It was with some regret that we left the coast and headed east. We had enjoyed our time in the forest and were reluctant to leave, but we knew we had the delights of the medieval city of Carcassonne to come.
We stopped overnight at a lovely little family run campsite called Le Moulin de Mellet, just north of Agen, where we had the delightful experience of having our bread delivered to our pitch in the morning. It was hung from a peg on a post with a little pitched roof over it to keep it dry. How French!
La Cité de Carcassonne
The old city of Carcassonne has everything you could wish for in a medieval city. It stands majestically on an outcrop of rock, it’s many turrets and towers giving it a fairytale silhouette that wouldn’t look out of place in Puy du Fou or even Disney.
We headed straight over there on our first evening since one of the best times to see the city is when it is lit up at night. The walk from the campsite (see review below) takes you along a lovely riverside path (a side channel of the River Aude) from where you get views of the city between the trees. Leaving the river behind, you pass through some narrow streets and then up some even narrower (and very steep) steps to arrive at the Aude Gate – effectively the back door of the city. Whilst not as impressive an entrance as the Narbonne Gate at the opposite side, this really gives you a feel for what it must’ve been like to walk up to the city in medieval times as there are no cars and coaches there, and no tourist information office just outside.
Apparently in summer the city can get ridiculously busy, but in mid-September it was very pleasant wandering the narrow cobbled streets and pondering why so many of the shops were selling nothing but sweets. We found somewhere to eat and had a very enjoyable meal chatting to a couple from Australia who were sitting at the table next to us. They were originally from Staffordshire and had flown over to the UK with their two sons, left them with grandparents and were just starting a week’s holiday on their own. We had a lot in common, not least a love of travelling, and we could’ve talked all night. However, it suddenly got very cold, partly because the sun had gone down but also because the coldest wind had started to blow. In this part of France they call it the Cers. It comes from the mountains and can bring freezing air for several days in a row. As we picked our way by torchlight back down the steps and along the river, being buffeted along the way, we were all shivering and were chilled right to the bone!
A bit of history…
The site on which the old city of Carcassonne stands has been inhabited for the last 2,500 years and has had a turbulent history, being fought over and occupied by the Gauls, Romans, Visigoths, Saracens and Franks in turn. The many fortified hilltops, castles and towns in this area of France are a reminder of these unsettled times. Then, after the Franks, the powerful Trencavel family, Viscounts of Carcassonne, held power here (from 1082 – 1209) and it was they who added the heavily fortified chateau within the city walls. During this time, the Cathar religion grew rapidly around Europe and particularly flourished in the south of France. Cathars believed in the idea of two gods – one good (who ruled heaven and the spiritual realm) and one evil (who ruled the earth and the physical realm). They promoted values of equality, neighbourliness and charity and turned their backs on the wealth, hierarchy and pomp of the Catholic church of the time. The Catholic Church in turn branded Catharism a heresy.
In Carcassonne, the Trencavels apparently tolerated the religion and it was generally accepted among the population, with Cathars and Catholics living side by side in the town. But in 1209, Pope Innocent III launched a crusade against the Cathar heretics and, after a two week siege, the city was conquered by the crusaders. Their leader, Simon de Montford, became the new viscount of Carcassonne.
After this time, the city was further fortified, with the building of a second wall, along with a dry moat. Then, in 1226, Louis VIII made it part of the kingdom of France and in 1247 the lower town (Bastide Saint-Louis) was built alongside it, on the other side of the River Aude. The fortunes of the two towns fluctuated over the next few hundred years but by the mid-19th century, whilst the lower town had developed economic power and wealth, the upper town (La Cité) had fallen into neglect and decay. Nevertheless, even back then it was recognised as one of the finest examples of medieval military architecture and in 1844 architect Viollet-Le-Duc was commissioned by the French state to restore the city to its original splendour. In 1997 the town was added to Unesco’s world heritage list.
Tour of the Comtal Chateau and ramparts
We had enjoyed our evening exploration of this impressive city, but we hadn’t completely satisfied our curiosity and so the following day we made our way back up the narrow steps to the Aude gate, hoping to get up onto the city walls and explore the chateau and its fortifications. We were fortunate because it turned out to be European Heritage weekend and entrance to the Comtal Chateau was free. It is definitely worth doing, as you not only get to see inside the chateau itself, but you also get access to the ramparts, from which the views over the city, the surrounding countryside and across towards the distant Pyrenees are breathtaking.
If you’ve ever done a project on medieval castles at school (and let’s face it, who hasn’t?!) then at Carcassonne you will find examples of virtually every defensive feature you learnt about back then. It is like a text-book example of a medieval city. Of course, given the history outlined above, it needed to have good defences. First of all there is a double wall of high ramparts with crenellations, towers (52 in total) and arrow slits with embrasures for firing arrows. Then there is a moat, a drawbridge and a keep with portcullis as well as two barbicans, one for the castle and one for the city itself. The castle barbican is still there and, looking down at it from the castle walls, you can see exactly how it worked. It was a gateway that provided an extra line of defence, being set away from the castle and connected to it via a footbridge over the moat. If attackers got through the gate or across the walls of the barbican, they then had to cross a wide open area and moat, where they were within easy range of the castle archers, before they reached the castle itself.
On our tour of the chateau we also saw examples of wooden hoardings and learned that Carcassonne was the first fortress to use such hoardings in times of siege. These were temporary wooden ramparts that overhung walls of the fortress, their beams being pushed into square holes that had been built into the ramparts themselves. The hoardings would have been covered with wet animal skins to prevent them from being set on fire and had holes in the floor through which they could throw heavy objects or boiling liquids onto their attackers below. It was fantastic to see so many features in one place and so well preserved or restored. It was brilliant!
You can get an audio guide for the chateau, but in actual fact there are lots of information boards as you go round telling you about the history and the different features, so we didn’t think that you really needed it.
Once again the Cers wind was blowing and it was so strong that it nearly knocked us off our feet. E and I did the long rampart walk at the end of the chateau tour and in places I could hardly hold the camera still to take a picture. As you passed each gap in the crenellations, you got a blasted by the wind, before returning to the shelter of the walls. It was quite incredible!
The Legend of Lady Carcas
Before our tour of the castle, we had also walked across to the imposing main entrance to the city, the Narbonne Gate, with its drawbridge and portcullis and looked inside the church of St Nazaire. The latter has a number of delightful stained glass windows and gave us some welcome shelter from the wind. At the former there is a stone carving of the head of Lady Carcas, who provided the city with one of its greatest legends and possibly its name.
The legend takes place in the 8th century when Carcassonne was under the rule of the Saracens. Their King had died and the city was ruled by his wife, Lady Carcas. Charlemagne had laid siege to the city for 5 years and food was running out. Lady Carcas apparently took the last remaining pig and fed it the last remaining wheat. She then had the pig tossed over the castle walls. The pig burst open when it hit the ground, spilling grain everywhere from its torn belly. Charlemagne immediately abandoned the siege since they clearly had enough food, to the point of wasting pigs fed with wheat! Lady Carcas apparently had all the bells of the city rung in joy that her ruse had worked – Carcas sonne (Carcas sounds). I quite like the sound of this legend and it has various endings depending on what you read, including one where she had the trumpets sound to call Charlemagne back to make peace. But whatever the story, it appears that Lady Carcas is a fictional figure. The name Carcassonne is more likely to have come from the Celtic place name Carsac, which later became the Roman Carcasum.
Whatever the origins of its name, Carcassonne really is a fabulously interesting place to visit. Yes, the shops and restaurants within its walls are quite touristy and a bit tacky, but step away from these and down some of the quieter streets or walk along the Lices (the gap between the two curtain walls) and you will be transported back to another time and start to imagine how it must have felt to live through a siege and how fearful they must have been of an attack.
Campsite: Camping de la Cité, Carcassonne
Length of stay: 3 nights
There is only really one campsite worth staying at in Carcassonne. There may be other lovely sites, but you want to be on the one that is walking distance from the main attraction – la Cité – the old walled city. Andy and I stayed here for a few weeks about 13 years ago and it is amazing how much we both remembered about it, right down to which pitch we had been on and who we had met when we were there.
The pitches are mostly separated by hedges and are a good size. The site has a shop, a bar and restaurant and you can order your bread for the following day. In the summer it also has an uncovered swimming pool and an animations (activities) programme. There is a great children’s play area, which the girls made their own, creating a den under the climbing frame and slide.
What we liked:
- Great location – a short walk from the medieval city
- Toilet/shower blocks heated and enclosed – definitely a plus when the cold Cers wind is blowing. In many of the campsites we have stayed on, there are doors on each cubicle but no external door, so if it is cold outside, it is cold inside too.
What we didn’t like:
- The swimming pool closed the day that we arrived! 🙁
- Quite expensive considering it is now out of season!
- It says it has free wifi, but you can only get this if you are sitting in the reception office and even then it is very slow.
Score: 7 out of 10
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