Europe’s largest medieval fortress
www.tourisme-carcassonne.fr Described by Henry James as ‘an enormous toy’, the Cité of Carcassonne is Europe’s largest and most carefully preserved medieval fortress. It could have been dreamed up by Disney, but in fact owes its origins to the Romans, Visigoths and Saracens who laid the foundations for the massive double-walled fortifications, crenellated ramparts and romantic profusion of grey-tipped conical towers. Simon de Montfort captured the stronghold in 1209, masterminding his vicious sup-ression of the Cathar heretics from the Château-Comtal – a fortress within a fortress – which was further strengthened by Saint-Louis.
Stripped of its strategic importance by the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659), La Cité was gradually abandoned, while the Ville Basse, a 12thC bastide on the plain, developed into a prosperous market town. Irrepressible 19thC architect and restorer, Viollet-le-Duc set to work on the site in 1855, and his all-too-perfect restoration has been the subject of hot debate amongst purists. However, without his attentions little would remain now, and although La Cité is a tourist trap, it should be seen. Entrance to La Cité is free (except for the Château). Narrow streets lead up to the Château-Comtal, reached by a bridge across the moat. There are guided tours, a couple of small exhibits, and wooden walkways around the battlements. Then head for the Basilique de Saint-Nazaire, its roofline edged by fearsome gargoyles. The Romanesque nave with great rounded pillars and simple capitals ends in a lovely Gothic choir and beautiful stained glass. Behind the church, there is an entrance to Les Lices, the area between the twin battlements, where a re-creation of its medieval appearance includes giant catapults and workshops. A pleasant alternative to the usual tourist tat hawked on the main drag, the craft shops on rue du Plo sell pottery and jewellery as well as local produce such as honey and dried herbs.
Carcassonne is a useful starting point for the Albigeois Region and for Roussillon.