lined with tourist shops. La Cité still maintains its medieval street plan of irregular, narrow cobbled streets with even narrower alleyways off. There are still a few half timber frame houses, although many have been covered with plaster. Once off the main street side streets are quieter with fewer tourists. There are some interesting houses.

Porte d’Aude is a heavily fortified double gateway between the Château and the Basilica and is the main entrance to the bastide. It does a dog leg down between very high walls to the gateway through the outer rampart.

Basiica St-Nazaire is on the west of La Cité. There has been a church here since the 6thC. The nave is all that is left of the 11thC Romanesque church. The rest was destroyed during the Cathar Wars and was rebuilt in Gothic style in the 13/14thC with a lot of carving and decorative work. It was heavily restored by Violett-le-Duc in the 19thC.

Château Comtal is an impressive site seen from Rue Cros Mayrevieille. Many people stop to take a photograph but don’t bother to go inside. This is a shame as it is a well worth while visit, especially the Musée Lapidaire.

Carcassone gets 3* in Michelin, it’s highest grading. La Cité is a splendid site and I am glad we visited. I have to give it 5*. However in high season I think it could get unpleasantly busy and its star rating may plummet.

A word of warning….

Signing to car parks coming to Carcassonne is good. Signing on the way out is poor. We got comprehensibly lost several times as signing bore no relationship to where we wanted to be.

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