Right on the main Toulouse–Montpellier train link, Carcassonne couldn’t be easier to reach. For anyone travelling through this region it is a must – one of the most dramatic, if also most-visited, towns in the whole of Languedoc. Carcassonne owes its division into two separate “towns” to the wars against the Cathars. Following Simon de Montfort’s capture of the town in 1209, its people tried in 1240 to restore their traditional ruling family, the Trencavels. In reprisal, King Louis IX expelled them from the Cité, only permitting their return on condition they built on the low ground by the River Aude – what would become the ville basse.
The attractions of the well-preserved and lively ville basse notwithstanding, everybody comes to Carcassonne to see the Cité, the double-walled and turreted fortress that crowns the hill above the River Aude. From a distance it’s the epitome of the fairy-tale medieval town. Viollet-le-Duc rescued it from ruin in 1844, and his “too-perfect” restoration has been furiously debated ever since. It is, as you would expect, a real tourist trap. Yet, in spite of the chintzy cafés, crafty shops and the crowds, you’d have to be a very stiff-necked purist not to be moved at all.
There is no charge for admission to the streets or the grassy lices – “lists” – between the walls, though cars are banned from 10am to 6pm. However, to see the inner fortress of the Château Comtal and walk the walls, you’ll have to join a guided tour. These assume some knowledge of French history, and point out the various phases in the construction of the fortifications, from Roman and Visigothic to Romanesque and the post-Cathar adaptations of the French kings.
Don’t miss the beautiful church of St-Nazaire, towards the southern corner of the Cité at the end of rue St-Louis. It’s a serene combination of nave with carved capitals in the Romanesque style and a Gothic choir and transepts, along with some of the loveliest stained glass in Languedoc. In the south transept is a tombstone believed to belong to Simon de Montfort. You can also climb the tower for spectacular views over the Cité.
A major summertime event worth catching is the Festival de Carcassonne from late June to mid-August, featuring world-class dance, theatre and music. The high point is the mammoth fireworks display on Bastille Day (July 14).