Carcassonne consists of two towns: the Bastide St-Louis (also known as the Ville Basse or Lower City) and the medieval Cité. The former is a pleasant grid of streets and squares, while the latter is among the major attractions in France. The fortifications consist of the inner and outer walls, a double line of ramparts. The Visigoths built the inner rampart in the 5th century. Clovis, king of the Franks, attacked it in 506 but failed to breach the fortifications. The Saracens overcame the city in 728, but Pepin the Short (father of Charlemagne) drove them out in 752.
The epic medieval poems Chansons de Geste tell the tale of the origin of the town's name. During a siege by Charlemagne, the populace of the city was starving and near surrender until a local noblewoman, Dame Carcas, reputedly gathered up the last of their wheat, stuffed it into the last remaining pig and threw the animal over the ramparts. The pig's stomach burst, scattering the wheat. Dame Carcas then ordered the trumpets sounded for a parley and cried, "Carcas sonne!" ("Carcas is calling!"). The Franks concluded that Carcassonne must have unlimited food supplies if its people were feeding precious grain to their pigs, and thus ended their siege. It's only a legend, of course, as Dame Carcas was the widow of a Saracen king and, being Muslim, would not have been likely to keep pigs.
Carcassonne's walls were further fortified during the crusades led by Simon de Montfort and Raymond Trencavel against the heretic Cathar sect. Those who survived the merciless assaults were allowed to build their bastide, a fortified town, in the Ville Basse below the citadel by the banks of the Aude River. They had to rebuild it in the 14th century when it was destroyed by England's Black Prince. By the mid-17th century the city had lost its position as a strategic frontier, and the ramparts were left to decay. In the 19th century, the builders of the Ville Basse began to remove the stone for use in new construction. As interest in the Middle Ages revived, the government ordered Viollet-le-Duc (who restored Notre-Dame in Paris) to repair and rebuild the walls. His reconstruction of the Cité, while maintaining medieval appearances, has been criticized over the decades as being too unreal, too Disney-like. However, this hasn't stopped millions of visitors from descending on La Cité to stroll around its cobbled streets and dine in its many restaurants.
In the highest elevation of the Cité, at the uppermost terminus of rue Principale (rue Cros Mayrevielle), you'll find the Château Comtal, place du Château (tel. 04-68-11-70-70), a restored 12th-century fortress. It's open daily from 10am to 6:30pm April to September, and from 10am to 5pm October to March; entrance includes a 45-minute guided tour in French and occasionally in English. The cost is 8.50€ for adults, 5€ for students and ages 18 to 25, and free for children 17 and under. During the tour, you'll discover archaeological remnants discovered on-site, plus an explanation of the 19th-century restorations.
Another important monument in the fortifications is the Basilique St-Nazaire, La Cité (tel. 04-68-25-27-65), dating from the 11th to the 14th centuries and containing some beautiful stained-glass windows and a pair of rose medallions. The nave is in the Romanesque style, and the choir and transept are Gothic. The 16th-century organ is one of the oldest in southwestern France. The 1266 tomb of Bishop Radulphe is well preserved. The cathedral is open in July and August daily 9am to 7pm, September to June daily 9am to noon and 1 to 5pm. Mass is celebrated on Sunday at 11am. Admission is free.
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