It’s not often that I arrive in a destination and end up mouthing the word ‘wow.’ But I did it twice within ten minutes in the French town of Carcassonne! This medieval city in southwest France, 45 miles from the Mediterranean coast, is one of France’s most popular destinations, attracting upwards of two million visitors annually.
Sarahi Seguy from Carcassonne Tourism had told me the town is, “one of France’s must-see monuments, like Mont St Michel or the Eiffel Tower,” so I was keen to see it for myself. Minutes after arriving at the city’s airport I caught a glimpse of the incredible old town. As soon as night falls, floodlights illuminate the mighty stone walls and towers, which sit on top of a hill overlooking the River Aude. That’s the first ‘wow’ factor.
Remember the fairytale castle that used to feature at the start of Disney’s television programmes? Walt is said to have based Sleeping Beauty’s home on Carcassonne after he visited. I had seen pictures of course, but it is only when you see it in real life that you get a sense of how big it really is. There’s not one circling wall, but two. It’s a double ring and the fortification is topped with 54 towers.
You can’t drive within the walls, so my hotel – Hôtel de la Cité – sent a porter, Roman, with a tiny van to transport me and my luggage. We drove through the arch of the mightily tall but narrow Narbonnaise Gate, which is topped by two enormous towers. It was built in 1280 and a drawbridge was added, for effect, in the 19th century. The van crept up the cobbled hill. It was a tight squeeze. Only a handful of vehicles are permitted within the walls and their single-file movement is controlled by traffic lights. We passed medieval squares filled with restaurant tables and one with a central well.
Three kilometres of high, solid, stone walls hug this medieval town. The fortifications are mighty because locals wanted to feel protected. According to legend, in the 8th century the city and fort on the hill were under Saracen control. Charlemagne of France wanted to take the site and tried to starve them out. For five years his forces kept the castle under siege.
The leader of the locals was Lady Carcass. She knew that they were running out of food but, in a classic bluff, threw their last remaining pig over the walls, which gave the impression that they had plentiful food supplies. It worked. Charlemagne retreated. To celebrate, Carcass rang the town’s bells. When the soldiers described what happened, obviously in French, the city was named. As Sarahi explained, Dame Carcass ‘sonne’ or ‘rang’ the bells.
A more formidable fort was then built at the end of the 11th century but the family that controlled it was deposed, because they followed the Cathar religious movement. Cathars’ beliefs varied greatly from that of the Roman Catholic Church and the King of France, who viewed them as a threat to the establishment. The crusaders attacked the city and took control, killing many of the inhabitants. The fortress was strengthened further.
“When the King of France took possession of Carcassonne, he ordered the construction of a first rampart, to protect the castle, and a second rampart to protect the fortified city,” Sarahi explained. A new, second town was built across the river by King Louis starting in 1260. He intended to relocate residents from the fortified town to the new settlement. Today it is still referred to as Bastide Saint Louis after its founder. It remains a distinct community of 45,000 people, which you reach by walking down the hill and crossing the bridge over the River Aude.
The Black Prince burned this down and it was rebuilt in the 14th century. Even so, it’s often still referred to as ‘the new town,’ which makes things even more confusing for visitors! Later, a treaty agreement moved the French border further toward Spain. That meant the fortress became less important. Locals preferred to live in the nice, newer town and they pillaged the medieval city for stones and building materials.
The fortified city had fallen into disrepair by the Victorian era. It was then that Cros Mayrevielle, a journalist who was passionate about history, recognised that the old town needed preserving. He worked together with architect Viollet-le-Duc to rebuild the crumbling citadel. The reconstruction occurred between 1853 and 1911.
Citadel tour guide Monica told me that the men had their own vision for the fortress. “They changed the place. You can see slate on the roofs. The traditional building style would have been red tiles. Even today, some historians believe that the men should have left unchanged some of the different stages of development of Carcassonne.”
So what you see today, the UNESCO-recognised old town, is not all that old. That said it is still an incredible sight. There’s something to see around every corner. The Saint Nazaire church next to my hotel offers a beautiful mixture of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The church is different in design to many of those seen in the south of France. It’s partly based on the Sainte Chapelle in Paris.
Part of Saint Nazaire Church was built before the crusade against the Cathars. The stained-glass windows are a highlight. Sarahi told me that you should choose the best time to view the beautiful glasswork. “At the beginning of the afternoon you have the light through the windows. They date back to the 13th and 14th century. They represent the whole life of Jesus Christ.”
I travelled to Carcassonne in November and it seemed like the perfect time to visit without having to face large crowds. I’m told that the citadel gets congested in the summer as hordes of day-trippers flood the enclosed city, packing its outdoor restaurants and handing over euros for plastic suits of armour, daggers and medieval dress in the touristy shops. It’s free to enter the city, so you can understand why it gets so busy.
