Someone was talking on Facebook about Carcassonne the other day, and I thought I’d share a few pointers about why the wonderful medieval city of Carcassonne a fabulous place to spend a week.

Cité de Carcassonne. Photo erjk.amerjka

The food is memorable, this history is challenging, the sights are amazing.  We will go back and finish our Carcassonne experience properly another day when our holiday isn’t cut short by French railway strikes!

No blog could do justice to the extremely complex 2000 year history of Carcassonne.  If you want a summary click the link here to read the amazing timeline summary of the history of Carcassonne.

Sometime around 800 B.C. the occupation of the site on a hill called Carsac began.  It was situated some hundred meters south of the current city. This hill was a strategic place, on the crossroads of the main route between the Atlantic, from the Mediterranean, and from Spain.

There is a legend that when the Emperor Charlemagne laid siege to the fortified city for five long years in the 8th century, and on learning that her people had just one pig and a bag of wheat left to survive on, the reigning princess, Dame Carcas, had the pig fed on the wheat and thrown over the ramparts.

Charlemagne, believing that the inhabitants must have so much food stored they could afford to chuck it away called off the siege.  Dame Carcas had the bells of the city rung in victory, “Carcas… sonne” it was said, “Carcassonne is ringing” – hence the name!  Dame Carcas’  likeness adorns one of the gates of the magnificent enclosed city, looking down on all who enter. She has a rather smiley face and no wonder – she was one of the very few people to beat Charlemagne! 

Carcaso becomes the capital of “Colonia Julia Carcaso” around 5AD.  By this time the city is already surrounded by ramparts, and is an important Roman administrative centre.  There are beautiful testimonies of that time, as the main part of the north rampart of the Cité are Gallo-Roman and Roman mosaics are still visible under the basement of the Count’s Castle. The walls of the city are 1.9 miles (3km) long and make a wonderful walk.

The shining turrets of Carcassonne. Photo Ad Meskens

The history of Carcassonne is particularly bound to a period of the Middle-Ages, often called “the Crusade of the Albigenses”. This name comes from the strife surrounding the city of Albi, about 100 km north of Carcassonne. The Crusade of the Albigenses was a question of heresy, a holy war, a conquest, a resistance against bullying invaders … the interpretations of this phase of the city’s history are numerous and conflicting. This crucial period in the area’s history is well worth learning more about, and as a start you can read here for more about this bloody episode.

Now let’s jump to 1067.  In 1067 the City of Carcssonne is purchased by Viscountess of nearby Mediterranean strongholds Agde and Béziers. Then in 1247, there is the foundation of the Lower Town, on the other side of the Aude river. From now on two cities are going to live in parallel, united for the best and for the worst as well.  (We actually rented a beautiful AirBNB in the Lower Town.  Its only 10 minutes walk up through the enchanting streets to the old city.  You can also take the “Petit Train de Carcassonne – it takes you on a wonderful journey around the outer walls of Carcasonne – you can see it below!)

Around 1248 the Cité undergoes important modifications, and is then owned by the Kings of France.  who also builds five fortresses along the Spanish border. These fortresses are called “Carcassonne’s five sons”.  (There is so much more to the history of this time that’s why I’ve left the links here so you can become as enthralled by the history of this city as we were.)   The construction of the second surrounding walls, the Barbican of the Counts’ Castle, and construction of the main towers. The Tour du Trésau (Treasure Tower), Tour de la Vade (Vade Tower), Tour de l’Evêque (Bishop’s Tower) and Tour St Nazaire (St Nazaire Tower) all date from this period. The St Nazaire Basilica is partly demolished, the romanesque choir is replaced by a new one, built in the new style coming from northern France, called the Gothic style (1269) which goes on to sweep Europe.

In 1531 Protestantism spreads in the area. The Cité remains Roman Catholic while the Lower Town converts to Protestantism. This turns to a bloody conflict between the two parts of Carcassonne.  There’s so much more to tell about this era, where conflicts like this typified France, Germany, Holland and elsewhere, but this is a blog not a book.  So let’s move on.

Carcassonne’s two communities have many little wars but La Cité and the  Lower Town eventually merge in 1800.  In 1802 the Bishop’s Palace is transferred into the Lower Town, and Saint Nazaire Cathedral loses its top spot locally in favour of St Michel Church. This is the beginning of a long period of dominance by the more modern and more economically significant Lower Town.

Interestingly, in 1810 the Canal du Midi is diverted and for the first time, and flows through the centre of the Lower Town. During the first half of the 19th century The Lower Town develops (with gas lighting added in 1847), whereas the Cité slowly sinks into neglect … a poor and unemployed population, and the decay of the old fortifications, but in 1849 the Cité is finally saved from the total demolition and is classified as a Historical Monument, with the restorations led by the famous French architect Viollet-le-Duc start.

