While on a film production in southern France (no really, for this), we were cruising along the autoroute between Toulouse and Narbonne. I was in the driver’s seat, which, for the record, is not the spot you want to be in while driving through this part of France. You get the occasional glimpse at the countryside, but as the sun shines and the southern landscape passes by, you definitely want to be a passenger so you can take it all in.
“Look… a medieval village!” I exclaimed, pointing to our left.
It was Carcassonne.
“No big deal,” one of our team members said with a bit of humor.
This had become our joke on this trip; pretending to be unimpressed. But if you’re not impressed by a road trip through France, you’ve been sleeping.
To the American eye, it’s always shocking to see historic monuments like this; on a road trip in the U.S. the oldest thing you might find is a Revolutionary War battle site. You’re hard pressed to find a cathedral or a chateau looming about.
Carcassonne rose out of the rolling landscape, its protected walls reminiscent of a time that we’d only ever read about. A road sign reminded us that we were passing a UNESCO Heritage Site – in case the medieval village to the left wasn’t sign enough.
Carcassonne is a fortified town in France’s Aude region – that’s a fancy way of saying “walled city.” With a fortified settlement existing here since the pre-Roman period, it has had UNESCO World Heritage status. Its massive walls that are a prime example of a medieval fortified town were restored in the late 1800s by Viollet-le-Duc, and the restoration itself had a large influence on conservation principles and practices.
Today you can easily explore the inner city and its Gothic cathedral. It’s a mish-mash of tiny cobblestone streets, gargoyles and quaint restaurants and wine bars. You can’t escape the feel that it’s a little touristy, but get a few meters away from the main center and wander around the outer boundaries of the walls, and you can have a few moments to yourself.
Carcassonne is stunning, both from the inside and out. One of the best views of it is from Pont Vieux, crossing the Aude River. The fortified city is well lit at night, so if you catch the view at dusk, you get an amazing look at the golden shades of the wall paired against the sky – the kind of stuff postcards are made of.
But there’s more to explore than just the fortified city. Carcassonne itself is a bustling southern French city, complete with an excellent Saturday market, plenty of restaurants that serve local bottles of Languedoc Roussillon rosé, boat tours down the Canal du Midi and stores that specialize in foie gras de canard. And then there’s always cassoulet (although be advised that it’s not really a dish you want to be eating during warmer weather). When in Carcassone, eat duck – well, unless you’re vegetarian that is.
Planning a visit to Carcassonne? Be sure to check out Adelaide and l’Artichaut, both well-priced restaurants that offer up plenty of local specialties. Adelaide is just enough off the beaten path inside the fortified city that it doesn’t feel like you’re getting a bad tourist deal on dinner, and Artichaut is a good option when you’ve spent a morning at the Saturday market and want to sit outside on a terrasse for a bit of French food and a glass of good wine. Be sure to take a walk down the banks of the Canal du Midi – it’s another place that has a spot on the World Heritage list. Stock up on local produce beforehand and turn it into a picnic.
Whatever you do, take time to be impressed by the medieval village. It’s not everyday you are walking down the exact same streets that people did in the Middle Ages.