It’s funny how blogging can feel like a drought, followed by monsoons – sometimes the ideas just flow and the things that I’ve been seeing and doing lend themselves easily to a post. At other times, it feels like nothing of interest to a broader audience has been going on.
After recovering from my illness, the ideas are flowing! So much has happened – Carcassonne, an annual weekend where you can visit areas normally closed to the public (next week’s post) and finding a local group of ex-pats close to my age. I actually have blog ideas now through early January!
So, back to Carcassonne. If you’re interested in quick tips, you can skip to the bottom. Otherwise, here’s more about the town: In addition to the “people” history, the castle itself shows signs of the many eras that it stood, which was highlighted during the walking tour. First, the guide pointed out the unusual triangle shape to the towers, which helped prevent catapults from destroying the whole tower. On later towers, the different stone marked different periods of building; however, there are still some windows left in the older, larger style (see back tower). These were used for spears, but once crossbows came into regular use, they posed a threat to the men inside and they were bricked up, like the one you see on the tower in the front of the second photo.
There are also square holes all along the tops of the castle, which were used to construct temporary wooden structures for archers with narrow gaps in the bottom, so they could drop stones on you if you tried to sneak under them. We also saw the secret passage that used to link to an outer defensive tower. It would allow soldiers to reach the tower, even if the castle was under siege. Sadly, this tower was not part of the renovation.
A significant change occurred in Carcassonne under the Frankish rule, which was the building of the lower city (or new city) in the mid-1200s; however, it was burnt to the ground in 1355 during the Hundred Years War. This is not the end of the lower city though, and Carcassonne is effectively two cities for a period of time. They even end up part of the religious wars when the lower city becomes Protestant, while the “Cité” remained Catholic.
Until the 1600s, Carcassonne had strategic importance due to the border with the Kingdom of Aragon (formerly existed in Northern Spain); however, in 1659, a region North of the Pyrénées became part of France. This meant that Carcassonne was safely in the middle of French territory and having a fortified city was no longer of strategic importance. The city began its long decline after this time. In 1849, the French government decided to demolish the ancient Cité.
Clearly, the town wasn’t destroyed since you’re reading a post about my visit there! This was due to a campaign to preserve it as a historical monument and Viollet-le-Duc performed the renovations. While they are not 100% historically accurate, he was criticized at the time for decisions that have since been proven out as correct!
While I was in the Languedoc (which derives literally from “Langue d’Oc” or “language of Oc” because the region of Occitanie once spoke Occitan), I thought I’d try a regional classic dish – cassoulet. Now, I’m certain that experts in the dish could pick apart the version that I had; however, I go purely on taste alone – it was delicious! Best thing I ate in Carcassonne! I was nervous before trying it because I haven’t liked duck very much, but the dish is baked in an oven and the skin of the duck and sausage was crispy. The duck at La Brasserie le Donjon was not overly fatty and I really enjoyed it!
It’s a perfect dish for a cold, rainy day as well. And the weather chose to turn particularly bad as I headed back to the lower town. The basilica was closed for a wedding/baptism, so it was an earlier day than I’d expected. Fortunately, it was during the prime time to stop off for a mid-afternoon beverage, so I was enjoying a diabolo (flavored sparkling water) when the rain struck. The guide also warned that they have over 300 days of wind per year and I saw several lost hats on top of one castle roof! I’m sure the winds are welcome in the hot summers though.
By the time that I returned to my hotel, the weather was already gorgeous though, so don’t let a little rain discourage you from visiting. You can see below that my Ibis hotel was right on a lovely pedestrian park area that appeared to cover a parking garage.
A few more pictures before the quick tips. Two are of the basilica interior, which was pretty similar to others that I’ve seen . . . except when four men went up and started signing a cappella and they were amazing! The third is of Canal du Midi – someday I plan an adventure to take a boat up the canal; however, it’s a two man job . . . so we’ll see when that comes together!
- Food: If you aren’t staying in the Cité, Kristin’s is a great, inexpensive stop for a standard French breakfast of pastries and espresso (they have larger coffees, mochas, etc also).
- Food: Be cautious about where you eat lunch and dinner! Any city that does a brisk tourist trade will have some good and some REALLY bad choices. There were several restaurants with a similar regional menu posted on black boards (at reasonable prices); however, a quick look online showed consistently poor reviews and averaged 1-2 stars. If you want to stay in the Cité, I found La Brasserie le Donjon to be decent food at reasonable prices. The gazpacho was a little bland, but otherwise, I was happy with the food and service.
- Language: Many of the tourist sites here speak English and Spanish, in addition to French.
- Site-seeing: I would recommend the 8€ City Pass for your first visit. It includes a free 90 minute tour, which I thought was a good introduction to the history of the city and pointed out things that I wouldn’t have taken notice of. I also received a free aperitif, which was offered with the purchase of a menu at many restaurants in town. Additionally, you receive 2€ off entrance to the chateau.
- Site-seeing: Get your chateau tickets as soon as it opens (before the line is huge). You can re-enter all day long and you have to re-enter twice to see both ramparts anyway. You can only get the audioguide once though (additional 3€), so turn your ticket in for it when you have time to complete the full chateau tour.
- Lodging: The hotels in the Cité are 4-5* and very expensive. There are hotels just outside the Cité at more reasonable prices; however, the train station is a 30 minute walk away, so be sure that you check the location carefully. I didn’t think of an AirBnB when I booked my trip, but that may be a good alternative if you want a more affordable option within the Cité. There was also a youth hostel in a great location (with some private 2-6 person rooms); however, I can’t vouch for the quality.
- Cars: Car traffic is pretty limited in the Cité, but I did see a few. It is possible they are special vehicles for the hotels or something similar . . . in other words, if you stay in the Cité, be sure to ask about vehicle access and parking if you plan to drive.
Note: I am not compensated for my recommendations, so these are all based on my personal experience. If I were offered any compensation in the future, it would be clearly stated in the review/tip.