Carcassonne: a tale of two cities split by the river Aude and linked for the last 600 years by the arched bridge of Pont Vieux. The Fresquel river and the Canal du Midi flow through this post midway between the Med and the Atlantic. Carcassonne is 80 kilometers east of Toulouse, easily accessible from the Mediterranean coast by train, car, or plane.
It has been occupied by the Gauls, 1st century BC Romans, Moors, Cathars, the Visigoths, and the Saracen Moors. The medieval cité perches high on a hill and is a fortified citadel protected by two circular outer walls and 53 towers. Its random web of cobbled streets are narrow and home nowadays to no more than 100 folk. This is the most visited place in France, second only to Paris. Even now, the ghosts of its rich and turbulent history seep from the walls and keep you company as you wander. The main attraction this side of the water is the 12th century castle, Château Comtal, complete with drawbridge, moat, and ditch. It’s the first thing you see when you enter la Cité de la porte Narbonnaise overlooked by a sculpture built into the walls of the full-breasted Dame Carcas, who saved the citadel from marauding Moors in the 700s.
The three-kilometer ramparts were used as the backdrop for scenes from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in 1991. And it’s hard to remember that you are not Maid Marian as you watch the re-enactment of brave knights on horseback during the summer, jousting to win the hand of fair maidens in between the concentric walls of the citadel Le Chevalier de la Foi (until August 28). Carry the fairytale to its logical conclusion by making vows to your eternal prince inside the Basilica of Saints Nazaire and Celse (the town’s original cathedral), where the sun pouring through the stunning stained glass will backlight your reverie perfectly.
Celebrate the union with a quiet drink in the pretty square in the town’s heart, Place Marcou. Or splash out in splendid luxury at the ivy-coated luxurious Hôtel de la Cité, formerly the site of the Episcopal Palace next door to Basilica Saint-Nazaire.
Must-visit spots this side of the river include the 18th century Hôtel de Rolland, one of the finest 18th-century buildings in Carcassonne and now the Town Hall, and the Museum of Fine Arts for French and Dutch 18th century artwork.
On the other side of Pont Vieux, the “new” city, Bastide St-Louis, was built in the Medieval 1200s and it’s a series of grid-like connecting streets surrounding a market square, Place Carnot, which offers great shopping for wine, cheese, charcuterie, etc. for picnics on the river banks.
The town is a favored stopping off point for day trippers holidaying by boat on the Canal du Midi that runs through the town. You too could join them for a cruise or hire a barge. The 240-kilometer waterway runs from Toulouse down to the Étang de Thau near the Mediterranean.
Carcassonne is the capital of the département of Aude in the Occitanie region of southwestern France. This is wine country: the place of Languedoc and Roussillon fame. Nowhere do you find more classified appellation d’origine protégée than here, where by autumn the vines groan under the weight of the Grenaches, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Carignan grapes. Take a wine tour or scour the nearby hills for the ruined castles at Lastours, Quéribus, Peyrepertuse, and Montségur.
Festivals pepper the calendar and include the medieval fertility rite of the Fête de l'Âne in the village of Ladern-sur-Lauquet. The five-day (from August 25) carnival-style celebration includes a masked parade, chariots, donkeys, and dancing. The Feria de Carcassonne (August to September) sees musical groups giving demonstrations of salsa, flamenco, Occitan music, tango, accordion, banda, and brass bands throughout the streets.
To recover from the revelry, flop down on the shores of the artificial lake two kilometers outside Carcassonne at the Lac de la Cavayère. Created in 1988, it has three beaches and you can go for a leafy walk in the woods nearby.
This is the home of the richly succulent slow-cooked stew, Cassoulet, traditionally made with pork sausage, goose, duck, and white beans. The region is also famous for its truffles, so autumn break snuffling for the stuff is another option. And if all this sounds far too French, guess what? Only three minutes from this divided city, you can find a corner that is forever Australian, at the Parc Australien, complete with kangaroos, wallabies, ostriches, camels, and parrots.
This article originally ran in the August 2021 issue of Dockwalk.