Carcassonne consists of two towns: the Bastide St-Louis (also known as Ville Basse, or “Lower City”), and the UNESCO World Heritage Site upper town, or medieval Cité, which is among the major attractions in France. The impressive fortifications here consist of inner and outer walls, a double line of ramparts with walkways between them called les lices. The city began in the 6th century B.C., was later settled by the Romans and Visigoths, then became the main city of the Languedocian family, the Trencavels and its prosperity was ensured.
The epic medieval poems “Chansons de Geste” tell how the city got its name. During a siege by Charlemagne when the city was under Muslim rule, the starving populace was near surrender until a local noblewoman, Dame Carcas, reputedly gathered up the last of their grain, fed it to a sow, and tossed the pig over the ramparts. The pig burst, scattering the grain. Dame Carcas then demanded a parley and cried, “Carcas te sonne!” (“Carcas is calling you!”) The Franks, concluding that Carcassonne must have unlimited food supplies, ended their siege. Like all such stories, it is not checkable and almost certainly apocryphal.
Carcassonne’s walls were further fortified by the vicomtes de Trencavel in the 12th century but the town was taken during the Albigensian Crusade by anti-Cathar troops under Simon de Montfort. In 1249 the city passed to Louis IX who laid out the ville basse. It was razed to the ground in 1355 by the English Black Prince during the Hundred Years War, then rebuilt by the citizens. By the mid-17th century, the city had lost its position as a strategic frontier, and the ramparts were quarried for their stones. But interest in the Middle Ages revived, and the government ordered Viollet-le-Duc (the restorer of Notre-Dame in Paris) to repair and, where necessary, rebuild the walls. He took considerable license when rebuilding the citadel to incorporate various very un-medieval features. But what does that matter? Carcassonne casts its spell on all who come here.
In the highest part of the Cité, on rue Cros Mayrevielle, you’ll find the Château Comtal, pl. du Château (www.carcassonne.monuments-nationaux.fr; tel. 04-68-11-70-72), a restored 12th-century fortress defended by Raymond Trencavel then surrendered to the Crusaders in 1209. It’s open April through September daily 10am to 6:30pm, October through March daily 9:30am to 5pm. Entrance includes an obligatory 45-min. guided tour, in French and broken English but it’s the only way to climb onto the city’s inner ramparts. You see the archaeological remnants discovered on-site, and an explanation of the 19th-century restorations. Entry is 9€ for adults, 7€ ages 18 to 25, and free for children 17 and under.
The major church, Basilique St-Nazaire, pl. de l’Eglise (tel. 04-68-25-27-65), dates from the 11th to the 14th centuries and contains some beautiful stained-glass windows including two exceptional rose windows. It has other attractions: a soaring Romanesque nave, a gothic choir and transept, and the original tombstone of Simon de Montfort. The 16th-century organ is one of the oldest in southwestern France. The basilica is open Monday through Saturday 9am to noon and 2 to 7pm, Sunday 9am to 10:45am and 2 to 5pm. It closes slightly earlier in winter. Mass is celebrated on Sunday at 11am. Admission is free.
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