Carcassonne – the word rolls off one’s tongue in a whisper. To many, the Medieval walled portion of this bustling city is an item on their “bucket list.” Others know it only as a board game. It is a wonderful place to spend a vacation day. (Next time I would stay longer, because it is hard to take it all in during just one day.)
We started our adventure by parking near the train station, which is close to the Canal du Midi – which figures later in the story – and setting out for the walled city. In all the photos you see of the walled city (which is situated as every fortification worth its salt on a high and formidable hill) one would assume that it must loom up from the more modern part, and that you should be able to see it from everywhere you look. Not so.
You walk and walk through the lower portion, past attractive shops, cafes and parks, and finally catch a glimpse of the ramparts high above, across the Aude River. Your first thought is, how the heck do we get way up there? Following the crowd that is inevidibly climbing the same way is one method. A young person adept at smart phone way-finding is another.
However you get up there, you must climb steep pathways or series of stairs, but as usual in this part of the world, it is well worth it. Once you reach the inner walls, you find yourself accosted by gift shops, tourist attractions such as The Torture Museum, and cafes touting the ever-present cassoulet (reportedly invented in this region of France and featuring enough types of meat to make you want to become a vegetarian after a close encounter with it).
You can merely stroll around the walls, which offer lovely views of the hills in the distance, or you can go the historical interpretation route of a visit to the Chateau Comtal, the inner residence of the aristocracy of the city, which is now a museum. (Even on a non-tourist heavy weekday, the line to enter this inner sanctum is long and slow, especially around lunch time, so maybe take the advice of some Trip Advisors and get tickets ahead. Also, some of the ramparts are closed between 11:30 and 2 for some strange reason.)
The chateau is a maze of enchanting stairs and towers that you wish would go on and on forever. Here, a view of over the tiled roof to the courtyard. There, a peak through some arrow slits. Windows open to the bracing wind of the Midi, and views of the mountains beyond. Even though the useful interpretive slide show at the beginning of the tour reminds us that much of the walled city was reconstructed, it still feels as though you are transported back to the heyday of the 12th century, before a hoard of Northerners laid siege to the castle and brought its inhabitants (including those notorious heretical Cathars) to their knees.
I must admit, my whole experience was colored by the reading of Kate Mosse’s romantic historical novel The Labyrinth, which is required reading before a visit to Carcassonne in my mind (thanks, Hanna!). Though reading these Goodreads reviews, you might be tempted to skip it, I recommend wading through if you like your historical background sprinkled with plenty of blood, lust, intrigue and time travel.
We finally, and reluctantly, left the walled city and headed back to the canal for another history lesson wrapped in a relaxed boat ride. The Canal du Midi is part of a system that runs from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. You can take a commercial boat ride along it, or actually pilot your own canal boat for a leisurely holiday, which may be tempting some day with the right cast of characters.
As you glide down the plane tree lined canal a guide gives you excellent background information, you go through a lock to find out how those work, and you have a lovely rest stop at an old inn. A whole different view from the rugged walled city, which you could not see from the part of the canal we toured. It seemed something we had dreamed instead of actually having visited just hours before.