Entering Carcassonne through the Porte Narbonnaise

Carcassonne is a storybook perfect medieval fortress sitting on a hilltop above the Aude river in southwest France. A bit too perfect, in fact. More on that in a bit.

There has been a fortified settlement on this site since the fourth century when the Romans built a colony for veterans. It had been a border stronghold between Spain and France and by the 13th century was one of the greatest fortresses in Europe. There is a local legend that the city derives its name from an incident that supposedly caused Charlemagne to abandon a five year siege in the 9th century.

By the early 1700's the fortified city had lost its significance as a military asset and was allowed to fall into ruin while the lower city, the Ville Basse grew up into a textile manufacturing powerhouse.

In the early 19th century, the city was again recognized as a site of great historical significance and beauty. Viollet-le-Duc (famous for his restoration of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris) was commissioned to restore it beginning in 1844. He was apparently more interested in re-creating his vision of a medieval fortress than he was in accurately reproducing the city of the past. The result is a marvelous fortified city that would satisfy any fan of the swashbuckler genre.

If coming by train, you will come to the SNCF station in the Ville Basse. In exchange for the long hike uphill to the Cite, as the upper city is called, you will enjoy a marvelous long view of the fortress atop the hill before entering through the Porte d'Aude. Those arriving by car will first reach the car park on what is the back side of the city. Although the Porte Narbonnaise is also impressive, you should make sure to see the city from the other side as well.

Touring the ramparts of Chateau Comtal

Inside the city lies the Chateau Comtal, actually the "castle keep" of the city. This is a last line of defense with its own wall and drawbridge. Guided tours of the castle are available and well worth the modest cost. The visitor gets to tour the castle and walk around the ramparts and through the defensive turrets.

One of the reasons the city was so formidable a fortress was that it was surrounded by not one, but two complete ring walls. The area between the two walls, called les Lices, or the lists, was kept free of any vegetation or structures that would allow invaders cover as they attempted to reach the inner wall. This made them sitting ducks for the defenders on the inside. In normal times, the broad area was used for jousting contests.

Les Lices - The Lists - between the inner and outer walls

While Carcassonne has the inevitable gift shops, restaurants, and snack stands associated with any popular tourist attraction in France, it does not have the tacky feel that some do. In many ways, it looks and feels like a medieval fortress whose the residents have simply disappeared. I felt as though if the people came back, Carcassonne would pick right up where it left off.


Copyright 2002 Harry B. Rowe