Carcassonne is where Disney meets a thousand years of French history.
Fantasy and reality mix with fairytale castles revealing stories of a citadel full of myths and legends – a lot of them turning out to be true.
This is the city said to have inspired Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle, but Carcassonne is more a tale of two cities than a fantasy creation.
It is two cities in one – the giant walled fortress and the quaint Lower Town below. Both have their own unique appeal.
The walled city – known as La Cite – is a magnificent example of a medieval fortress, looking out over the Languedoc region on all sides and built in the days when this area was as much prone to attack from Spain as Italy and the eastern European hordes.
It’s slightly ironic that the high-walled city created to keep people out is now one of southern France’s most successful at bringing them in.
La Cite at its heart is the big tourist draw, but the Lower Town, known as the Bastide St Louis, dates back to the Middle Ages and gives a real flavour of old, rural France during those turbulent times.
It’s the perfect retreat from the touristy bit and the old-style shops, French bars, restaurants and cafes are picture postcard perfect.
The Lower Town has some eye-catching boutiques that are a good source for take-home treats and self-indulgent souvenir purchases. They are all concentrated in the grid-system of streets leading off from the Place Carnot (home to the weekly food market, and in winter, the site of the temporary ice rink) and can be whizzed round in an hour or so, if you’re pushed for time.
A Festival atmosphere
If you visit in mid-summer you can be there for the celebrated annual festival.
The Carcassonne Festival is now a major national and even international event. Every year, prestigious sites of historical significance and character in La Cite such as the Grand Theatre Antique, the Saint-Nazaire Basilica and the courtyard of the château become a stage for dancers, singers and actors to provide some top quality shows and plays.
Canal du Midi
The city stands on the banks of the River Aude and is one of the highlights of the famous Canal du Midi, which stretches from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic cost through some of the lushest, most beautiful countryside in all France.
You can stroll along the canal’s banks on the outskirts of Carcassonne, or hire a bike and take a ride to Trèbes or Castelnaudary.
There are also guided boat trips and canal craft available for hire if you want to venture further for a few days.
Carcassonne is not the place to come if you want to spend hours and hours shopping – it was built to repel marauding hordes, not provide them with retail therapy. But there are a few local markets that are worth a visit, particularly the Palace Carnot market, with its mouthwatering selection of local delicacies.
Shopping in the walled city is more geared to the souvenir market, with a large number of tiny stores, boutiques and craft shops.
Where to stay
When booking your accommodation in Carcassonne, It’s advisable to look in the Lower Town rather than within the walls of La Cite, where prices tend to be higher for tourists.