Explore the Charming French Town of Carcassonne
This under-the-radar town in the south of France is paradise for those who love history, scenery and wine.
Picture a medieval city in your mind. The massive castle on a hilltop you’re picturing, surrounded by towering stone walls with turrets and towers? It exists, and it’s in the middle of a charming little town in the south of France. You may have only heard of Carcassonne as a classic board game, but the real place should snag a top spot on your travel itinerary.
This part of the world has a long and complicated history: Over the last 2,500 years, it’s been home to Romans, Visigoths, Saracens and Cathars. In 1209, the Albigensian Crusade conquered the city, and throughout the Middle Ages, it grew and prospered in trade thanks to its location near the border of Spain, all the while modifying and expanding its fortifications. A 1659 peace treaty with Spain moved the border away from Carcassonne, and it fell on hard times, with abandoned walls and towers starting to crumble over the next two centuries, but the city was revived and rebuilt to its medieval glory starting in the mid-1800s by architect Eugene Violett-le-Duc, an early proponent of historical restoration. (One of his first major projects was rebuilding Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.)
If history’s not your thing, Carcassonne is also in the heart of Languedoc-Roussillon, among the world’s largest wine-producing regions. It may not have the same level of name recognition as Bordeaux or Burgundy, but the area produces a wide variety of whites, reds and rosés, and the charming countryside is full of vineyards and chateaux.
Carcassonne itself has a small airport with daily flights from London and other UK cities, but a better bet might be to rent a car in a larger city nearby and enjoy a leisurely drive through the gorgeous countryside of the south of France. It’s about an hour from Toulouse, three hours from Barcelona or Marseille, or eight hours from Paris.
What To Do
The part of Carcassonne within the restored walls is known as La Cité, and the entire area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The castle itself, along with its ramparts, is a French national monument, with extensive exhibits about the area’s long history and Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration. You could spend hours just strolling the museum areas, but the narrow, winding streets of the rest of La Cité are also full of charming cafes, galleries and shops.
Outside the walls, there are lots of gorgeous sights to see as well: The Canal du Midi, a set of waterways built in the 1600s to connect the Atlantic and Mediterranean (and another UNESCO World Heritage Site), runs right through town, and its banks are ideal for a nice stroll, or you can take a day cruise on a riverboat. Feel like you’re in Game of Thrones with a visit to the Chateaux de Lastours, a set of four ruined castles from the 11th century about 20 minutes from town. Very near those ruins, you’ll also find Grotte de Limousis, an extensive system of caves where you can see clawmarks from Paleolithic bears and an impressive “chandelier” made of aragonite crystals, along with stalactite columns and an underground lake.
Where to Eat, Drink and Stay
Very close to the Chateaux de Lastours is Le Puits du Trésor, a Michelin-starred restaurant from chef Jean-Marc Boyer with a seasonally rotating set menu. (There’s also a more casual bistro attached to the restaurant called Auberge du Diable au Thym.)
Back in La Cité, you’ll find the luxurious Hotel de La Cité, which combines Carcassonne’s ancient history with all the modern amenities you’d expect of a grand hotel. The place is also home to Michelin-starred restaurant La Barbacane, and its Library Bar features a nice cocktail list, including a signature Spritz made from local wine.
Speaking of wine, there are lots of wineries in the area, but few offer tours and tastings for English speakers. Opened by a couple who relocated from Florida, O’Vineyards is an exception. The vineyard, winery and B&B is about five miles away from La Cité and offers a wide variety of options for visitors, from a simple tour and tasting to a full-day make-your-own-wine experience that includes a five-course meal. You can even stay on-site in one of five double rooms and two “apartments” that can accommodate up to five guests each. (Full disclosure: The owners of O’Vineyards are the parents of a friend of mine from college.)