Carcassonne is the capitol city of Aude Department in France. We had read that you have enough time in a single day to visit La Cité, but I have to say that that’s not true. It’s really worthy to walk slowly in this medieval jewel, in order to admire how well maintained and clean it is, and the unexpected places that you’ll find. We spent a long time every day inside La Cité, besides the other excursions we made during the travel.
The truth is that La Cité of Carcassonne is an example of how to preserve historic monuments and show them to the visitors.
There are some very recommendable points, like the Castle of the Counts of Trencavel (the lords of the area) and Saint Nazaire Abbey. It’s also advisable to get lost by the little cobbled streets, in order to better know the city.
La Cité is a walled city with Roman origin, which has 26 towers and a double wall with 3 km. of perimeter (the second one was built much later than the first one) and it’s conserved almost in its entirety. All this fortification is thought to make it almost impregnable by land. Even the castle has a barbican (like a half wall) inside with a drawbridge to protect it from the village which surrounds the main gate.
Inside La Cité live some families, but it’s also full of shops, museums, restaurants and some hotels, too. The prices to have lunch or dinner are varied, but there is a little square to the left of Narbonne Gate where you can have dinner in a terrace for 15 € per person. If the temperature is good it’s really comfortable (although it might be a bit noisy).
Saint Nazaire Basilica (with free admission) is another landmark inside La Cité. It’s worthy to visit just to see the abundant light inside the temple, through lots of stained glass and coloured rose windows. The ambient inside invites you to disconnect from everything and spend a long time with your mind lost.
We were focused in the old area (La Cité) because the rest is a modern and industrial city like many others. Now I’ll describe the main points of interest that we saw inside this old medieval burg, with some tips about accessibility and a bit of history about each point.
It’s a walled city (with a double wall of 3 km. of perimeter) splattered with towers. It’s plenty of little shops, restaurants and streets to have a walk.
Although some streets are sloped and cobbled, they are more or less comfortable to walk. We saw many people promenading on wheelchairs, and I could walk helping myself with a stick. Indeed we repeated every night the walk around La Cité, because it’s really worthy to enjoy it slowly, feeling like if you enter another dimension.
A bit of history
The Citadel of Carcassonne, which is known as La Cité, rises up on a rocky mound along the River Aude bank. It’s maybe one of the most attractive medieval strongholds. In that age Carcassonne became almost an impregnable city. The advances of the artillery and the distancing of the Spanish border after the Peace of the Pyrenees (1659) caused that this enclosure lost its military value. However its relevance was recovered in XIX century, when Eugène Viollet-le-Duc proceeded to restore the ensemble.
There are some monuments and museums in La Cité: the Inquisition Museum, the Weapons and Cavalry Museum, the School Museum… But there is something even more valuable: the pleasure of strolling along evocative and carefully maintained buildings, and also the chance to take some wine or to eat peacefully in some of the restaurants for the visitors. Barely one hundred people live nowadays here at the old citadel, which is surrounded by a couple of concentric walls, where there are 52 proud standing towers.
GPS Coordinates: 43.206595, 2.365923
The walls and the towers of the castle appear to the eyes of the traveller over the walls of Carcassonne, in the West side.
It’s not really a place to visit if you go on a wheelchair. There are some hard stretches for the people with reduced mobility, and it also requires some time to walk the entire path. I’d personally avoid the way that goes up to the wall, because the descent is pretty hard (like in Villerouge-Termenès castle). However, the parts that can be easily visited are really worthy to see.
The admission for the disabled people is free (with an attendant). If you want to make a better use of the visit you can rent some audio-guides, because they are really complete and informative. You can have a clear idea of the uses for the rooms of the castle, and their architectonical evolution, as well. The defensive elements, which made this castle and La Cité one of the best examples of fortified ensembles in their age, are also very well explained.
A bit of history
This is a fortress from XII century, erected by the Lords of Trencavel, viscounts of Carcassonne, over and old Roman building. The Trencavel was a powerful family settled in the South of France and linked to the counts of Toulouse. They lost their rule over Carcassonne during the fights against the Catharist heresy. It’s a beautiful building: a fort in the middle of the citadel, which outer façade looks to the River Aude bank and dominates the new city, la Bastide.
– from October to March, from 9.30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
– from April to September, from 9.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m.
GPS Coordinates: 43.206865, 2.364024
Saint Nazaire Basilica
This basilica is one of the most beautiful ones in Carcassonne. It’s located in the old fortified citadel and it was formerly a cathedral, until the XIX century. Part of the attractive lies on the gigantic coloured stained glass, which border the apse and light up the inside of the temple with plenty of colours.
The visit is more than enjoyable. Besides the play of lights you can also hear Gregorian chants and you really find a feeling of calm which invites you to spend a long time inside the temple. In addition, the admission is free.
A bit of history
It was referenced for the first time in year 925, but it wasn’t until a century later when Pope Urban II visited Carcassonne and blessed the stones of Saint-Nazaire Cathedral and Saint-Celse.
The Romanic building was finished in the first half of XII century, but it was modified in the Gothic style in the next centuries. Nowadays it has a Romanic structure in the back, beautiful but severe and dark, which contrasts with the bright Gothic style in the apse and the transept. The structural renewal made by Viollet-le-Duc in XIX century helped to consolidate this quality and beauty. You can also see here his interest in gargoyles. Saint-Nazaire lost its condition of cathedral in 1801, in behalf of Saint-Michel Church, in the low city. However, Pope Leo XIII granted it the status of basilica.
– From 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and from 2 to 9 p.m. in summer
– From 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and from 2 to 5 p.m. in winter
GPS Coordinates: 43.205438, 2.362712
The old bridge
On the outskirts of the citadel, between the old walled ‘cité’ and the new city of Carcassonne, there is the River Aude, which is crossed by a medieval bridge with twelve arcades. This bridge was the point where sometimes the old and the new city argued their disputes. The bridge was rebuilt in XVI and XIX centuries, and it keeps a severe look which harmonizes with the fortified citadel. There is a chapel devoted to Notre Dame de la Santé in the edge of the bridge which takes to La Bastide. The bridge can be seen from most of the parts of the walls of the citadel.
GPS Coordinates: 43.210251, 2.359153
Here is a map of La Cité Médiévale of Carcassonne: