Carcassonne - a walled city in France

According to experienced tourists guides, a traveler should see and capture in a picture a huge number of sights of this amazing and beautiful land, and this is the Carcassonne fortress that is a must-see, and it is better to do together with a local private tour guide who will take you on a comfortable route in the fortified city and tell stories about its medieval buildings and even point out the places that are unknown to regular tourists and hidden from casual passers-by. Such a tourist guide, speaking the language that suits you, can be found on our website on the Carcassonne city page.

The commune of southern France - Carcassonne - with its mighty fortress is located only 80 kilometers from Toulouse and is not only included in the famous UNESCO World Heritage List but is also recognized as one of the most visited attractions in France. In the summer there are crowds of tourists, mainly from Asian countries. That's why we recommend coming here in the fall when there are fewer tourists and the scenery is more colorful

How to go to Carcassonne

The most convenient way to reach the city is by car, as it is located on the highways of Toulouse and Montpellier, Narbonne, and Marseille, near the city in the 21st century the “Carcassonne Airport in Cathar Land” was built, from which Ryanair flights to Great Britain (London, Liverpool, and Nottingham), Ireland (Dublin, Cork, and Shannon) and Belgium. There is also a train station in the north of the city, which can be reached by train from Paris in 5 hours, from Barcelona in 3 hours, and from Bordeaux or Lyon in an average of 4.5 hours. There are huge parking lots around the fort, so even in the most popular summer months, there is always space there.

Walled city

In many guidebooks and tourist brochures, Carcassonne is called a castle... In fact, Carcassonne resembles a castle only externally, and even then only in separate parts of this building. In fact, the architectural complex, reminiscent of a medieval city from the side, is above all a hexagonal defensive fortress with bastions in the corners, built on one bank of the small Aude River at a height of 150 meters from river level. 

The citadel walls, which have reliably protected the inhabitants of Carcassonne since the Middle Ages, are more than three kilometers in circumference. And inside this fortress there are many magnificent buildings, cathedrals, squares, palaces, and residential buildings, so people come here to get acquainted with the monuments of medieval architecture and French history.

From a distance of 3-4 km to the entrance to the fortress, you can get the most amazing pictures, which often seem not to depict a real architectural structure, but a whole fairy-tale city of noble knights, their beautiful women, and endless battles where virtue always wins over evil! These are not empty literary epithets at all, many historical movies are often filmed against the background of this French fortress, because such realistic natural landscapes from the Middle Ages, and moreover, in such dense places, are rarely found.

The fact that Carcassonne is a “medieval” fortress is not quite the right name, because the first buildings appeared here long before our time.

Carcassonne - the history and construction of the walled city

Thanks to the archive preserved to this day and many archaeological excavations conducted in and around the fort, we can say with confidence that the defense buildings and the entire city within them were built in the 2nd century BC. Pliny the Elder traces his roots to the 1st century BC, but perhaps the first settlers appeared here already in the 6th century BC. Historical documents say that the territory of the fortified city built by the Romans was inhabited in the early period by ancient Celts who held their magical rituals there.

No official information has been found on the origin of the name of the fortress, but private tour guides who make tours of the fortress can tell several legends related to the name "Carcaso", some of which seem more or less reliable.

In the XII century, inside the walls of the ancient Carcassonne, there were many supporters of the Cathars Movement - a heretical Christian movement that flourished in Europe in the 13th century. 

The Cathars professed the heretical concept of two equal principles of the universe, good and evil, and the material world was considered evil.

One of the documents of the Roman Empire around 25 BC mentions "a colony belonging to Julius Caraxo". Another legend tells that one of the many wives of the Muslim Sultan managed to lead the defense of the fortress alone against the attack of Charlemagne's (Charles the Great) powerful army. The commander retreated, and for some reason, history is silent about where the faithful Sultan was. But the woman who defeated Charlemagne was maintained in a statue that can be admired right at the entrance to the fortress in front of the bridge.

Expulsion of the inhabitants from Carcassone in 1209. Image taken from Grandes Chroniques de France.

The Roman Empire fell, and after a long assault, the city fortress was captured by the Visigoths, who managed to hold the city for a while, and only a few years later, Charlemagne fulfilled his old dream and conquered Carcassonne

After the death of the Emperor, the fortress, the city, and the surrounding areas fell into the private ownership of the richest French Trencavel dynasty at the time, which protected the Cathars. Representatives of this family expanded the city and completed the construction of defense structures. 

Visigothic church - Cathedral of Carcassonne - Basilica Minor

The original church of Saints Nazarius and Celsus was built in the basement of the old temple in the 5th century under the supervision of the Visigoth ruler. When Pope Urban II lived in the city in the 12th century, he blessed the beginning of the addition of a church in the same place. It was assembled in the Carolingian church by a French noble family named after Charlemagne. The crypt also came with a new structure.

At the beginning of the 14th century, Carcassonne Cathedral was rebuilt in the famous Gothic style. It remained a fortified church until 1803. The Church of Saints Nazarius and Celsus took over the ownership of a great historical monument 30 years later, and soon after it was shaken again by the contemporaneous with the Minor Basilica, at this time the city was also rebuilt together with the fortress walls.

