With more than 4 million visitors each year, Carcassonne is among the most prestigious tourist destinations in France, on a par with Mont Saint Michel and Paris’ Notre-Dame. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997, Carcassonne is a dramatic representation of medieval architecture perched on a rocky spur that towers above the River Aude, southeast of the new town.
Dimensions of the Cité of Carcassonne
Carcassonne is impressively large. La Cité, as the fortified medieval city is commonly known, includes a castle (the Château Comtal), a basilica (the Basilica of St. Nazaire), three kilometres of a double line of ramparts, fifty-two towers and several homes that are still inhabited today by a total of 100 people.
The castle, fortifications and towers belong to the State, while the lists (or outer bailey) and the rest of la Cité are under the jurisdiction of the municipality of Carcassonne.
History of the Cité of Carcassonne
The fortified medieval city dates to the Gallo-Roman era. It is believed that the area was occupied by the Gaul beginning in the 6th century B.C., then by the Romans, who built the ramparts around the 3rd century A.D. At that time, this small administrative and commercial centre was called Carcaso and was part of the Roman province Gallia Narbonensis. Even then, the small town benefited from its advantageous location on the main route between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, along what the Romans called the “Via Aquitania”. During the Barbarian Invasions, the inhabitants took refuge on the butte where la Cité stands today.
In the 11th century, the powerful Trencavel dynasty of viscounts built the Château Comtal. During the Albigensian Crusade, Carcassonne was besieged and then seized by Simon de Montfort in the early 13th century, during his campaign against the Count of Toulouse. Once the latter was captured, Viscount Raymond Roger Trencavel withdrew into the fortress at Carcassonne and surrendered after 14 days of siege.
La Cité once again became part of the royal domain with the signature of the Treaty of Paris on 12 April 1229, whereby Viscount Trencavel gave the King of France’s brother, Alphonse de Poitiers, the hand of his only daughter, Jeanne, in marriage. But the son of the deposed viscount rebelled and unsuccessfully laid siege to the fortress with the support of the local gentry. In 1246, Raymond Trencavel II accepted the authority of the King of France and publicly relinquished his claim. A year later, the viscount broke his seal as a sign of submission and King Louis IX authorised the establishment of a new town (a fortified city) on the other side of the River Aude, below la Cité. Upon the viscount’s death, Alphonse de Poitiers inherited the countship of Toulouse but, when he subsequently died with no descendants, the entirety of the South of France permanently passed into the hands of the King of France.
Along with these rivalries between the Trencavel family and royal authority, fortification efforts to make la Cité impregnable continued throughout the 13th century with the construction of a second exterior rampart and the strengthening of the first, interior, rampart. Markings from the engineers and artists sent from Île de France by the king are still visible. Significant improvements were undertaken to adapt the fortress for new artillery techniques and deter attackers. The keep was enlarged to accommodate a permanent garrison. During the reign of Philip the Bold (King Philip III, 1270-1285), a third major phase of modernisation began. The first inner enclosure was rebuilt and the lines of defence were strengthened. All these improvements were necessary given Carcassonne’s strategic position near the border that separated France and Aragon.
After the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, which formalised peace between France and Spain and confirmed the return of Roussillon to French dominion, Carcassonne lost its strategic importance and was abandoned in favour of the Ville Basse (the Bastide Saint-Louis). From the 14th to the 18th centuries, the thriving cloth manufacturing industry gave the Ville Basse an economic, urban and administrative expansion at the expense of the Ville Haute (la Cité), where poverty spread. Wealthy merchants built opulent private mansions, symbols of their success, while distinguished citizens, along with the civil, judicial and religious authorities, settled in. In 1801, the Basilica of St. Nazaire lost its standing as a cathedral to St. Michael’s, built in the Ville Basse. La Cité and its defence system were allowed to fall into disrepair. Napoleon I decommissioned the fortress in 1804 and, in 1820, it was relegated to the list of second-class strongholds by the War Office.