It is only €9 to enter and tour the castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site and over half a million people do that each year. “It’s the biggest and most well-preserved mediaeval castle in Europe and we’re very proud of it,” Monica told me. You’ll recognise it from the movie Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves. Nottingham was actually Carcassonne!
Monica’s enthusiasm for the castle was infectious. As she strode across the castle courtyard and along it’s corridors she painted a vivid picture of life within the city walls. It would have been bustling with activity. “You had your stable stalls, workshops and servants running around. The troubadours – the mediaeval pop singers – would not only sing the love songs for the ladies or heroic songs for the knights. They were also the newspaper of the time. They travelled from castle to castle staying for a week at each one. They brought the latest news for the men and the gossip for the ladies.”
Monica took me to the most important room, the keep, where VIP guests would have been received. “When they started setting up the museum in the 1920s, they found paintings under the thick layers of whitewash, dating back to the 12th and 13th century. The friezes were refreshed in the 1920s and 1950s.” One of the paintings featured a horse-riding man who was wearing a turban. Monica explains that he would have been a Saracen Muslim from Turkey. He is depicted fighting a round-helmeted soldier, who would have been French.
Some of the paintings feature blue paint. Monica told me that it derives from a stone that was only available from Afghanistan. It was brought through the port of Venice at the time. Only the rich would have been able to obtain that paint. Guests seeing this decoration would be left in no doubt that their hosts were powerful. “And they could be intimidated because, as you can tell from the echo, the acoustics are excellent. If one of the Lords raised his voice he would be understood,” Monica added.
You might spot Jean François Vassal walking around the old town wearing the brown robes of the medieval period. Jean François also operates a language school, ILC, with his partner Valerie in the heart of the old town. He has taught French to some of the rugby league players who have relocated to play the game in this rugby-mad city. “Come here and spend five days learning French in the heart of the mediaeval city – not with grammar books but with the local culture,” he told me. “You can learn French around wine tasting, painting, medieval history and gastronomy. In the afternoon you can visit the historic sites.” That certainly beats the boring old French lessons I had at school!
Jean François also offers living history sessions through medieval re-enactment. You can learn how people dressed, worked, ate and lived in 13th century France. “Everything we show is based on archaeological sources and nothing is made up. We try to erase what people have seen in the movies. Robin Hood is not dressed in leather! People like it. They can learn history and it’s fun and interactive.”
Each November, to coincide with the big French TV fundraising Telethon, the squares of the old town are filled with people wearing traditional medieval clothes demonstrating games, crafts and working practices of the period. Jean François, dressed in the robes of a Norman nobleman, took me to meet a volunteer who was making coins using traditional metalworking techniques. He explained that each French city used to produce its own version of the denier currency, which preceded the franc.
You can also learn about cooking and herbs from the era and how different food would have tasted. Later in the afternoon there were reconstructed fights using maces, axes and swords – the main weapons of the time. “Some of these volunteers have been doing re-enactments for up to twenty years. They know their job!” explained Jean François.
Today, there are just forty residents in the double-walled medieval city. Adelaide Pujol grew up in the citadel. She is a member of the family that runs the incredible Hôtel de la Cité, contained within the city walls. We met for coffee in the lounge of this stylish hotel. As we chat, I could sense Adelaide’s pride in the business. “Our mother created our hotel group fifty years ago,” Adelaide told me. Today, three siblings work together in the hotel group.
“This has always been a hotel,” said Adelaide. “It was built in 1909 at the old Bishop’s Palace in front of the church. The hotel had two major renovation phases, in 1913 and 1927. When you get inside, you feel the special atmosphere and see the décor – a mix of neo-Gothic and Art Deco.” Hôtel de la Cité was popular with wealthy and important French and British travellers in the early 20th-century. It offered a place to break the journey between the stylish west coast resort of Biarritz and the French Riviera. “We had a lot of famous customers. I have signatures in the golden book from Churchill, Grace Kelly and Walt Disney,” Adelaide told me.
We went on a tour of the property. The twisting stone staircases in the turrets create an enchanting atmosphere. You really do feel like you’re staying in a castle. This was the second ‘wow’ moment of my trip.
When you enter the hotel’s expansive dining room you are transported back to the Roaring 20s. Its chandeliers and wood-panelled walls create an air of splendour and sophistication. The lounge, with its dark wood shelves stacked high with books, is reminiscent of a gentlemen’s club. This room inspired Kate Moss to write her best selling novel, Labyrinth.
Hôtel de la Cité offers those special touches that make the difference between a good hotel and an extraordinary hotel. The rooms are stunning – the walls of my room were painted with artwork depicting scenes from medieval life. Each room features a Nespresso machine – a welcome addition. You’re not always guaranteed to find drinks facilities in French hotel rooms.
