797km (495 miles) SW of Paris; 150km (93 miles) SW of Montpellier

This great fortress city rises against the dramatic background of the Montagne Noire, the Black Mountain, to the north. Carcassonne captures a type of fairy-tale magic, evoking bold knights and fair damsels, but back in its heyday in the Middle Ages it was the target of assault by battering rams, catapults, flaming arrows, and more. Today, the city -- which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site -- is overrun with hordes of visitors and gift shops. However, the elusive charm of Carcassonne comes out in the evening, when day-trippers depart and floodlights bathe the ancient monuments.

Carcassonne is also a major stop along the Canal du Midi, that marvel of engineering that runs for 240km (150 miles) from the Garonne River at Toulouse all the way to the Mediterranean Sea at Sète. A 17th-century minor noble, Pierre-Paul Riquet, became obsessed with the idea of linking the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and devoted decades of his life and all of his fortune to make his plan a reality. Unfortunately, he died just months before the canal was officially opened in 1681. Although the arrival of the railways in the 19th century eroded much of the canal traffic, nowadays it is one of the most pleasurable ways of exploring this part of France. Barge companies run independent or skippered cruises along the full length of the canal, or you can just take short circular jaunts from ports in Carcassonne and other towns along the route. Its wide towpaths make it popular for cyclists and walkers who appreciate the combination of flat terrain and plenty of scenic restaurant stops along the way.