A city break in Carcassonne
Updated: Oct 13, 2020
Carcassonne is the second most visited city in France after Paris, attracting almost four million visitors annually. It's not hard to see why: this perfectly preserved medieval walled city has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997 and is one of the largest fortifications of this type in Europe. This comes with a price: beautiful though it is, the tiny streets of the old town are completely thronged with tourists during the summer months and it can be hard to see past the tacky souvenir shops and tourist menus, complete with laminated pictures. But fear not: there is a way to get the best out of your experience without feeling like one of the herd. Here's how - you can start by crossing the river.
A city of two halves
When people talk about Carcassonne, it's likely they are referring to the medieval fortifications of La Cité, but there are in fact two sides to the city, separated by the River Aude. On the other side of the river to the west lies La Bastide Saint-Louis, made up of a grid of perpendicular streets which were once enclosed within 14th century walls though these are no longer standing. The outline is now marked by a series of boulevards which circle the so-called 'lower city'. It feels a million miles away from the overcrowded streets of La Cité, though it's a mere fifteen minutes' walk away. This is where we stayed - you can read about our beautiful apartment further down. And of course it makes sense that the best viewing point for your first glimpse of the silhouette of La Cité is from the other side - cross over the 14th century Pont Vieux with its wonderfully ornate ironwork and prepare to have your breath taken away. The best time is before sunset - the light is exquisite, casting a warm glow over the battlements.
The medieval city is enormous, enclosed by two concentric walls over 3kms long and is home to fifty two towers, the Basilica St Nazaire and the Château Comtal, among other impressive structures. We entered via the 13th century Narbonnaise Gate in the east and were greeted by this fine lady below.
It was late in the evening when we visited so taking a tour wasn't an option. Instead we just wandered aimlessly through the cobbled streets, drinking in the atmosphere and feeling like we were walking around the set of a real-life fairytale, surrounded by towers and drawbridges. I particularly loved the silhouettes as the light started to fade - picture-perfect wouldn't you say?
La Bastide Saint-Louis
Carcassonne felt less like a city and more like a large town to me. A couple of days is more than enough time to spend here so it makes for a perfect weekend break. We spent our first evening in La Cité and the rest of the time across the river exploring the warren of streets that make up La Bastide. The charming Place Carnot lies at the heart of it, home to the lovely Neptune fountain, and is filled with bars and restaurants catering more to locals than to tourists. Your chances of getting a great meal is significantly higher here than in the old town, and we particularly loved Le Bistrot d'Alice - you can read more about that below.
The impressive structure below is the Porte des Jacobins, rebuilt in 1779 on the site of the original 14th century gateway. Originally there were four of these gateways through the ramparts of La Bastide but this is only standing reminder of the original four. Boulevard Barbès marks what was once the southern rampart of the 'low town' and Porte des Jacobins is located just off this street, linking place Géneral de Gaulle with the lovely Rue Courtejaire.
Rue Courtejaire, seen below, is a good example of what you can expect to find when you cross the river - narrow cobbled streets, many of which are pedestrianised. This one was is particularly delightful with its myriad of colourful umbrellas providing much needed shade from the sun. Other streets had similarly colourful overhead canopies.
One of my favourite things about Carcassonne was the series of installations & public sculptures by artist Guy Ferrer in Place André Chénier on the northern side of La Bastide. We stumbled upon them completely by accident on our second day and I kept coming back to them again and again.
They form part of his Witnesses of Bronze - A sculptural walk in Carcassonne exhibition which runs until late September this year. The main piece, T.o.l.e.r.a.n.c.e, is made up of nine bronze sculptures, each representing a letter of the word. The work is a reference to the intolerance experienced by many in today's world and a comment on the political systems that promote and expound it. However his work has a positive message calling for communities to embrace each other's differences and beliefs and recognising the humans at the heart of it all.
They were certainly an unexpected delight in a part of the city that tourists tend to overlook. It always pays to wander.
Staying with Place André Chénier, this is one of main venues for the annual Carcassonne Festival which takes place in July. We were lucky enough to be there for part of it. It runs for almost a month with gigs and events happening all over town, both in La Cité and La Bastide. Some are ticketed with the likes of Sting and Christine and the Queens headlining this year. However we loved the fact that there were so many free gigs. Yes free. We overheard the band below sound-checking early in the afternoon and knew we had to come back and see them play that night.
