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Carcassonne is a French town in the Aude department in the region of Languedoc-Roussillon. There are two distinctive parts of the town: (1) the fortified La Cite de Carcassonne and (2)La Ville Basse or lower city which includes Bastide de Saint Louis. The fortress, restored in the middle of 19th century, is currently on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. The population of Carcassonne is about 50 thousand people.
The name of Carcassonne reminds the Celtic name of the place Carsac where the original settlement became an important trading place in the 6th century BC. There is also a legend that links the name of the castle to Carcas, the widow of the fortress castellan, who allegedly tricked Franks sieging the fortress in 760 to believe that inhabitants still had a lot of food and were not about to surrender.
The fortress, as the part of the County of Carcassonne, had rather turbulent history between 5th and 13th century passing from one conqueror to another until 1247 when it was annexed permanently to the Crown of France. The military significance of the fortress diminished greatly after 1659 when the 30-year war between France and Spain ended and the province of Roussillon passed to France.
If you are interested in the history of the area where Carcassonne is located, it is worth noting that the fortress became famous for its role in the Albigensian Crusades, when the city was a stronghold of Occitan Cathars (see travel idea about Montsegur, France). The Basilica of Saint-Nazaire in Carcassonne, blessed by Pope Urban II in 1096, became a Catholic bastion against the Cathars.
As I mentioned above, Carcassonne has been fully restored and is the Europe's largest fortified city still standing. The restoration turned out to be not without major authenticity problems. One of the major flaws is the shape of roofs as pointed cones typical for northern parts of France whereas according to local traditions roof silhouettes had lower slopes.
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What Makes It Special
Today, Carcassonne is one of the major tourist destinations in France. Its carefully restored medieval citadel perched on the hill attracts millions of visitors coming to Carcassonne every year.
La Cite de Carcassonne is actually a city that is one huge castle where impressive ramparts protect the fortified structure on the top of the hill overlooking the Ville Basse. The double row of concentric fortified walls is about two miles long and has more than 50 imposing watchtowers. The major fortification of Carcassonne began in 5th century when the Visigothic king Theodoric II took Carcassonne and continued for centuries. The history of Bastide de Saint Louis - La Ville Basse starts in 1240 when the French Crusaders expelled the original inhabitants of Cité of Carcassonne after an uprising of local population still loyal to the King of Aragon, the suzerain of the Viscount of Carcassonne killed earlier, in 1208. However, building of a new indefensible town known as Bastide de Saint Louis was permitted across the river Aude. It was laid out in a grid pattern and the bastide site is at the heart of La Ville Basse.
The view of the fortified city is majestic and the whole setting is complimented by the lush Languedoc countryside and not less majestic Pyrenees Mountains in the distance. Many compare Carcassonne to a fairy tale world.
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Directions To Destination
Carcassonne has a small international airport (Aéroport de Carcassonne Salvaza, code: CCF) serving flights mostly to UK and Ireland (London, Glasgow, Dublin, Nottingham, Liverpool) and also to Belgium (Brussels/Calderoi) and Portugal (Porto) by the low cost airline Ryanair. You can rent a car at the airport, or take a taxi (about 10-15 minutes to Carcassonne town at cost of €15 - €17 (2010 prices)). Alternatively, you can use shuttle bus that is usually coordinated with arrivals. The bus ticket is €5 to Carcassonne center.
While considering coming to Carcassonne by air, do not discard airports other than Carcassonne. For example, there is a large international airport in Toulouse (Blagnac) offering flights all over Europe and North Africa, including many daily shuttle flights to and from Paris. From Toulouse you can use car or TGV to Carcassonne.
If you travel in France by car, most likely you will need route A61 (E80) connecting Carcassonne with Toulouse. When renting a car, keep in mind that in summer cars are not allowed within La Cite during the day.
You can also use train to come to Carcassonne which is located on the TGV rail between Toulouse (Matabiau) and Narbonne (the ride from Toulouse is about one hour with ticket about €10.
