If the dreary autumn weather in the UK makes you feel like escaping to a magical world for a few days, what better than a short break in Carcassonne in the South of France? When most people think of ‘Carcassonne’, they think of the massive medieval citadel featured in countless photographs and paintings. The citadel or “Cité” sits on a hill overlooking the Canal du Midi and the ‘new town’ of Carcassonne or “La Ville Basse”. The citadel is France’s second-most visited tourist spot after the EiffelTower, making it a very busy and bustling place in the peak of the tourist season. In the quieter winter months it’s much easier to take time over a meal or a coffee or just wander through the narrow cobbled streets and gaze out over the fortified walls at the vine-covered hills in the distance.
The citadel’s fairytale collection of drawbridges, towers and atmospheric cobbled streets was reputedly the inspiration for Walt Disney’s The Sleeping Beauty. The Cité was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1997. The Romans originally fortified the hilltop in about 100BC and the Visigoths built the inner rampart in the 5th century. The citadel fell into disrepair by the 17th Century and the ramparts were left to decay. Viollet-le-Duc (who restored Notre-Dame in Paris) restored the Cité in the 1800s but his reconstruction has been criticized over the decades as being too unreal and Disney-like. Still, it is well worth walking around the fortifications which consist of the inner and outer walls and visiting the Chateau Comptal. There are guided tours of the château which also take in sections of the walls. During the tour, you’ll discover archaeological remnants found on-site, plus an explanation of the 19th-century restorations.
In the shadow of its smaller but more famous sibling, ‘La Cité’ Carcassonne’s lower town dates back to the Middle Ages. Known as the ‘Bastide Saint Louis’, it features typically French bars, shops, cafés and restaurants. This part of Carcassonne is home to a handful of charming boutiques and several great places to eat. It’s a good place to go for take-home treats and self-indulgent souvenir purchases. (In fact it’s a better bet than the generally overpriced souvenir shops of La Cité. ) The shops are all concentrated in the grid-system of streets leading off from the Place Carnot which is also home to the weekly food market, and in winter, the site of the temporary ice rink.
Traditional local food is usually heavy, such as the Cassoulet, the famous specialty – a mixture of haricots and duck and pork. Those who love Mediterranean food will also find plenty of restaurants to choose from, both in La Cité where you can enjoy splendid view at the same time, and in La Ville Basse.
If you’re looking for something else to do once you’ve explored the citadel and wandered round the shops in the “new” town, it’s well worth spending at least a few hours on the canal. The Canal du Midi is an important feature in Carcassonne and the canal port at is one of the busiest on the whole canal. From here you can hop on a half or whole-day canal trip for an unforgettable experience.