Since the pre-Roman period, a fortified settlement has existed on the hills where the town of Carcassonne now stands. The castle served as the stage in the 13th century for the brief, but bloody Albigensian Crusade in which Templar Knights slaughtered an excommunicated Christian sect known as the Cathars. Not often a huge target for tourists, this small but bustling town is a great place to get a taste of historic France...
Touring La Cité
Of all the attractions in the area of Carcassonne, La Cité is the biggest. La Cité is what that castle on the hill is referred to by locals. The fortified city is ringed by rampart walls that are punctuated by 52 watch towers. The distinctive witch hat-shapes blue shingled roofs were add by Viollet-le-Duc during the 19th century remodelling. The original roofs would have been much flatter and topped with grey slate.
The main entrance to the fortress is beneath the Porte Narbonnaise, which is a great bastion that can be accessed by crossing a cobbled bridge. Now the Porte Narbonnaise serves as the tourism office to the castle town. From there visitors walk down a street that was once a bustling spot and where merchants now sell medieval-themed souvenirs. For those who can resist the allure of souvenirs, continuing down the path and you’ll find yourself at the imposing Chateau Comtal, which was built for the Viscounts of Carcassonne during the 12th century. Aside from the Chateau, there is the lovely Basilique St-Nazaire, which is definitely worth a peak if not for its beautiful Gothic style architecture, but for the intimate rosy glass windows.
Canal du Midi Cruises
Outside of La Cité and in the actual modern day city of Carcassonne lies the Canal du Midi. This little canal runs through the city and provides an excellent Venice-like waterway. Not only will visitors see any number of leisure craft cruising down the canal, but they will also see more than a few tour boats. These boats range from traditional paddle canal boats to motor boats. The most popular tour group is the Carcassonne Croisieres. This tour operator is down by Ville Basse and offers scenic trips down the Canal du Midi that leave from the quays next to the train station. Trips can run from an hour and a half to two and a half hours depending how far visitors want to travel. These are lovely little private tours that only take groups of five or less. These romantic slow-moving boats travel down the canal and offer views of La Cité in the distance. Some trips offer picnics by the river in a grassy little riverside park.
Shopping In Carcassonne
When it comes to food in Carcassonne, visitors should not expect simple grocery stores littered everywhere, but rather artisan shops where most things are delicately crafted by hand – something the French pride themselves on. Visitors to Carcassonne should head down to La Ferme for a quick lunch or to pick up cured meats and aged French cheeses. This delicatessen is piled high with vintage cheese aged in the personal cheese cave of the owners, sausage and fresh handmade sandwiches. Unlike most deli shops, La Ferme serves wonderful French wine. For those that find themselves craving something sweet, they should head down to L'art Gourmand. This pastry shop not only serves up French chocolate, pastries and croissants, but specializes in creating handmade ice cream from its own private heard of grass-fed dairy cows. Be wary though, this cold sweet treat may turn you off other ice cream for life.
For those not interested in culinary shopping, the Espirit de Sel is an eclectic emporium that sells just about everything. It is essentially like a gathering all the unique finds from the flea markets of Paris under one roof. Speaking of flea markets, Carcassonne has its very own open air market. Many of the vendors come from the countryside to sell organic meats, cheeses and produce, however there are quite a few miscellaneous stalls too. From funky fashion to some of the medieval souvenirs that made their way from La Cité's souvenir shops, visitors are likely to see it all.
There are just tonnes of people on bicycles in Carcassonne, which is not too surprising considering this city was the starting point for the Tour de France in 2004 and the finishing point for the tour in 2006. It is pretty easy to rent bicycles in Carcassonne. Generations VTT is located right beside the Canal du Midi by Le Terminus. For those who aren't sure where to take those bikes, the shop offers guided tours around town. Generation VTT offers free maps of the city that highlight all the cycle paths.
Enjoy French Cuisine
There are quite a few restaurants in Carcassonne, but for those who want a truly French experience, La Cantine de Robert is the place to visit. This restaurant is a bit retro with its marble floors, net curtains and Edith Pilaf playing on the stereo, but it is as French as it gets. It serves up French staples like roasted quail and suckling pig. For a more modern take on French cuisine, visitors should head over to Au Comte Roger with their sleek modern design and cool grey colour scheme. This restaurant serves up nouvelle cuisine style dishes that are presented with flair by Chef Pierre Mesa.