The new basilica is made of sandstone, and its plan of the floor is based on a Latin cross, with a length of 59 m, a nave width of 16 m, and a transept width of 36 m. Also from the year 1290, the beautiful stained glasses windows at the choir and aside are considered the oldest on the Cote d'Azur. And for sure they are the most beautiful, bright and colorful!

In the Middle Ages, the city of Carcassonne was usually called "the city of the rich''. At that time, almost every one of its residents had a huge fortune. The prosperity of Carcassonne was in no way connected with military successes, as the city itself was quite peaceful, but with the active trade of local merchants with the East and Africa.

The Romans observed the prosperity and expansion of the walled city and the strengthening of the Cathar community there and decided to regain its power. Pope Innocent III organized a crusade against Carcassonne under the slogan of fighting religious heresy.

However, one skilled military leader of the Trencavel Dynasty with a small force managed to defend the fort for a while, effectively repeating the feat of the wife of a Muslim sultan. But as a result of a long defense and an acute lack of water in the city, it was handed over to the invaders led by the military leader Simon de Montfort, whose ownership was transferred to Carcassonne. Since then, the descendants of the legendary Trencavel dynasty have repeatedly tried to reclaim Caraxon, but Simon De Montfort with his large army drove his soldiers out of the fort every time. 

After the second battle, the French King accepts the verdict of strengthening the fort and ordered to build of a second and more effective wall around the old wall. Now, if the enemy passed the first wall, he found himself in a narrow trap. The distance between the two walls of the fortress was so small, and the destruction of the conquerors in this "trench of death", as Saint Louis called it, was very easy and quick: it was enough to throw stones at the enemy soldiers and knock them down with red-hot tar - preferred protection at that time!

However, Saint Louis' son continued his father's work and completed the Carcassonne fortress, making it one of the most impregnable fortresses in all of Europe. During the Hundred Years' War, the British repeatedly tried to capture the fortified city, but each time in vain.

After the "Hundred Years War", Carcassonne fell and was forgotten by powerful rulers. The city, the fortress walls, and the towers are gradually being destroyed as a result of natural erosion.

In the 14th century, the city became the leading producer of textiles, mainly wool, in the Kingdom of France. Flocks of sheep grazed in the nearby Corbières Mountains and the Black Mountain. Products were exported to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Alexandria. In the 14th century, the plague broke out in the city, as in all of France. The plague reappeared from time to time until the 15th century.

Carcassonne Fortress - a new story

Carcassonne was gradually destroyed until the beginning of the 19th century, and almost no one lived in the city. And only in the 19th century did restoration and renovation work begin in the legendary Carcassonne area. The work lasted over twenty years: in those days, after several revolutions and wars, France constantly felt a lack of funds, and the restoration, due to their lack, was stopped and resumed again.

In 1853, Napoleon III decreed the complete reconstruction of Carcassonne, thanks to which the Carcassonne fortress is still accessible to tourists from all over the world.

Today, the fortress and the city of Carcassonne are open museums. Tourists can see with their own eyes the "trench of death" that goes along almost the entire perimeter of the citadel wall.

Within the walls of the Carcassonne fortress, you can see the ancient houses of the city and enter several museums, which the local tourist guide will tell you about. On the grounds of the castle itself, there are a few fountains, rare stucco structures, a small number of religious objects of worship, gargoyle statues in the temple, and stained glass windows amazing in color and beauty - you can admire them for hours, and if you are lucky enough to be there for a mess or an organ concert, then visual and musical effects are unforgettable!

And within the walls of the fortress, as we mentioned before, the city of Carcassonne itself is spread out. Although it is considered medieval, there are many modern restaurants, bars, and endless souvenir shops.

By the way, some of the souvenirs are made directly in the local warehouse, which is already unique, because now everywhere you can find cheap and tasteless Chinese handicrafts, printed in millions of pieces. But before you buy a real precious metal memento as a "souvenir", you should think a few times about how much effort it will take to transport it: the weight and price of such items are not keepsakes at all.

Le Stryge is technically a grotesque and not a gargoyle, as it does not act as a waterspout. The architectors placed the sculptures of chimeras on cathedrals and churches, as it was believed their grotesque features would scare away evil spirits and even the devil. It gazes from above, looking utterly bored by the thrums of life. Le Stryge has often been called a “vampire”, but it doesn’t actually bear any resemblance to one. It was intended to portray a generic demon - chimères!

In the walled city, some shops sell the original version of the Carcassonne board game, which is available in French and English. The entrance to the citadel itself through the medieval bridge leading to the area costs 9 euros. 

It is very easy to get lost in such a huge area, so here you especially need the services of a local private tour guide who knows the right routes and will take you to the best places for beautiful panoramic photos!

Read our previous article  Baku - the fiery capital of Azerbaijan

Read our next article Treasures of the Habsburg Dynasty. The Imperial Crown

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