It took us three separate visits to experience the medieval walled city of Carcassonne, France. Not that you can’t see the highlights of what Cité de Carcassonne has to offer in one day, but this Unesco World Heritage site was so special we went back more than once.
Porte Narbonnaise, the main entrance gate, crosses via bridge over the old moat and into a narrow cobbled street lined with touristy shops, perfect if souvenir shopping is on your list, although you are safe waiting till you leave to check them out if you wish. I am not a souvenir shopper, generally, but I purchased a vintage Chocolat tin for Valerie for her birthday, and Valerie found a dish towel printed with one of my favorite designs by Alphonse Mucha. The Mudge found a wooden broadsword that luckily just fits into our big suitcase, and our brother-in-law Mike found a printed metal rooster art piece for his kitchen that I secretly covet (he bought the last one).
This main street has plenty of sweets on display, from chocolate to the local specialty nougat, and everything between. Our favorite shop was one with candy in barrels arranged throughout the shop. We don’t tend to eat much candy, but we indulged ourselves in Carcassonne. It was a bit like being at a fair, walking around the stone fortifications munching our goodies.
Of course if you have less of a sweet tooth (or more self discipline) there are plenty of restaurants with delicious french food. We ate at two different places inside the city (Bistro Fruits and Le Marcou, I think) off of Place Marcou.
Both were excellent, but the best food we had was outside of the medieval walls and down in Carcassonne proper. On one of our visits we planned poorly and were famished (excuse for all the candy), long before the restaurants typically reopened for dinner at 7:30. We wandered a bit in the lower city, and found the first restaurant to open at 7:00 pm, late by typical American restaurant standards. Beating the rush was great, because they were able to seat nine of us plus a high chair with no wait.
We ordered several dishes to share, including rice dish with prawns and one with mushrooms, roasted bone marrow, confit of duck, the regional specialty cassoulet, and steak au poivre. It was a simple little Bistro, but was probably the best meal we had in France, including those at the more expensive (but still really wonderful) restaurants near Cruzy. In France is even the casual restaurants have such amazing food.
Wandering in Carcassonne further from the main gate takes you to nicer shops and restaurants, and there are plenty of hotels inside the gates. Scott and I remarked several times that staying in one of the beautiful vine-covered hotels off the church square would be the perfect romantic weekend getaway. The church, Basilique Saint-Nazaire, is a beautiful confection of 12th century grey gothic stone features.
Standing outside large red-painted doors we heard choir music and thought it was a recording. Inside the Doros Ensemble was performing. Only four men with no microphones, but the acoustics were astounding. The singing reverberated around the columns and up into the high ceiling vaults while the stained class lit rainbows on the stone floor. German statesman and writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, has compared architecture to frozen music. All I can say is the resonant tones of the choir brought the building to life that day. I was so entranced, my brother asked me if I might convert. For a second, it crossed my mind!
On our third and final visit to Carcassonne we managed to tour the Chateau Comtal, an experience not to be missed! A self-guided tour through the Chateau takes you through rooms filled with artifacts and around the ramparts of the castle. The Chateau also houses a scale model of the site and a video (in French but subtitled in English) giving a history of architect Viollet le Duc’s extensive restoration efforts in the mid 1800s. The mechanics of the wooden seige structures were cool, but the views from the castle were my favorite part of the tour. The Chateau offers the best views of both inside the walled city and down to Carcassonne proper.
Overall, we greatly enjoyed Carcassonne. December was a perfect time to visit, when crowds are small yet the weather is still generally mild. Check closing times (varies by season) for your favorite features and plan accordingly. My best advice: end your day in Carcassonne with a crepe and a walk while the sun sets behind the rough stone crenellations of the Western wall.
Have you been to Carcassonne? What did you think?