I knew I’d be in a little bit of a slump when I returned from the big summer break – after all, that’s the end of my vacation time until the Christmas shutdown and there are virtually no holidays until then either, so no big fall adventures for me!
After intending to visit Carcassonne twice, I finally made it there though! I looked online and realized that I could leave a little early on Friday and fit it in over a weekend, which felt like a decent amount of time given the weather. I decided to stay in the “new town,” which was set up at the end of the 13th century after the French King decided to isolate the castle and tear down the housing that was built along the city walls.
I didn’t regret the choice – most residents no longer live in the old city (our guide said only 49 people still live there) and it gave me a taste of normal life in the town. Plus, the best views of the castle were from the Old Bridge, which I crossed to approach the old city (see above). It’s a pedestrian bridge and a lovely walk over the river. Don’t forget a stop at Kristin’s! I had an excellent pain au chocolat (although they’re called chocolatine down South) and an espresso for 2,45€.
The weather decided to be nasty my first day, so I headed for the chateau. The city of Carcassonne has a fascinating history, much of which I learned during my city tour later, but the audio guide here was also informative. I highly recommend the 8€ city pass – a tour is included free, plus it offers 2€ off the chateau price (then 6€) and a free apéritif at many restaurants. The tour alone was certainly worth 8€ in my opinion.
During my time in France, I’ve seen many chateaus, but the word isn’t a direct translation to “castle” – Carcassonne is DEFINITELY a castle! It’s also a great fortified city that has been occupied since the Neolithic, although the current structure only dates back in part to when the Romans settled here around 100 BC (there is a standing Gallo-Roman rampart); however, the Visigoths also played a part in the fortifications of the city after they gained control in 453 AD.
Carcassonne was then held by the Saracens (Arabs), but only briefly as it was taken a mere 34 years later by the King of the Franks (Pepin the Short) in 759 AD. This is the kingdom from which the name of the country, people and language derives. The history of Carcassonne in this way reflects the history of France, which was largely populated by Celtic Gauls and when people refer to the “Gallic shrug,” it is this heritage they are referencing. The Gauls were later absorbed into the Roman Empire (after protracted war), before Germanic peoples (Visigoths and Franks) conquered the territory and “France” became part of the Frankish Empire.
A tragic part of Carcassonne’s history began in 1067 AD, when the Trencavel’s became the viscounts of the city. The family was fairly accepting of the Cathars practicing their religion in Carcassonne. The Cathars didn’t believe that a church building was necessary to be Christian and specifically turned their backs on the wealth of the Catholic Church. They also believed in the equal treatment of women! Clearly, this was heretical and had to be stopped!!! (My thoughts on this are accurately reflected by the lovely face below, which graces the outside of the Catholic Basilica)
In 1209, the only Crusade against other Christians was carried out by the Catholic Church against the Cathars. Due to their tolerance of the Cathars, the Trencavel viscount was imprisoned while trying to negotiate the city’s surrender and died “mysteriously” shortly after. The Cathars were ejected from the city with nothing.
While many have heard of the Spanish Inquisition, did you know that there was an inquisition in France as well? It began in 1233 and the inquisitor’s house still stands in Carcassonne today (in the part of town shown below). The description of the torture and prison conditions “maintained” by the inquisitor were appalling. This is a part of history that I knew very little about before my visit, so I appreciated that the guide shared it.
Despite this sad and unique history, Carcassonne was nearly demolished at one point! I will post a part two with more about this lovely city, how it fell into disrepair and how it was restored to become the UNESCO World Heritage Site that it is today. Plus, a little about the “new town,” the basilica and a few quick tips to help you make the most of your visit!