- Travel in France
- Where to go
What to see and do
- the connoisseur's guide to France
Carcassonne - the walled city
The saving of
With its 3 kilometres of
Plan of the old city of Carcassonne. Main access (red line) is from
Exit 24 on the A61 motorway (Carcassonne east) .
the old city of Carcassonne is one of
the largest surviving medieval walled
As a natural defensive spot beside the River Aude, the site has been
occupied and fortified since before Roman times. It was a Roman
stronghold, before being ceded in the 5th century to the
king Theodoric II. From then until the 14th century, the
of Carcassonne remained one of the main strongholds in an area that was
much fought over by dukes, kings and counts from the north and from the
Back in 1840
when few people other than artists
and poets were interested in old buildings, a young local councillor in
Carcassonne, with a passion for old buildings, managed to get the
ancient Basilica of Saint Nazaire, in the old city, classed as a
Jean-Pierre Cros was just in time. While Carcassonne had for
many centuries been an important fortified bastion on the main route
between the Languedoc coast to the southeast, and the plains of Gascony
to the west, its strategic importance had dwindled with the forming of
modern France with a national border running the length of
the Pyrenees. By the 18th century, Carcassonne's fortified garrison no
served much purpose, and the city was progressively abandoned by the
In 1849, the government declared that the fortifications of
Carcassonne were henceforth redundant, and should be pulled down – as
happend to the fortifications of most other historic French cities.
The ramparts of old Carcassonne in 1851, before the start of
Cros led local opposition to the demolition plan, and
enlisted the support of Prosper Mérimée (the novellist best known as
the author of Carmen
who was by then France's inspector of historic monuments.
With the basilica already classed as a historic monument,
Cros and Mérimée managed to persuade the authorities to extend
the classification to include all the medieval city and its
In 1835, Mérimée – whom we need to thank for the
saving of many of France's greatest historic monuments – had
already written of Carcassonne that "The old town is more interesting
(than the new town). It's double row of medieval fortifications could
be the subject of major studies into medieval military architecture
(Notes d'un voyage dans le
midi de la France
) ... but that the old town was
increasingly derelict and its old buildings inhabited only by the very
poor. No longer needing to live in the protection of the city walls,
most of the city's wealthier inhabitants had moved out and built new
houses and new municipal buildings in the new town, on the flat land
For better or for worse, the man entrusted by Mérimée with
the restoration of the old city of Carcassonne was France's leading
gothic-revival architect, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who had already taken
charge of the restoration of Mont Saint Michel
in Normandy, Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, and the great basilica of
Vézelay in Burgundy, among other projects.
Carcassonne by night'
Passionately interested in medieval architecture,
Viollet-le-Duc, like other gothic-revival architects artists and
writers in France, Britain and elsewhere, had a romantic view of
medieval life which coloured his work. Thus Viollet-le-Duc took a
fairly liberal standpoint when designing new gothic buildings or
renovating old ones, and his renovation of Carcassonne was no exception.
A Parisian by birth, his image of how medieval
buildings might have looked at their prime was largely influenced by
the old architecture of northern France; the result is that while the
ramparts and old buildings of Carcassonne are basically genuine
medieval structures, they got embellished in a medieval style more
typical of northern France than of Languedoc. The sloping
slate roofs of the towers of today's Carcassonne would be at home in
Brittany; until the 19th century, the towers were capped by much
flatter roofs using the red earthenware "Roman" tiles that characterise
the architecture of most of southern France.
More generally, Viollet-le-Duc was, and still is,
criticised for having over embellished the fortifications, adding
battlements and improving the look of the old city, to make it into the
an example of what a medieval city ought ideally to have looked like,
rather than how Carcassonne actually was. But even if many details of
the restoration work at Carcassonne were the fruit of Viollet-le-Duc's
artistic licence, most of Carcassonne is "genuine" to the extent that
Viollet's designs were based on his own very detailed knowledge of the
architecture of the Middle Ages. Besides, the walls and the
buildings in the old city are authentic medieval structures; the
rebuilding of Carcassonne in the 19th century embellished what already
existed, in did not create something from nothing.
Thanks to Cros, Mérimée and Viollet-le-Duc, the old city of
Carcassonne was thus saved from demolition and restored to more than
its original glory; and officially protected as a historic monument
since 1862, and in spite of Viollet-le-Duc's over-fanciful restoration,
Carcassonne remains one of the finest and most complete examples of a
fortified medieval city anywhere in the world. In 1997, the
old city's importance was confirmed when it was listed by UNESCO as a
World Heritage Site.
