Carcassonne

Carcassonne

Of all the medieval and fortified towns throughout southern Europe, the Languedoc town of Carcassonne is easily one of the most famous. While officially founded in the fifth century there remains evidence of Roman occupation even now under the main buildings. Recalled for its pivotal role in the Albigensian crusades and the history of the Cathars, today the old fortified town is one of the biggest and most unique tourist drawcards in France.

While many mistakenly consider the fortified town to be one of the best preserved medieval fortresses still standing, the old walled village was actually in ruins for centuries. In fact, Carcassonne was struck off the roster of official fortifications under Napoleon and the Restoration, and the fortified cité of Carcassonne fell into such disrepair that the French government decreed that it was unsafe and should be demolished and cleared for redevelopment. This decision, thankfully, caused an uproar, and around 1853 acclaimed French architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc came into the picture and began one of his famed restorations.

Teddy in Carcassonne

Teddy needed a rest overlooking the great hall in Carcassonne

Viollet-le-Duc had already won praise for his restoration of such important landmarks as Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and the Romanesque abbey of Vézelay. Modern conservationists consider Viollet-le-Duc’s restorations too free and too interpretive. Nevertheless, some of the monuments he restored might have been lost forever if he had not intervened.

The architect had himself admitted that he could have chosen to restore the site to any one of a number of possible historical eras. After all, as one master after another added to or built over older structures during its seventeen-hundred year working life, the fortifications became a jumble of styles and technologies. Viollet-le-Duc chose to restore the site in line with the way it might have looked around the late 16th century, shortly before it began its decline.

In 1997 the site was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

To Teddy’s untrained eye, the restoration was a huge success. Visitors can not only see what the structure would have looked like at its peak, but there are also solid glimpses into its earlier history. As a massive 3D, walk-through step back in time, it is almost unparalleled.

Carcasssonne by air

Carcasssonne by air

The concentric design of the old village is a result of the building of new fortifications as the town expanded. The original castle, with its own fortifications, ditch, classic drawbridge and large outer wall, is on the western side of the larger site. Two larger outer walls, with towers and barbicans to prevent attack by siege engines, then encompass the rest of the village.

The tiles of a roman villa were discovered under the keep of the original fortification, and even some of the towers of the outer wall are roman in design, so the site was always considered to be strategically important. The town also played a significant (and bloody) role in the history of the Cathars and the Albigensian crusades, and one of the towers housed the Catholic Inquisition in the 13th Century. It is still referred to today as “The Inquisition Tower”.  But after the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, in which the province of Rousillon was transferred to the French, the area was no longer the first line of defence against the Kingdom of Aragon and the fortifications were abandoned.

Carcassonne

Carcassonne

Walking around the village today is a slightly paradoxical sensation. The buildings, the architecture and the ambience is certainly that of many hundreds of years past. Unfortunately, however, that is countered by the same phenomenon that tends to spoil many of the historical French villages that are popular with tourists – all the same tourist-focused types of shops. There are the usual galleries, souvenir shops, chocolate and ice cream shops that seem to inhabit all of the popular tourist destinations, and this can sometimes detract from the important historical nature of the location.

Of course, having said that, Carcassonne remains one of the biggest and best of the medieval French sites, and one cannot help but be impressed by the scale and grandeur of the place. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the authenticity (or otherwise) of the restoration, it is an awe-inspiring experience.

Carcassonne

Interesting stained glass at La Basilique Saint-Nazaire, Carcassonne

The massive cathedral, La Basilique Saint-Nazaire, was one of the first buildings to be restored, and remains an impressive edifice today. The stained glass windows are some of the best examples of the art, and include one window that Teddy is surprised has not been seized upon by the “Da Vinci Code” theorists as it certainly seems to imply a christian family tree that extends beyond the crucifixion.

Across from the cathedral is the former bishop’s residence, and it is clear that it has always been the most impressive residence in the village outside of the main castle. Today, appropriately, the old bishop’s residence is now the only luxury boutique hotel within the old city walls (the Hotel De La Cite). Inside, the hotel retains the rich timber and tapestry atmosphere of the old residence, while outside the manicured gardens continue the feeling of opulence and exclusivity.

The original citadel and keep also houses an excellent audio-visual interpretation of the history of the village and the restoration effort. It definitely helps visitors to understand how the village expanded over the centuries, and then the extent of the ruins that confronted the restoration teams.

Carcassonne

Carcassonne

The museum contains many fascinating photographs and artefacts from the site, and from various parts of its history, including large statues and decorative stonework. But as good as the museum is, it is the fortification itself that is the great museum. Walking along the battlements is the best way to understand the purposes of the various parts of the defensive structure. Walking through the old castle and even among the streets of the old village provides an eye-opening insight into what life must have been like in those difficult and dangerous times.

Carcassonne is easily the most popular heritage destination in the Languedoc-Rousillon region, attracting more than two and a half million visitors a year, and it’s easy to understand why. At night the exterior walls are lit up by strong flood lights, creating a fairytale tableau. The long ramparted walls, the fifty-two towers and the (unauthentic for the region) slate-topped conical towers are one of a kind.

Of course, that many visitors means crowds, so if that’s not your thing, try to visit out of the peak season (so not July, August, September). Be aware too that many areas (such as the ramparts, towers and even parts of the museum) are not suitable or accessible for those with limited mobility. There are stairs, steps and cobbled streets aplenty, so even those with good mobility need to be fit and wary.

Carcassonne

Between the walls, Carcassonne

To walk the streets, or the museum and to touch the history, is to become part of the long, rich, bloody and magnificent history of Carcassonne and the Languedoc-Roussilon region.

(There are many more photos of Carcassonne in the desktop backgrounds and iPhone wallpaper pages.)

 

 

2 Responses to Carcassonne

  1. Kas says:

    It’s always nice to find a new site this good. I will be coming back for certain

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