The Medieval Cité of Carcassonne is sure to capture the imagination of every visitor
The Cathars were the followers of a dissident church that flourished in several parts of Europe during the early Medieval period. They promoted values of equality, neighbourliness and charity, and turned their back on the pomp, hierarchy and worldly wealth of the Catholic church of the time. The Cathar church flourished in the southern half of the French regions of Languedoc and Midi-Pyrénées and indeed this area is now known as the “Pays Cathare”. The Cathars took over many fortified hilltop sites and castles and turned them into their own strongholds in their fight against the Catholic Church.
The Chateau Comptal in Carcassonne’s medieval cité was a Cathar fortification. For over a century it was the stronghold of the Trencavel family and enjoyed tremendous influence over the Languedoc area. The castle was besieged by the Catholic Crusader army in August 1209 during the war against the Cathars, after they had first attacked the town of Béziers and massacred the entire population. Raymond Roger Trencavel was murdered and Simon de Montfort was appointed the new viscount and he added to the fortifications
It’s not difficult to imagine yourself back in those bloodthirsty medieval times as you wander around the cobbled streets and alleyways of the Cité of Carcassonne. The Cité is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the setting for many films featuring medieval castles. The French word cité translates literally as walled town. It was restored from 1853 onwards by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and narrowly escaped destruction during the Victorian era. 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 can discover archaeological artefacts found on-site, plus an explanation of the 19th-century restorations.
The medieval Cité of Carcassonne occupies only a small part of the modern city. “La Ville Basse” as Carcassonne is sometimes called, is very typical of many French towns with a few nice shops and restaurants but no sights of particular interest. After spending plenty of time exploring Carcassonne’s medieval heritage, visitors might prefer to continue on the trail of the Cathars and visit the cities of Béziers or Narbonne by train. Carcassonne also combines very well with Bordeaux or even with Paris for those wanting a twin centre break with a difference.