Carcassonne & Cathar castles

Carcassonne – A tale of two Languedoc towns

When most people think of ‘Carcassonne’, they think of the massive medieval citadel sitting on the hill overlooking the ‘new town’ of Carcassonne. It’s no wonder the castle dominates the town in people’s minds – it is France’s second-most visited tourist spot after the Tour Eiffel, and most who visit it pour off their busses and then back on to them, never venturing into the slightly newer town across the river. The ‘new town’ has much to offer in terms of michelin star restaurants, shopping and markets, not to mention the stunning Canal Du Midi.

Carcassonne became strategically identified when Romans fortified the hilltop around 100 BC. In 1067, Carcassonne became the property of Raimond-Bernard Trencavel, visount of Albi and Nimes and the following centuries, they built the Château Comtal and the Basilica. In 1096, Pope Urban II blessed the foundation stones of the new cathedral. In 1659, the Treaty of the Pyrenees transferred the border province of Roussillon to France, and Carcassonne’s military significance was reduced. Fortifications were abandoned, and the city became mainly an economic centre that concentrated on the woollen textile industry. Carcassonne was struck off the roster of official fortifications under Napoleon and the Restoration, and the fortified cité of Carcassonne fell into such disrepair that the French government decided that it should be demolished. A decree to that effect that was made official in 1849 caused an uproar.

In 1853, works began with the west and southwest walling, followed by the towers of the porte Narbonnaise and the principal entrance to the cité. The restoration was strongly criticized during Viollet-le-Duc’s lifetime, the theorist and architect charged with its restoration. Fresh from work in the north of France, he made the error of using slates and restoring the roofs as point-free environment. Yet, overall, Viollet-le-Duc’s achievement at Carcassonne is agreed to be a work of genius, though not of the strictest authenticity.

La Cite was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1997. Consequently, Carcassone greatly profits from tourism but also counts manufacture and wine-making as some of its other key economical sectors.

To the north of Carcassonne is the pretty village of Caunes-Minervois, and beyond that the Cathar Castles of ‘Las Tours’. Further afield from Carcassonne is the rugged Corbières region to the south, peppered with pretty villages and some of France’s most atmospheric Medieval castles and abbeys.