As the sun set over the Languedoc in the south of France, the lights of the city lit up. A warm glow illuminated each and every corner of the buildings, chiseling towers and turrets, buttresses and battlements out of the pink sky. It was a lovely view, full of romance of days gone by. A reminder of times when there were no computers and no cars, no schedules and no deadlines. The illusion of personal peace, of slowing down, and of a simple life without the demands of the modern business world.
As we cuddled up on our holiday apartment’s balcony, watching the evening scene of Carcassonne unfold, we felt compelled to explore this strange and unusual city first thing in the morning. We wanted to conquer the city’s secrets, challenge its authenticity, and hopefully, catch a little bit of that romantic feel that hung over the illuminated city like a sweet promise.
Medieval History You Can Touch
We knew that Carcassonne was a popular tourist attraction. Its medieval heritage was pristine and well preserved. Some would say, it was preserved too well, too romanticised, and not very authentic at all. Be it as it may, if you wanted to walk through a city’s streets that has the appearance of an unchanged medieval city complete with wells and cobblestones, fortifications and no cars, then Carcassonne was a good place to do so.
The medieval old town of Carcassonne was located on top of a plateau overlooking the River Aude. A strategic position, from which the lords of the city could control important trading and travel routes from the Mediterranean coast to the Pyrenees, from Aragon to France. This was why it was heavily fortified, with strong walls, towers, a castle and well-protected gates ensuring that no one was able to get in who wasn’t supposed to.
Visiting Carcassonne you need to spend some time exploring this sober aspect of the old town. Get the bigger picture and join the crowds. Walk along the outer fortifications, marvel at the ingenuity of the defence mechanisms, climb on top of the castle’s towers.
Once you’ve done all that start looking at the details.
Romance In The Detail
Because, visitor crowds aside, Carcassonne was an incredibly romantic city. For us, it started at the outset, that ridiculously beautiful evening panorama with its illuminations. And it then continued the next morning, on our walk to the old town along the banks of the happy river Aude.
The views of the Pont Vieux that stretched across the river in broad, bold strides, topped by elegant old-fashioned lantern arches.
It continued through the precinct on the foot of the plateau, the old houses with partly closed shutters and gargoyle shaped downspouts, the old water fountains. The effect of the huge fortifications as you slowly found your way up to the top, as they towered above you, and then when the gates swallowed you up as you entered the medieval city.
The music that we heard from the buskers who entertained the passers-by by trying to emulate the feeling of being in a different time. The hidden corners you explored as you strayed from the main roads and evaded the summer crowd, through silent alleys and past pretty little shops selling arts and craft.
The tiny squares that the waiters set up for lunch, the empty wire chairs and round tables, strategically placed to make the most of the shade of the ancient trees. Tempting cooking smells coming from the restaurant kitchens, lingering in the corners of hidden backyards.
The warmth of the light that fell through the oversized gothic windows of Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus, casting a prism of colours onto the polished stone floors.
Carcassonne Is Unusual, But It’s Got Something For Everyone
Carcassonne was indeed an oddity, one that was worth seeing. It’s not an off-the-beaten-path attraction that you will have to yourself. It is packed in summer with tourists coming from all over the world, as well as local day tourists from Toulouse and other nearby cities.
It’s attractive to luxury travellers seeking a romantic stay in ancient walls. It’s great for families who like to explore the intricacies of a historic place without having to worry about car traffic or queues. It’s a fantastic stop if you would like to experience the wines and the culinary treats of the south of France in charming surroundings.
The city of Carcassonne has a lot to offer, the trick is to find your niche and to carve out a piece of the experience that you can have to yourself.
It’s easily done.
Just lose yourself a little bit in the streets and keep your eyes open for the many little details of the medieval old town. Because when you do that, Carcassonne will manage to uphold its promise of timelessness, the illusion of getting away from modern life, offering you a chance of immersing yourself with moments of complete reverie.