I’ve another example of the hotel’s customer service. When I went to the front desk to enquire where I could buy a battery for my camera, the receptionist greeted me by name, even though I had not met her before. Instead of directing me to the nearest shop, she asked which type of battery I needed and then opened a drawer and presented me with one, at no charge! “The service is very important. It’s one of our pillars,” Adelaide explained. “We think that our employees are engaged and that’s important to deliver a good service. All of our staff are trained in this hotel. Staff are free to be creative to deliver service.”
There’s a lot to enjoy outside the hotel. There’s a tree-shaded swimming pool, for summertime stays. The hotel gardens are a beautiful place to relax. They run alongside the castle ramparts and offer breath-taking views of the adjacent fortress towers and over the lower town. There are spa and exercise packages on offer too. The staff can arrange jogging sessions around the ramparts but I’d leave worrying about the weight loss until you return home. Carcassonne is renowned for its excellent restaurants.
Hôtel de la Cité’s executive chef Jerôme Ryon has held a Michelin star for ten years. I dined in the hotel’s restaurant and enjoyed the excellent staff service as they explained the geographic and historic heritage of every course. The lobster with vermicelli was superb. I could happily eat it every day for the rest of my life! I was told that it is a recipe that hails from nearby Perpignan.
The next day, I spoke with Jerôme. “We use seasonal food and it’s all from France, sometimes from Normandy, sometimes from the mountains, the Alps or the Mediterranean. We use fresh ingredients and, in season, we use our garden vegetables to prepare the local dish of cassoulet.” Carcassonne is proud of cassoulet. You’ll see signs referring to a ‘Cassoulet Trail’ – businesses where you can sample the dish.
Jerome offers his interpretation of this recipe and told me what is in the Carcassonne variety. “It is pork stock with local, white beans cooked in a casserole dish in the oven,” he told me. “There are three different types of cassoulet eaten in this region. Some use pork, some use pork and lamb but in Carcassonne the cassoulet meat is pork, lamb and duck.”
Just a two-minute walk from the hotel, along the twisting streets, you’ll find more fine French cuisine in Comte Roger. The restaurant is modern in design and on warm days you can dine in the courtyard patio area. Chef Pierre Mesa has perfected his signature desert over thirty years – white wine ice cream. “I use a local sweet wine. It is made with small grapes that are very aromatic,” he told me.
I was keen to sample the unique tastes of this region and Pierre didn’t let me down. My excellent meal at Comte Roger began with a local, aromatic aperitif called kina, made with tree bark.
Craft aperitifs are popular in Carcassonne. Back at the Hôtel de la Cité, I met cocktail bar manager, Gaetan Thabourin. He’s returned home to Carcassonne after a spell in Manchester, where he’s perfected a good impression of the local accent! As he made me a ‘dark and stormy’ he explained the history of these drinks. “Any area of France traditionally had a herb-based liqueur, which was often used to cure illnesses. These were traditionally made by monks. By the 19th century people started to make the liqueurs themselves, then commercially to be sold.”
Gaet is at the front of this local drinks movement with his own aperitif. He has worked with a business partner to create Carcassonne’s first commercially available local vermouth. It’s called Rigolot, which means ‘funny.’ The stylish bottle design was inspired by a wartime saccharine syrup, which was introduced when sugar was in short supply. “It is made with rosemary, grown in my garden at the hotel,” he explained. “There’s orange peel, tonics, local wines and spices.” It is Gaet’s own recipe and is made without preservatives and artificial colourings. It was bitter at first, then my senses were flooded by different tastes, including orange and warming spices.
I walked across the bridge to the new town. It’s pleasant, with some interesting churches but there’s not too much to see – a typical, French, small town. But one of the weekly highlights is the local farmers’ market, which fills the streets leading from the central square early on Saturdays. It’s worth rising early to see the stalls laid out with colourful veg, a vast choice of locally-caught seafood, cheeses and, you’ve guessed it, more aperitifs.
Ten minutes walk from the market, you’ll find the Canal du Midi. The 150 mile-long waterway passes through the town on its journey between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. King Louis XI’s 17th century feat of engineering is another UNESCO-recognised heritage site. Today, narrowboats gently cruise along at a top speed of 6kmph. You’ll see them tied up at the quayside, opposite the railway station. You can also hire bikes for the five-day cycle tour along the entire length of the towpath.
My trip to Carcassonne was at an end. As I boarded the train for the hour-long journey to Toulouse, I read the words of a poem written by French songwriter Nadaude, which include the lines, My prayer will ne’er fulfilment know, I never have seen Carcassonne. He is saying that you should see the city before you die. I think you should take his advice.
Avoid the crowds – see Carcassonne out of season and enjoy warming cassoulet with a stay at Hôtel de la Cité, within the walls. To reach Carcassonne you can take a two-hour flight with Ryanair from Stansted for as little as £30. Or fly to nearby Toulouse and take the short train ride.