Medieval Carcassonne has been considered a strategic location since Neolithic times. Its first settlement dates to about 3500 BC. This ancient rocky hilltop is steeped in history and lore. The Romans were the first to build ramparts around the cité (walled town) in the 1st Century BC. The prime hilltop location made it easy to defend, and its strategic position between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean sea, as well as between the Massif Central and the Pyrénées made it an important trading place as early as the 6th century BC.
Today, Carcassonne is best known as a spectacular medieval fortress, one of the most well-preserved medieval towns in Europe, and the third most visited place in France. It’s been the setting for movies, such as Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves and TV miniseries, such as Ridley Scott’s Labyrinth. There’s even a strategic board game that is set in Carcassonne. It’s the archetypal medieval castle.
One quiet day in December, we rented a car and drove to the medieval fortified town, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. It was marvelous to walk over the drawbridge, through the Narbonne Gate with its two enormous towers on either side, and then into the fairytale-like atmosphere of the town’s cobbled lanes. Since we were visiting in December, there weren’t many crowds and it often felt like we had the historic town to ourselves, which considering that more than 4 million people visit Carcassonne annually, made it an even more special experience for us.
It’s not a very large town, so it didn’t take us more than a couple of leisurely hours to explore a maze of shop-lined lanes and courtyards. We stopped for lunch at one of the few open restaurants on a quiet square.
We weren’t able to enter the Counts’ château due to some type of construction work happening, and we chose not to pay to walk on the ramparts, but we were able to enter the courtyard of the château and climb certain portions of the ramparts. We were also able to enter the Saint-Nazaire Basilica, which was a quite lovely cathedral with two beautiful rose windows and stained glass windows. It was a fun experience to wander the town as we discussed the lives of the people that had lived here so many years ago.
We talked of knights and villagers. We wondered what the various merchants might have had on offer at their stalls and stores. We imagined battles as we examined the many arrow slits in the walls. Ethan shot many imaginary arrows at imaginary marauders and attacking armies. Once or twice, we thought of Billy Crystal’s line in Princess Bride and we encouraged each other to “Have fun storming the castle”. And, we did.