About 80km east of Toulouse is the city of Carcassonne. Inhabited since Neolithic times, it’s the medieval citadel which draws the crowds.
Building probably started in the 10th century and by the 12th it was an impressive fortified town surrounded by a defensive wall.
It was within Moorish lands then, and according to local legend Charlemagne beseiged the citadel. Saracen King Ballak was killed and his unfortunately named wife, Dame Carcas, took over the defence of the city.
After six long years of seige, things were looking rather dire. Food was running out. According to the legend, Dame Carcas found the last living non-human animal in the city, a piglet. She force fed it with the last of the corn supplies and tossed it over the ramparts. This tricked Charlemagne’s troops into thinking the city was so self sufficient in food that people could afford to feed corn to the pigs and would be able to withstand the siege indefinitely. Mentally defeated, they called it a day. The city was saved.
But it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind. As the dejected Charlemagne slunk away, Dame Carcas called him back, surrendered the city and invited him to convert her subjects to Christianity. To signal her decision, she rang the city bells, giving the town its name: ‘Carcas sona” literally means ‘Carcas sounds’.
Sadly, the story isn’t evenly remotely true. Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short took the city from the Saracens before Charlemagne was even born. And when he did, it had already been called Carcassonne for centuries.
But Dame Carcas is honoured anyway. Here she is on the gate to the city.
After being nabbed from the Saracens, Carcassonne was a border fortress between France and the Crown of Aragon for centuries but when peace broke out between them in the 1600s, Carcassonne ceased to be of importance. Over time it fell into disrepair and in 1849 the French government decided it should be demolished.
The local mayor was outraged. A public campaign was launched demanding protection of the site. The government capitulated. Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, who was also responsible for the restoration of Mont Saint Michel and Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral was appointed to restore the city.
The Purple Duck (as we like to call him) took quite some artistic licence with his ‘renovations’. The pointy topped slate roofs on the towers reflect the northern French castle towns of Brittany rather than the squat towers with Roman style earthenware tiles which prevailed in southern France. He also embellished the city with many more battlements than the original would have had, as well as adding aesthetic flourishes which he thought enhanced the city’s appearance.
Nonetheless, it’s an impressive recreation, has been exquisitely maintained since he finished his work 150 years ago and was good enough to earn the citadel a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing in 1997.
The approach to the citadel is via Vieux Pont.
Then up the hill and through the gates to the citadel itself.
Within the walls, the city is a maze of lanes crammed with small shops selling all sorts of appalling tourist tat. Think fake knight’s armour, helmets, shields etc. Lots of cafes and restaurants too.
The former castle, Chateau Comtal was built into the walls in the 12th century. It’s open for visitors and has some informative sign boards about life and warfare in medieval times.
Steps lead up to the 3km of ramparts which completely encircle the city and are open for visitors to walk as a circuit.
From the ramparts there are great views out over the lower town outside the walls.
Incidentally, the lower town doesn’t get much press since it’s outside the UNESCO listing, but it’s worth visiting, especially for the gargoyles on the two main churches.
Cathedrale Saint Michel.
And Eglise Saint Vincent which is currently undergoing a massive renovation.
And in the opposite direction, views over the vineyards in the countryside.
But back to the citadel. Up there is also Basilica Saint Nazaire which has some exquisite stained glass windows.
Every summer, a temporary arena is erected for the Grand Tournament of Chivalry, a recreation of a medieval tournament. There’s jousting.
The horsemanship was excellent. This fellow could take an apple off a stake with his sword while at a full gallop.
And do some fancy horse riding tricks.
There was also some excellent sword play.
And axe fighting.
It’s all strung together with a running commentary (in French) by the jester. Of course, the crooked priest who brought challengers to the tournament hoping to win with dirty tricks gets his just desserts in the end.
Yes, it’s kitschy but very well executed and quite fun to watch.
At night the citadel is lit up like a beacon.
And through summer you can come back for Remparts et Lumieres, a walk around the ramparts with music and historical information via an audio guide timed to projections on the ramparts and citadel walls.
Carcassone is one of the most visited medieval sites in France. It is hugely important to the history of southern France. We didn’t think the castle itself was exceptional, but it’s definitely worth a visit when the summer festival adds these extras to the experience.