From 1870 the previously important textile industry is declining, and Carcassonne and its surroundings become an important wine area. To this day huge vineyards grow everywhere around the city. See below.

In 1898, Pope Leo XIII upgraded Carcassonne’s old Gothic Church to a Basilica, and this architecturally beautiful (but in national terms, minor) Basilica is entirely inside the city walls. Famed for its stained glass windows—some of the oldest in the south of France—the Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus is now a prized national monument.  This is what you’ll see inside.

In 1906 Louis Feuillade shoots the very first films in Carcassonne, “Departure to the Crusade“, “the Enchanted Guitar” and “the Oath“. The early films sadly disappeared; they are known only through postcards which were published at that time.

In August, 1944, Carcassonne was freed from Nazi Occupation by the Allies, but tragically many people were killed around the train station. Like much of Vichy France it survived better than the north of the country but did not escape unscathed.

The lovely Canal du Midi is classified in December 1996 as of world significance by UNESCO, famed for its peaceful views, beautiful plane trees and charming villages … and in December 1997, the medieval Cité and the Church of St Gimer were also classified by UNESCO.  We did a self-drive Canal Du Midi boat trip while in the area, but that’s a whole other story!  Here you can see some pictures I took whilst wandering around the Cité … despite the quite compact geographical areas one could wander for days. There are also spectacular distant views from the battlements.

The Medieval city is a living monument, in fact there are 50 full-time residents, and numerous shops and restaurants, hotels and year-round events. Some people bemoan the number of tourist shops in the old city but I didn’t think it was that bad.  It’s not all tourist tat and lots of visitors love to be able to take home a souvenir.  Look at the interesting all-white dress shop! The essential nature of the area shines through despite the tourists.

We can’t rave enough about the meal we had at this restaurant.  My daughter thoroughly enjoyed her Traditional French Cassoulet.  Recipe here.  My better half loved his Boar Stew.  I have attached a recipe for it for your indulgence.  This Wild Boar Stew recipe is from a different French location, not from this actual restaurant, but you get the idea. It works just as well with aged beef (which Boar meat resembles more than pork) or the right cut of pork would work too.

And Lemon Sorbet served in Lemon Shells is a delightful and refreshing way to cleanse your palate after a meal!  That’s exactly what I had after the regions most famous dish the Cassoulet!  A perfect summertime treat that is kind of like eating homemade lemonade.  Whether you serve this sorbet in scooped into cut lemon halves or in chilled bowls. you will love this both sweet and tart sorbet.

Hey, did you know the word sorbet comes from the Arab word “sharbet”, meaning sweet snow, which in turn comes from the verb “sherber”, meaning to sip? Bonus information! Why not have a go yourself, it’s so easy and refreshing. Our lemon tree in our backyard is groaning with fruit this year … I can feel a sorbet day coming up!

Lemon Sorbet

Makes 2 pints, or about 5 cups

Ingredients

  • 1 3/4 cups water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons freshly grated lemon zest

Instructions

  1. In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the water and sugar, and boil until the sugar dissolves, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Stir in the lemon juice and lemon zest, then pour into the bowl of an ice cream maker. Churn according to manufacturer instructions. When the sorbet has frozen into ice crystals (it will still seem quite soft), transfer to a storage container, cover tightly and freeze until ready to serve. The sorbet will solidify in the freezer.

Recipe Notes

Sorbet Without an Ice Cream Maker: If you do not have an ice cream maker, you can transfer mixture to a 9×13 metal baking pan. Freeze until firm (about 2 to 3 hours), stirring with a fork every half hour. Bingo.

Talking of bingo curiously a board game has been created called Carcassonne.  It is a tile-based German-style board game for two to five players, designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede and published in 2000 by Hans im Glück in German and by Rio Grande Games (until 2012) and Z-Man Games (currently) in English. It received the Spiel des Jahres and the Deutscher Spiele Preis awards in 2001.

It has spawned many expansions and spin-offs, and several PC, console and mobile versions. A new edition, with updated artwork on the tiles and the box, was released in 2014.  Its available on Nintendo Switch and as a PC game through Steam.

There is so much more to see and do in Carcassonne but our trip was forshortened by a French train strike so we had to move on or lose the next stage of our holiday and we left before our time was up.  We need to go back and enjoy more of the wonderful Cite and Lower Town.  Lonely Planet, of course has more ideas of what to do. The whole area is well worth visiting.

The images below were taken from 0r near our AirBNB in the Lower Town.  I love the colour and texture of these roof tiles.

We had SO much fun hence Carcassonne – a fabulous place to spend a week!

What’s your favourite travel destination I wonder? Let me know! And if you’d like to read my husband’s delightful blog about our trip on the Canal du Midi you can read it here.

Hmmmm. I think a nice glass of red wine might be called for.

Love
Jenie

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