- Location: Aude Department, Languedoc-Roussillon region, France
- Significance: Medieval Fortified Castle
- Attraction Type: Fortification, Medieval city, History, Architecture, Basilica
- Timings: Between 9:30 am and 7:30 pm, though there can be changes depending on the time of the year. It is closed on January 1, May 1 and 11, and December 25.
- Admission Fee: Entry is free, but you have to buy tickets to visit the inner castle of the Chateau Comtal.
- How to Reach: Carcassonne Airport is well connected to a number of French and European destinations. You can also drive to Carcassonne from other parts of France, and then hike to the castle.
- Nearest Airport: Carcassonne Airport
The experience of being inside the Carcassonne is so similar to being within the premises of an authentic medieval castle, that you tend to forget that most of the parts were actually renovated in the late 19th century. The Carcassonne is, therefore, not only a great example of a medieval fortified city but also one of the wonders of restoration work. The scale and execution of the restoration of the castle by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc actually served as a model for subsequent restoration works on historical monuments ever since.
History of Carcassonne
The history of the Carcassone is long and checkered. The place was inhabited 3500 years back, and subsequently, the Gallo-Romans did build some kind of a fortification there. Thereafter, the city was controlled by Visigoths, comtes, vicomtes, and finally, it came under the Royal occupation. Every reign has left its mark on the city. However, towards the beginning of the 17th century, the city was abandoned and was on the verge of absolute ruin. The wealthy inhabitants started to leave the city and only the poor quarters were occupied by weavers, who started to fill houses with lice and the turned the towers into granaries and storehouses. In fact, it was by sheer fortune that the city escaped complete demolition.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the city was largely uninhabited, forgotten, overgrown with weeds and there were constructions along the ramparts that hid its splendor. All these factors together led the government into deciding a complete demolition of the castle. However, the efforts of Jean Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille, a notable historian who lived close to the city paid off. Architectural works started and the chapel of the bishop of Radulphe was carried out. He found a supporter in Prosper Merimee, writer and general inspector of historical monuments. Eugene Viollet-le-Duc was working on the restoration of the Saint Nazaire Cathedral, and soon he was entrusted with the task of restoring and rebuilding the entire city. In 1853, Napoleon approved of the project and agreed to grant funding for this massive reconstruction project. The state agreed to fund 90% of the project, with the local state authorities accounting for the remaining 10%.
Presently, Carcassonne is a great combination of authentic medieval constructions and later day reconstructions. However, both are blended so well together, that altogether they give the modern viewer the most authentic view of a medieval European fortress with a degree of completeness rarely found anywhere else. Although Viollet-le-Duc had his share of detractors who decried some of his plans and methods, yet by and large, his reconstruction is considered to be a marvelous work. Some of the greatest attractions of the Carcassonne are:
The Double Wall: Carcassonne is characterized by its double wall. The first wall was as old as the castle itself, leading back to the Gallo-Roman times. Gallo Roman influences are clear in this wall. The second, outer wall was built by the Royalists at a much later date. In between the walls, you can take a wall and marvel at the gates and the towers, which are absolutely magnificent.
The Count’s Castle: This is located in the center of the fortified castle, and is indicative of the opulence of the city during the feudal times. It is one of the most popular attractions in the fortified city of Carcassonne. There are some display galleries and museums inside the inner Castle, and you can also avail of a multi-lingual audio guide to help you through the castle.
The Gates and the Towers: There are four main gates in the inner wall of the Carcassonne, each oriented in the cardinal directions. Built at different times, the gates are in accordance with a wide variety of architectural styles. The towers were one of the hottest points of debates during the reconstruction of the fort. Viollet-le-Duc topped the towers with pointed slate roofs, which according to many were unauthentic, although Voiles was quick to defend his move. However, these witch’s hat like tower tops seen from a distance has now become one of the most characteristic and recognizable features of the Carcassonne castle, and nobody’s complaining.
Saint Nazaire Basilica: This is a Romanesque basilica built in sandstone. Few indications of the original 12th Carolingian construction remain, and what we see are large parts of a clever reconstruction. The later expansion in the 13th and 14th century brought in a Gothic splendor to the much simpler Romanesque style of the earlier times. Although Viollet-le-Duc radically rebuilt the church on the outside, the interiors continue to amaze with their vigorous amalgamation of Romanesque and Gothic styles.
Shops: Once inside the castle or ‘the Cite’, you will find a reconstructed village. A large number of shops selling hand made jewelry and other things that you may be interested in buying. There are many restaurants and cafes as well. The area is too wide to explore in a single day. Although a reconstruction of the medieval life is not possible, yet the inhabitants try to maintain the vibrancy to the very best of their abilities. The presence of numerous tourists (about two million visits it every year) no doubt adds to it.
Accommodation in Carcassonne
If you want to explore the city to the fullest and spend some time within the vestiges of a medieval castle, you can seek accommodation in one of the two hotels that are located actually within the city walls. Hotel de la Cite is located between the Roman Chateau Comtal or the Count’s Castle and the Basilica of Saint Nazaire. With its own beautiful gardens, stone walls and wood panellings, this hotel is the very epitome of luxury. Hotel Le Donjon is another hotel within the Cite premises. The rooms overlook the towers and it provides great hospitality. However, you will also find a number of budget and luxury accommodations in the modern city of Carcassonne, located at the foothills of the fortified castle.