Carcassonne’s Revival and the Restoration of Viollet-le-Duc
In the 1830s Prosper Mérimée, an inspector of historic monuments, reported on the historic and architectural importance of la Cité, which was saved from destruction by public awareness. In 1844, the architect Viollet-le-Duc began what was one of the largest restoration efforts of the 19th century. As with Paris’ Notre-Dame or the Pierrefonds Castle, this restoration – reconstruction, even – was carried out in a sometimes-controversial manner. Critics especially protested the architect’s choice to restore some of the towers with conical roofs made of slate, which is usually found in the North of France and not the South, where Romanesque red tile is more common. Viollet-le-Duc justified his choice historically: Simon de Montfort and his men, who laid siege to Carcassonne during the Albigensian Crusade, were from the North and it was not out of the question that they would have brought architects and engineers with them from Île de France. The architect reported that pieces of slate had been found at the site during its restoration.
Although the restoration efforts lasted 58 years, Viollet-le-Duc only restored 30% of la Cité.
Visit of the Cité of Carcassonne
Visiting la Cité is free, with the exception of the Château Comtal. You can admire the four entry gates to la Cité, as well as the Basilica of St. Nazaire and the Château Comtal. Strolling along the lists, the open space between the interior and exterior ramparts, is not to be missed.
La Cité’s four entry gates are: Porte Narbonnaise, Porte de Rodez, Porte d’Aude et Porte Saint Nazaire.
The Narbonne Gate (Porte Narbonnaise)
Opening to the East (towards Narbonne), the Narbonne Gate was built circa 1280, during the reign of Philip the Bold.
From 1859 to 1860, Viollet-le-Duc did much to restore the gate, rebuilding the battlements and the roof in slate and adding a drawbridge that had not originally existed.
The two colossal towers that make up the gate are reinforced by arrow loops designed to deflect enemy fire.
The Saint Nazaire Gate (Porte Saint Nazaire)
On the site’s Southern side, the St. Nazaire Gate was designed to protect St. Nazaire Cathedral, which sits 25m behind the gate. The gate was built into the square St. Nazaire Tower and involves a complex defence system: four watchtowers, machicolations, portcullises and heavy, reinforced wooden doors. The platform atop the tower allowed for the positioning of long-range weapons. This gate was greatly restored by Viollet-le-Duc between 1864 and 1866.
The Aude Gate (Porte d’Aude)
Located on the site’s Western side near the Château Comtal, this gate takes its name from the River Aude, which flows past la Cité. In the Middle Ages, the gate was extended by the Aude Barbican, partially demolished in 1816 to make way for the construction of the Church of St. Gimer.
The Aude Gate’s defence system was quite robust. High archways hid false doors that led nowhere, intended to trap attackers. Also of note are the meandering corridors with various landings, designed to create a trap in which the enemy would find themselves caught, allowing Carcassonne’s defenders to attack from all sides. Several films have been made using this gate, with its traditional medieval appearance, as a backdrop.
The Rodez Gate (Porte de Rodez)
Facing North (towards Rodez), the modest Rodez Gate (also known as “Porte du Bourg”) once opened onto the market town of St. Vincent, which no longer exists today. Dug into the ramparts, this gate was protected by the Notre Dame Barbican and the Mourétis Tower.
The Basilica of Saint Nazaire
First mentioned in writing in 925, the St. Nazaire and St. Celse Cathedral was consecrated by Pope Urban in 1096. The existing gothic structure was completed in the first half of the 12th century but has since been remodelled several times. The sanctuary lost its cathedral status to St. Michael’s, located in the Ville Basse, in 1801. In 1898, Pope Leo XIII granted St. Nazaire the title of Basilica. The exterior of the sanctuary was largely restored by Viollet-le-Duc.
