Carcassonne is most often described as a walled Medieval town in the Languedoc region of southwest France. There are, in fact, two Carcassonnes: the famous walled City (cité) and the adjacent town of about 45,000 people.
Carcassonne is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Carcassonne is said to now (2006) be the most-visited site in France, surpassing even Mont Saint-Michel. Since the bulk of the visitors here arrive mid-day or later, we strongly advise a morning start to your visit.
Parking. The pay parking lots adjacent to the fortified "cité" are well organized and only a short walk to the entrance.
Carcassonne Walled City
While the history of Carcassonne dates back to Roman times, the current fortified "Medieval" structure was actually designed and built in the later half of the 19th century [see History, below]. A beautiful job was done, though, and Carcassonne City has a true Medieval look.
Walk the Double Walls.
Enter inside the outer walls and walk around the circumference of the fortified town (over an hour's walk) for the most impressive feeling of the defenses and the architecture. You'll also have good views from the frequent apertures at the surrounding countryside and the town of Carcassonne spread out below to the west.
Inside the inner walls, the stone streets and buildings are very Medieval, with narrow cobblestone street and ancient buildings. The interior "village" area inside the walls of La Cité is quite large, and you'll need the whole day to explore all of it.
The little squares filled with souvenir shops and café-restaurants reminded us of, for example, villages like St Paul-de-Vence and Les Baux-de-Provence. This is in the way of an observation rather than a criticism. The cafés especially can be quite welcoming after some hours of exploring the cité.
The Place Marou is packed with terrace restaurants, filling the square. Prices are moderate and reasonable, and the choice is fairly extensive, from pizza to the regional dishes of cassoulet and magret de canard.
The Count's Castle
Cost. Entry into the fortified "cité" of Carcassonne is free. Only the inner Castle, with its museum-style displays charges admission: about 6.50 euros (2006); extra for the multi-lingual audio guides.
The Basilique Saint-Nazaire is 11th and 12th centuries, but is on the site of a 6th-century church. Among the historical interior sites are stained-glass windows from the 13th and 14th centuries.
Prehistoric: The area around Carcassonne had settlements dating back to 3500 BC.
Celto-Ligurian: The current walled Carcassonne is on the hilltop site of a fortified oppidum of the Celtic/Gaul tribe Volcae Tectosage, and was an important trading site in the 6th century BC.
Gallo-Roman: The romans fortified the same site about 100 BC as the colonia (outpost) of Julia Carsaco. The name Julia Carsaco was later transformed into Carcasum. In 453, king Theodoric II of the Visigoths took control of Carcassonne, and nine years later the Romans ceded the entire Languedoc-Roussillon area (then Septimania) to Theorodic II.
Medieval: King Theodoric II enlarged Carcassonne, building more fortifications, and probably an earlier basilica at the site of the current basilica Saint Nazaire. The Merovingian King Clovis I [see Kings] attacked Carcassonne repeatedly in 508, unsuccessfully. In 725, the Saracens captured Carcassonne and held it for 34 years, being driven out in 759 by King Pepin the Short (aka Pippin the Younger). By 760, Kink Pepin had driven out the Saracens and had taken control of the South of France, but couldn't capture Carcassonne.
By the beginning of the 13th century, Carcassonne had become a stronghold of the Cathars, and was targeted by the Roman Catholic Church's Cathar Crusade (or Albigensian Crusade). A two week siege (1-15 August, 1209) ended with the town's surrender, and the Cathar inhabitants and refugees were expelled naked or nearly naked. But at least they weren't slaughtered — a variant solution popular in the Middle Ages.
In 1240, Carcassonne withstood a siege by Raimon Trencavel during the later Cathar wars, trying to reclaim the lands taken from his family when he was an infant. Seven years later, Carcassonne submitted to the rule of the Catholic French kingdom, under King Louis IX (Saint-Louis) [Kings].
Louis IX built the new town part of Carcassonne, and he and his successor, Philip III (the Bold) built the outer ramparts of the fortress. In 1335, during the Hundred Years' War, the Black Prince (England's Prince of Wales, Edward of Woodstock) destroyed the lower town but failed to capture the walled city.
The province of Roussillon, along with Carcassonne, was joined to the Kingdom of France with the Treaty of Pyrenees in 1659. The site thus lost it's military importance and the fortifications were abandoned.
More Recently: During the time of Napoleon and the Restoration, Carcassonne was struck from the list of official fortifications. The fortified cité fell into such ruin that, in 1849, the French government decreed that it would be demolished.
There was a general uproar about demolishing the site, and a campaign to preserve the fortress was led by the mayor (an antiquary), Jean-PIerre Cros-Mayrevieille and the first inspector of ancient monuments (and writer) Prosper Mérimée. The architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was commissioned to renovate the fortified city, and the result is still there for us all to see.
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