Carcassonne - A tale of two cities - Published in The Mail, 2022
Carcassonne - A city of Two Halves
The medieval city of Carcassonne is a tourist hotspot for many reasons. The fortified, walled city (Cite of Carcassonne) feels like a medieval Disneyland with turrets and tourist shops lining the narrow pedestrian streets. But unlike Disney, some of the cite’s historical walls actually date back to Roman times.The majority of the citadel was rebuilt in the 1850’s by visionary french architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc who saw the value in preserving the stunning Chateau Comtal and it’s grounds.
The Lower Town (Ville Basse) is also medieval but has a much more contemporary feel with lots of shops, bustling weekend markets and a busy town square with modern cafes and restaurants. The walls to this part of the city are mostly in ruins now, but the thirteenth century Carcassonne Cathedral is a big attraction here. On Saturdays, Les Halle Prosper Montagne food market serves early morning drinks and seafood. Visiting is a great way to see a bit of the underbelly of the city. It’s filled with locals enjoying fresh oysters and a cheeky tipple early in the morning. Some looked like they may have finished a night shift, others were doing their weekly shop. Some families were huddled round steaming, freshly made food in the seating areas.
When in Carcassonne, you are encouraged to try a glass of Crémant - a light, sparkling wine made in the traditional “méthode Champenoise” (the method used to make Champagne in other parts of France). Champagne, being a legally protected word, is not allowed to be used for any sparkling wine produced outside of the Champagne region so the sparkling wines of Alsace, Burgundy and the Loire Valley amongst others are called Crémant. It’s a great alternative to Champagne and is often half the price. There are lots of different varieties to sample and as it’s made from local grapes, you’re supporting the local vineyards.
Accommodation is plentiful and outside the cite it would be hard to surpass Carcassonne Townhouse, a stylish B&B run by English couple Rachel & Mark. (€130 per night) If a pool is a must (keep in mind you are 40 minutes from the beach) then the plain but keenly priced Mercure Carcassonne is located a bit closer to the walls of the cite (Approx €120 per night)
While it’s always nice to have a quick look round the shops, high fashion is limited in the city. There are some lovely concept stores and one of the best is Esprit de Sel ( 55 Rue Jean Bringer). Part vintage, part modern with a selection of french designer furniture and jewellery, it’s a treasure trove for design fans.
Moving into the citadel itself and it truly feels like another world. Guaranteed you won’t see anyone wearing high heels not least as there are no cars allowed in the area! Get ready for narrow, uneven cobblestone streets with steep inclines, but the stunning scenery all around you will make it worth every step.
There are lots of simple, no fuss food options in spots like Adelaide and Au Lard et au Cochon but if you want more flare you’re in luck because this area is home to several michelins-starred restaurants. le Table d’Alais, Comte Roger and Bistrot D’Alice all boast stars but perhaps the most lavish of them all is La Barbacane, not least because it’s set in the grounds of the most venerable of Carcassonne hotels Hotel de La Cite. (Average €250 per night) Built in 1903 next door to Basilique Saint-Nazaire, it holds it’s own with it's 59 rooms and suites (loosely based on the style and size of The Savoy, London) this hotel has had an array of distinguished guests stay one the decades including Winston Churchill, Buster Keaton and most of the Rockafeller family. It really has it all - a pool, it’s own spa and a spectacular event space with a clear ‘glass’ marquee giving incredible views of the castle and grounds. The hotel’s outdoor gardens are a joy to sit in and sample wines from their extensive cellar.
The summer months are extremely busy with tourists coming from all around the world to marvel at the historical sights. Diversely, in late September the city gets a very different kind of tourist as it hosts a unique music festival Convenanza. Created by the late, celebrated DJ Andy Weatherhall, it began in 2013 and has since become a pilgrimage for discerning music devotees annually.
If you are a Christmas market fan, consider visiting in December as the castle lights up and offers an idyllic backdrop to a perfect Christmas holiday. Ryanair offer cheap flights to Carcassonne all year round but if their limited flights don’t suit your schedule, flying into Montpellier airport offers more choice but remember to add a 90 min train to your travel plans.