Finally, keep in mind that Carcassonne is located a short distance from the Canal du Midi - 140-mile (235 km) canal connecting the Garonne (Atlantic coast) to the Mediterranean. Canal du Midi is on UNESCO's list of World Cultural Heritage Sites, and a very popular route for barge cruises.
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Best Time To Go
The most active tourist season is summer. Unfortunately, this is also the time when Carcassonne is packed with tourists. During winter months, many city attractions are either closed or operated on limited schedule. If you do not like crowds of tourists, visit the town in spring or falls - personally, I prefer the latter.
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Where To Stay
While planning for your hotel, you will need to decide on a major location - the old La Cite or Ville Basse. Staying inside the old walls can be more romantic. On the other hand, there are not that many hotels in La Cite and they can be pricey (with other inconveniences like problems with car parking and entering La Cite). In Ville Basse you can find a wider range of accommodations with prices from budget to high-end.
Our pick for La Cite location is Hotel de la Cite by Orient-Express, Place Auguste-Pierre Pont, 11000 Carcassonne, France - 4-star hotel located inside the walls of old La Cite de Carcassonne (between the Roman Château Comtal and Saint Nazaire Basilica) with Michelin starred restaurant (La Barbacane). Hotel has 42 guestrooms and 19 suites with lavish decor. From €300 to €825
Our recommendation for the location outside walls is
- Demeure Saint Louis, 2 Rue Michel Sabatier, 11000 Carcassonne - 3-star small guest house (five rooms) from the 18th-century. Sitting at the foot of Carcassonne, it is ideally located for visiting the medieval town as well as the center of the city. Another good option is
- Hotel du Chateau, 2, Rue Camille Saint -Saens | Montée Gaston Combéléran, 11000 Carcassonne, France - 3-star hotel with 18 rooms. This hotel is located at the entrance of the medieval town of Carcassonne, facing the ramparts thus still offering a convenience of proximity to La Cite. From €110 to €450
Research and book hotels in or near Carcassonne, France
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Look around, walk the cobblestone streets, visit churches and other historic places and finally eat cassoulet. Allegedly, Carcassonne is one of the few places where you can find the best cassoulet.
From Carcassonne you can make day trips to:
- Limoux, a picturesque village just south of the city and a thriving wine-making community.
- Montsegur, the site of the biggest stand the Cathars made against the Crusaders during the Middle Ages.
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Useful Visitor Information and Tips
Among the places to visit are:
- The Château Comtal in La Cite de Carcassonne. Castle and ramparts tours are available. Do not miss the Museum of Carcassonne's history; take a few pictures of the Rodez and Narbonne Gates as well as The Old Bridge constructed in 14th century.
- The Basilica of St. Nazaire and St. Celse (Basilique Saint-Nazaire-et-Saint-Celse de Carcassonne) is a national French monument. Formerly the cathedral of Carcassonne, it was replaced in this capacity by the present Carcassonne Cathedral (Cathédrale Saint-Michel de Carcassonne) in 1801. The original church (consecrated by Pope Urban II in 1096) was built in a Romanesque style. In 13th - 14th centuries the church was modified significantly and acquired its current Gothic style.
- The current Carcassonne Cathedral, Cathédrale Saint-Michel de Carcassonne, is also a designated national monument in Carcassonne, France.
- Several museums: together with the Museum of the Middle Ages, there are the Museum of Hats and Inquisition Museum. Les Aigles de la Cite - a 45 minute demonstration of Carcassonne's birds of prey.
- Church of St. Vincent, a Gothic church in the Languedoc style with western facade and tower erected in the 1320s. Located in Ville Basse.
Admission into the walled city is free; tickets to the central Château Comtal are about $10 per person.
The Carcassonne Festival is one of the major cultural events in the South of France and one of France’s largest festivals, with many shows including circus, street performances, theater, etc. Details for festivals are available on the Carcassonne Tourist website.
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