As you can probably tell, there is no expense spared for the festival which is funded by their council and a number of partners. The set-up and rigging is so impressive and the sound was perfect for an outdoor gig. I can't tell you how pleasant it was to watch the sun go down over the city with a glass of wine in hand, listening to some seriously talented musicians - and all for free. If you can plan a trip to coincide with next year's festival, I'd highly recommend it.
There was a bar on site with beer and wine costing €3 a glass but you could also buy some at the supermarket across from the square. There was a security search at the main entrance point but they weren't particularly concerned about people bringing in a bottle of wine - a completely different attitude to Ireland. The whole thing was so utterly civilised and there wasn't an ounce of trouble or messy behaviour. We nipped off for some food close by and returned to see the main act Tiken Jah Fakoly You can get a little taster below. He was AMAZING!!!! The energy was phenomenal and the square at this point was now full of people, including families with their kids. We ended up bopping the night away and left with the biggest smiles on our faces. We only got a tiny glimpse of what was on offer but I would definitely consider coming back again next year to catch some more acts.
Down-time on Canal du Midi
Another great reason to visit Carcassonne is its access to the lovely Canal du Midi, the 17th-century waterway which runs across the northern part of La Bastide and can be accessed from a number of points including the aforementioned Place André Chénier. The canal was one of the main reasons for staying an extra night in Carcassonne as we had planned to rent bikes and cycle along the tree-lined paths I'd read about online. But it was not to be. Astoundingly, the bike rental place Generation VTT, which was up until recently located just at the harbour in front of the train station, had moved. But not just to another location along the canal. To the whole other side of the citadel and way out of town. We were told we'd need to drive there. And how would that work exactly with a rental car and no method of attaching two bikes to the back? Utterly bizarre. We don't know the story but there was some issue with the council which led to their closure. So FYI - if you're planning a visit to Carcassonne and have your heart set on cycling the canal route, you'll need to plan a bit further in advance.
There is one other bike rental outlet in town but they had no available bikes for three days. As you can imagine, all business is now going to them so they're very busy. They're called ALTER-Ride and are located at 16 Rue Courtejaire. I'd recommend getting in touch with them a few days in advance if you're going to be cycling. I had my heart set on seeing the canal though so we opted for a lazy option - a two-hour boat trip where we could sit back with the sun on our faces and follow the canal route as it made its way through those lush green plane trees. It's not the most exciting tour and the landscape doesn't change much from what you see below but it's so relaxing and a lovely way to spend an afternoon.
There are a number of boat tour operators located at the bridge at the harbour close to the train station, and all are offering something similar. It was €8 each and well worth it. The guide spoke three languages fluently and gave the tour in French, English and Spanish. Seriously impressive.
One of the most interesting parts of the tour was seeing how the canal locks system works - this is the method used for raising and lowering boats between stretches of water of different levels on the waterway. We were on the boat above as it was being held in the lock chamber between two large gates at either end, waiting for the level to meet the height of the water on the other side. It's fascinating that the old system is the one that works best and is still in operation.
Where to stay
This was our home away from home during our stay and I couldn't recommend it more highly. Located in the heart of La Bastide and a short walk from Place Carnot, this is one of three luxury apartments in a gorgeous building which dates to 1735. It's a listed and protected building which includes the original stone staircase.
We were greeted and shown around by one of the managers Chris who was extremely helpful and had loads of tips and advice for us. The apartment certainly has wow-factor - it's huge and the decor is stunning with an eclectic mix of styles, both old and contemporary. We loved it and felt at home straight away. There are huge shuttered windows looking out on the charming street below, the floors are polished parquet and the original plasterwork and mouldings are still intact.
The apartment is very well stocked with everything you could possibly need for your stay including coffee pots of varying sizes, proper wine and champagne glasses and even a Bluetooth speaker to listen to tunes. Not only that but we were provided with tea, coffee, milk, salt, pepper, olive oil and Balsamic as standard. Other apartment holders need to take note. It's a small thing but it makes all the difference. It can be such a pain to have to buy all your condiments when you're only going to use them for a few days. Thanks Chris and Peter. Oh and they very kindly left us a bottle of wine too. A classy touch.
The bed was really comfy with good linen and the bathroom had a rain shower. It felt like the lap of luxury and we loved coming back here in the evenings to relax before heading out for dinner. Such a beautiful apartment. We never wanted to leave it.
FOOD AND DRINK
26 Rue Chartrand
This was our favourite meal in Carcassonne. Everything about it was great, from the warm and friendly waiter to the super location, just off Place Carnot, and of course the excellent standard of food. We had a lovely table on the terrace across from the restaurant. Feeling the French vibes we started with two glasses of Champagne, a steel at €10 each.