What to see in Carcassonne
Essentially, the one thing to see in Carcassonne is the old
The old city
Entrance to the old city is free of charge.
However there is a fee for the car parks
close to the old city. In 2021, the rate for cars is 30 free
minutes, then charged at 1€ per 15 minutes up to two hours, thereafter
0.50€ per 45 minutes. So most visitors - assuming at least two hours to
visit the old city - will pay a parking charge between 6.50
€uros and 8 €uros.
Within the city, the narrow streets are nowadays lined with
restaurants and tourist boutiques.
Acces to the ramparts
is through the city's keep, the Château
on the plan). Visitors have access to a part of the
ramparts, from which to enjoy magnificient views out over the new town,
the surrounding countryside, and to the mountains to the
(Montagne Noire) and south (Pyrenees).
the Château and ramparts in 2021 are 9.50 € full rate, and 7.50 €
rate. Access is free for under-18s in a family group, and is also free
for 18-25s from EU countries.. which no longer includes the
UK. (passport or ID required). ► Click for onlineticket
The Narbonne gate
Bazilique Saint Nazaire
(in brown on the plan).
At the southern end of the old city, the Basilique Saint
Nazaire, built in the twelfth century, is a fine example of
southern French romanesque and gothic architecture. It contains some
significant medieval stained-glass windows, notably two beautiful rose
windows in the north and south transepts. While the interior is largely
medieval, the exterior was embellished by Viollet-le-Doc's
in the 19th century.
The city gates.
old city has two main gates, the Narbonne gate in the east, and the
Aude gate, below the château, in the west. Both have been considerably
The porte d'Aude : the gateway itself dates from the Visigothic era,
but most of the superstructure is Viollet-le-Duc.
The Porte de Narbonne : the gate was considerably embellished by
Viollet-le-Duc who notably added the drawbridge which did not exist
Other sights to see in Carcassonne
The Canal du Midi
the historic 17th century canal, the oldest major
canal in Europe, which allowed boats to cross from the Mediterranean to
the Atlantic ocean, via Toulouse, the river Garonne and Bordeaux.
Le vieux pont.
210 metres long, the Old Bridge, crossing the River Aude
below the Porte d'Aude, is a well preserved 14th century bridge.
Access to Carcassonne
Carcassonne airport is served directly by Ryanair. For
details of flights from the UK
see Fly to France.
- By train
Carcassonne can be reached from Paris by TGV (high speed
via Narbonne (change), in a little over 5 hours. Timetables
- By car Carcassonne
is beside the A61 "Autoroute des deux mers" motorway, that runs from
Bordeaux to Narbonne. For the old city take exit 24,
signposted Cité médiévale. From Paris or from Calais (see routes from Calais)
the easiest access is via Orleans, Clermont-Ferrand, the A75 and
the area of Carcassonne
Impregnable Quéribus - one of the Cathar castles
Check out the guide to the Languedoc
Among the most interesting sights and attractions in the vicinity of
Carcassonne, the most noteworthy are.
- The Cathar
castles - a series of magnificent ruined medieval castles,
mostly in the Aude and Ariège departments.
- capital of the Occitanie region and the major city in southwest
France, Toulouse , a little over an hour up the motorway, is a fine
city with plenty to see.
- 30 km south of Carcassonne, Limoux is an attractive small town whose
claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of sparkling wine – the
first sparkling wines having been produced here in the early 16th
century, long before the idea spread to the Champagne region. Limoux
also has an unusual piano museum.
- The Canal du
Midi . Running from Toulouse to Agde, on the Mediterranean
coast, the Canal du Midi is a UNESCO world heritage site. Its towpaths
also make up one of France's great long-distance cycleways.... shaded
from the hot summer sun by lines of ancient plane trees.
Former capital of Roman Gaul, Narbonne is a typical Mediterranean
French city. It has one of the best southern French cathedrals,
attractive quays beside the Canal du Midi, and an underground Roman
market and warehouses.
- Abbaye de
Fontfroide. former medieval Benedictine then Cistercian
monastery in the wilds of the Aude hills. Impressive historic
buildings, including the abbey church and its cloisters. Privately
owned. Guided tours. Open all year
© About-France.com 2007 - 2021 except where otherwise stated.