Carcassonne - La Cité
A guide to the citadel of Carcassonne
Car: Exit 23 on the A61 (Carcassonne Ouest)
Foot: 20 minutes on foot from the train station
GPS: Latitude : 43.2073, Longitude : 2.3633
Official car park: Paid
Château Comptal & Ramparts: Paid
Open daily except Jan 1, May 1, Nov 1 & 11, Dec 25
Winter: (Oct 1 – 31 March) 9:30 – 5pm
Summer: 1 April – Sept 30 – 10 – 6:30pm
Best times to visit: July 14th for the fireworks, June & September (to beat the crowds)
Cathars vs Catholics – The medieval citadel at Carcassonne, known as ‘La Cité’, dominates Languedoc’s tourism map. It is huge, encompassing no less than 53 towers, strung together by two enormous concentric walls, surrounded by a moat, and punctuated here and there by heavy barbicans, portcullis and draw-bridges. Within these fairy-tale fortifications sits a castle, a basilica (church), and a small town. The cite is located on the top of a hill, giving it superb views of the modern city of Carcassonne to the west, the Aude river and Canal du Midi to the north, and the often-snow-capped Pyrénées to the south.
Such Medieval extravagance has made the citadel at Carcassonne France’s second-most popular tourist attraction, and visitors from all over the world are bussed in, to stroll around what has become the world’s largest medieval theme-park, and one of France’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
But don’t get too excited. Carcassonne isn’t the all-conquering tourism experience it might seem from a distance. Arguments rage about whether it has been over-restored, or even badly-restored. And the centre is a bit of a Disneyesque ensemble of overpriced shops selling cheesy trinkets and nougat. It also sports more than its fair share of mediocre restaurants (but if you know where to go, you can also have an excellent meal).
So should you bother? Of course you should. You’ll never get another chance to see Medieval (and Roman) military architecture on this scale, and the view of the castle from a distance, as well as of the modern city and mountains from the citadel itself, is unforgettable. The trick is, like so many of Languedoc’s monuments, to visit Carcassonne in the right way.
How to visit the citadel at Carcassonne
1 Come early or late
Firstly, don’t visit it in the middle of the day. You’ll get trampled by crowds of tourists, end up hot and bothered, and have to suffer lunch within La Cité itself – which you’ll probably find over-priced and rather ordinaire. Instead, come early in the morning (it opens at 10am), or better still, arrive in the late afternoon (it closes at 6:30pm).
2 View it from afar
Carcassonne is best viewed from a distance. The best spot to take photos of the castle is from the west (either from the A61 Motorway ‘aire’ and/or from the old bridge over the River Aude), and the light is far better in the evening, lighting the castle up with a warm glow (rather than in the morning, when the light is behind the castle.) It’s this view of the battlements from a distance that is the most memorable part of a trip to the citadel, because once you’re up to and in it, the sense of scale is lost somewhat. We’d recommend walking from the modern city of Carcassonne, over the old bridge, up the hill to the citadel. It only takes 20 minutes.
3 Start with a ‘List’
Enter the walls at the Porte Narbonnaise, and instead of walking straight across the drawbridge into the ‘town’, turn left into the ‘list’ – the gap between the two sets of walls. You can hop on a horse-drawn carriage from here should you want, for a guided tour – or simply walk. From here, you’ll get a great sense of the sheer scale of the walls, as well as the mix of materials used over the centuries – from thin Roman bricks to piled up Medieval river stone to the more ordered blocks used in the 19th century restoration. Turn right when you get to the Porte St Nazaire, and you’ll enter the town at the southern end, where you’ll find the Cathedral St Nazaire. It’s a beautiful structure and worth a quick visit – although apart from some magnificent windows, it’s rather grey inside. It was once the main cathedral that served the two towns but it was de-consecrated when Napoleon’s men rode on horseback into the sacred space. The more simple church of St Michel in the Bastide de St Louis, down in the ‘new’ city, was subsequently up-graded to ‘cathedral’.
4 The ramparts walk
From here, wander towards the Château Comptal – the ‘heart’ of the fortified city. You’ll have to pay to enter, but it’s definitely worth it. We’d recommend hiring an audio-guide – rather than taking a guided tour. The ticket you buy for access to the château will also give you access to the ramparts, which we felt were the most magical part of our visit to the citadel. The views from the ramparts are superb, both out across the new city, river, canal and Pyrénées, but also inward across the rooves and terraces of the citadel itself. You’ll pass through some of the U-shaped Roman towers on this walk, with their distinctive pink brick and shallow terracotta rooves, as well as the massive medieval towers with their steep slate rooves and narrow arrow ‘loopholes’.
5 The Château Comptal
Now walk back to the château itself – and start your audio-guided tour. It will give you some interesting background to the fortifications’ history, and it proves very useful when you watch the short film about Carcassonne inside the château – as your audio-guide translates it from French.
6 A final wander
Once you’re done, exit the château and take some time just wandering around the ‘town’ and browse the shops. About 120 people live within la Cité, which has a post office, a school and a hotel alongside its bistros and restaurants. Additionally, there is an open air theatre, a macabre museum related to the Cathars (with instruments of torture) and some unusual sweet and gift shops.
Carcassonne entertains an active cultural life – enjoyed by both the French and tourists of many a nation. There are regular pageants and spectacular Bastille Day celebrations; the Festival de la Cité runs through July and ‘open air’ medieval theatre performances mark the first half of August.
At the feet of the fortified Cité is the more expansive lower city; with the River Aude, meandering through the Canal du Midi, adding romance to the whole of Carcassonne. Another World Heritage Site (1996), the Canal links the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and is a marvellous springboard for further adventures.
Well worth reading for its historical allusions to Carcassonne is the novel Sepulchre by Kate Mosse. But it is her earlier novel, Labyrinth, which takes us back in time to those dark, terrifying medieval days when the Cathars were destroyed.
Allegorically speaking, their time has come again; they are remembered throughout The Aude and as minds open to a broader perspective, children are also learning to speak the Occitan language – regarded as the original language in this area.
Sounding a last note, it’s easy to see why Walt Disney was inspired by Carcassonne for his film Sleeping Beauty.