It's a traditional French bistro so don't expect much in the way of vegetarian options. There are a limited number of fish options so it's very meat-centred but they were very accommodating. I started with this fantastic dish - saumon fumé which is a marinated salmon with a green salad and a creamy beetroot dressing. Doesn't sound like a natural pairing but it was perfect. Absolutely divine and the fish was so fresh.
Martin opted for a rabbit terrine for his starter and followed up with a lamb dish, accompanied by what I can only describe as the greatest Daupinoise potatoes I've ever tasted. I polished off at least half of his. He's a good husband. I can't say I would've shared them if they were mine.
I ordered their Salade Niçoise as a main course which came with huge chunks of freshly seared tuna as you can see above. We shared a bottle of Minervois, a wine from the region, which was smooth and very moreish. Also, very reasonably priced at €22 (it would cost a lot more than that in Dublin). We couldn't manage to squeeze in a dessert but topped everything off with two excellent coffees. The bill was a reasonable €106.
We had a lovely experience here and were very well looked after by the charming staff. It would be top of my list on a return visit.
Drinks with a view
Le Bar à Vins, 6 rue du Plô - Cité de Carcassonne
This is a seriously cool place for a drink. Located within the medieval city walls, this is a young and vibey bar with a huge outdoor courtyard and a DJ spinning tunes. Considering its location (yes that's the original wall of the citadel right beside our table), the drinks are very reasonably priced. Glasses of wine are €3. We may have tried a few... They are mostly from the Languedoc region which would be my usual choice when I'm at home: Corbiéres, Collioure, Minervois et al. Nice to not have to dig deep in our wallets for the pleasure.
The light on the buildings was pretty spectacular and we were a bit giddy with excitement (and a few too many glasses of rosé) at bagging an outdoor table. Talk about drinks with a view. Very cool.
You can fly direct to Carcassonne with Ryanair. There is a shuttle service available from airport to city centre serving a number of destinations. Read more here. We actually flew to Toulouse with Aer Lingus - we were ending our ten-day holiday in Toulouse and hiring a car for our entire stay so it was cheaper to rent and drop off a car from the same airport. Flights to Toulouse tend to be cheaper than flying to Carcassonne and it's a short drive - at 95 kilometres it takes just over an hour. Just another option.
There is free parking to be found in the evenings on many streets in La Bastide but we used a multistorey for the two days for convenience. There are good daily rates to be found. Ours cost €8 per day.
Day-trip to Lastours
A mere 13 kilometres from Carcassonne is the 12th-13th century complex of Lastours, high in the hills over the surrounding countryside. The picture probably speaks for itself - it's utterly breathtaking and a must-visit if you're in the area. The site is made up of four castles and a number of fortified villages which date all the way back to the 1100s. At the time they were known for their impregnability - not hard to see why. This is steep and difficult terrain, rocky and with perilous drops on all sides.
Not ones for admiring sites from afar (and there is a designated viewing point, Belvedere, which you can drive to), we opted to hike around the complex - a two-hour walk following a circular route. As always we timed it perfectly - just in time for the blazing midday sunshine on completely wild and exposed land. The wind up here is ferocious so beware. You'll be covered in a brown layer of dust and sand when you finally get back down. But let me tell you - it's totally worth it. Tickets to enter the site are €8.
The outer structure of the four castles are still partly intact but the interior elements have not really stood the test of time. I couldn't get over the craftsmanship and intricate stonework - how on earth did they do that on top of a mountain on a sheer cliff-face, in the 12th century without the benefit of modern machinery? The mind boggles.
The views of the surrounding landscape from the upper buildings are spectacular. There is also a series of caves to explore (or sit down in to hide from the sun and to catch your breath).
A good level of fitness is necessary - definitely not for wusses. You will be hiking uphill for the best part of an hour and it's pretty steep. I’m talking sheer cliff top climbs with no barriers. The French say ‘meh’ to health & safety and I love them all the more for it, though I was closing my eyes a bit when I saw small children on the loose and people with dogs on leads (I know, I know...) My Fitbit told me I’d walked up 85 flights of stairs after an hour and a half. My knees were not loving me afterwards. How could these views not be worth it? You can thank me afterwards.
Lastours was definitely one of the highlights of our ten-day trip to Languedoc. They also have a museum at the visitor centre which holds some of the artefacts from the villages including an ancient chess piece. Disappointingly we ran out of time as we were en-route to Leucate that evening so we didn't get to visit. I'm sure we'll come back again so next time I'll make sure we spend the entire day.
Next stop: Leucate.