Visit of the Château Comtal (Count’s Castle)
This imposing fortress, which stands against the interior rampart at the butte’s steepest point, was constructed beginning in 1130 by Bernard Ato Trencavel IV. The castle was entirely rebuilt with enhanced lines of defence between 1228 and 1239, by order of the King of France. The quadrangular structure includes nine towers, two of which (the Pinte Tower and the Tour de la Chapelle) are of Visigothic origin. The Pinte Tower, a square watchtower, is the tallest in la Cité. In the northern area, a chapel devoted to Mary was built with a Romanesque apse.
After crossing the access bridge to the castle, visitors arrive in the inner bailey, surrounded by structures that were rebuilt several times between the 12th and 18th centuries.
Visit of the Castle
Tickets are sold in two small booths inside the barbican. The real entrance of the castle is at the end of the stone bridge that runs over a dry ditch.
From the main courtyard, the visit of the castle begins with the “chemin de ronde”, a protected raised walkway behind the ramparts. The itinerary provides impressive views over the Cour du Midi, la Cité, the New Town of Carcassonne (la Bastide) and the surroundings.
The path goes through a series of wall towers. Built on top of a segment of the wall, these defensive towers extend outwards slightly, so as to be able to observe the exterior of the walls on either side. The visitor is led through the hoardings which were used to launch missiles on several assailants. This wood galleries were a temporary construction that was placed on the exterior of the rampart of a castle during a siege. This allowed the defenders to improve their field of fire along the length of the wall and, most importantly, directly downwards to the wall base. The medieval hoardings at Carcassonne are one of the few that have survived alongside the keep of Laval – although it must be noted that those of the Château Comtal were reconstructed by Viollet-le-Duc.
Once inside the castle, Gothic framed-windows divide one of the first main room of the castle. They come from the first floor of the house belonging to a man called Grassalio, built in the Bastide St Louis in the late 13th or early 14th century. One can imagine the richness of the Grassalio House and its decoration at that period. At the beginning of the 17th century this house was occupied by a Franciscan monastery and demolished in the early 20th century. The small columns are surmounted by beautiful foliate capitals and the bases by women’s faces crowned with flowers.
Later, the visit passes through a series of room with some interesting pieces of art: five tombstones from the 14th century, old keystones from the 13th century, an 12th century ablution fountain with a decorative strip (called “rinceau”) and twelve mascarons, and antique marble sarcophagi.
The room located in the Trencavel viscounts’ keep has a barrel vault decorated with a painting portraying battles between Frankish and Saracen knights. The Franks can be identified by their conical helmets and elongated shields, rounded at the top and pointed at the bottom. The Saracens are wearing turbans and carry round shields. The upper frieze is decorated with animals among which can be seen a bird and a blue horse. This painting was done on dry plaster rather than on fresh plaster like a fresco. It was discovered in 1926 by Pierre Embry beneath a thick layer of distemper.
Carcassonne has served as the location for numerous films, including Gérard Oury’s The Sucker (Le Corniaud, 1965), Kevin Reynolds’ Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), and Jean-Marie Poiré’s The Visitors (Les Visiteurs, 1993).
How to get to Carcassonne
Carcassonne is easily accessible by car from Toulouse, Bordeaux, Avignon and Marseille, as well as from Lyon and Paris thanks to an excellent network of motorways. The A61 motorway links Avignon to Toulouse via Carcassonne.
If you are travelling from Australia or America, fly to Paris Charles de Gaulle, and either rent a car from there or connect with a train at Gare de Lyon. Ryanair offers a service from London Stansted, Charleroi, Dublin, Liverpool and East Midlands to Carcassonne-Salvaza Airport.
Trains from Paris-Gare de Lyon run to Narbonne from where you can take a connecting train to Carcassonne. Carcassonne is one the main railway lines between Marseille and Bordeaux via Toulouse. Some TGV from Brussels, Lille, Lyon and Marseille stop at Carcassonne.
For more practical info, visit the Tourist Office Website.