The sun-soaked city in Aude isn’t just a pretty fortified face, says Lara Dunn. Look beyond the walls of the Cité for a town of two equally intriguing halves
Go beyond the fortified Cité to experience the contrasts of this tourist hot spot.
Wandering along the winding streets, turrets and ramparts looming above at seemingly every turn, it is easy to see why Carcassonne has become so enduringly loved by visitors – some three million of them a year. Indeed, embarking at Stansted airport a couple of days before, I was a little perturbed to find a substantial number of birthday party and celebration groups already loudly enjoying the flight. After my arrival in the city, however, I had not spotted a single personalised T-shirt or fluffy bunny ears, so perhaps these characters had dispersed to less sober climes than this scene of so much brutal Cathar history.
Just paces from my hotel, the fortified hill appeared imposing and implausible. Looking just like its board-game namesake, or perhaps the castle from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the towers and walls did not seem real. It could be argued, of course, that the verisimilitude of the Cité is no greater than those examples. Carcassonne was restored in the 19th Century by Eugène Viollet-le-duc at the behest of Prosper Mérimée, the inspector of ancient monuments, and sports some flamboyant slated turret roofs that would probably not have featured in the fort’s functional heyday.
However, the visitor is quickly caught up in the confection, such is the impressive effect of the hilltop ramparts, which encourage enthusiastic meandering, and of the robust gates, guarded by
Dame Carcas, the mythical saviour of the city. Dining in a lush garden and looking up at the walls, I found it hard to summon any chagrin, when the alternatives might have been a city in ruins or one made unrecognisable by new development.
Standing in one of the higher towers, it almost looks possible to throw a stone (or perhaps a pig, as in the game) at the ville basse and on to the Bastide SaintLouis. Clustered around the lower slopes of the hill, on the left side of the River Aude, the Bastide was built in 1260 during the reign of Louis IX, and fulfils the role of ‘new Carcassonne’, a misnomer if ever there was one. The streets are broader, and the buildings more genteel, but by most town standards, the Bastide Saint-louis still feels old.
A bustling market dominates the gracious Place Carnot three mornings a week, stalls groaning with vividly coloured local produce, while the Les Halles market hall takes care of any fish, meat or seafood needs including perhaps taking a small glass with a few oysters, fresh from the coast. The restaurants above in the Cité, and even more so here in the Bastide, are one of Carcassonne’s glories, along with those crenellations. Aside from the markets, I pass a multi-awardwinning pâtisserie, see local wines championed left, right and centre, and enjoy exceptional meals, even while avoiding cassoulet – a little heavy for a hot, sunny day. For a small city, Carcassonne boasts a multitude of restaurants that appear in the Michelin guide, with and without stars. It is a foodie paradise. Strolling past smart boutiques, artists’ ateliers, gourmet food shops, cafés, restaurants and the standard high-street fare to be found in any medium-sized French town, it feels like a world away from the fairy-tale turrets of the Cité, which still catch the eye wherever you go. Even the museums are different, with the refined Beaux-arts in the Bastide Saint-louis contrasting with the popular museum of the ramparts, and a slightly dubious-feeling attraction dedicated to the Inquisition. Back in the Cité, on my way to a boutique selling cosmetics made from the local herb pastel, which is also the source of a blue dye, I pass the doorway of the Musée de l’inquisition. The words of Monty Python echo inside my head once more. “NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition!” Indeed, Carcassonne’s chief weapons as a weekend break destination are surprise and good food; Surprise, good food and history; Surprise… you get the point.
ABOVE: The restored turreted walls of the Cité in Carcassonne look over the Aude countryside