Postcards From Carcassonne: Exploring A Medieval French Village

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.

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Five great European thermal baths

european thermal bathsBefore the spa revolution saw most upscale hotels offering spa services to guests, there was the venerable European spa town tradition, centered on thermal baths built around natural hot springs. The water on offer for bathing at these sites has historically been thought to possess therapeutic qualities. The tradition of taking a “cure” remains an enthusiastic habit across Europe today, in particular in Central Europe.

Here are five noteworthy thermal baths, in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, and France.

1. Bad Gleichenberg, Austria. This small Styrian town is home to a thermal bath with a grand history that stretches back to Roman times. There are seven springs here, all producing mineral-rich waters known for their beneficial effects against respiratory and skin problems.

2. Bad Nauheim, Germany. North of Frankfurt, this town’s waters are meant to be particularly good for the treatment of heart and nerve disorders. These waters have a salt content of three percent, as high as most seawater. At Therme am Park, day tickets for bathing begin at €15.

3. Széchenyi, Hungary. Europe’s largest thermal baths are the most urban of the handful profiles here, located as they are in Budapest’s City Park. These waters are supposed to have great therapeutic value for those suffering from joint ailments.

4. Therme Vals, Switzerland. This spa, designed by the in-demand Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, benefits both from architectural significance and an impossibly picturesque location in the mountains of Graubünden. Vals is also the source of Valser mineral water.

5. Alet les Bains, France. This southwestern French village, not far from Carcassonne, is but a speck on the map. Since 1886, water sourced here has been bottled for consumption. During the warmer months (May through September) the town’s thermal baths are opened to the public. The waters here are supposedly very good for the treatment of digestive and metabolic problems.

[Image: Flickr | karaian]

Photo of the Day (03.25.2008)

There’s just something about a castle, you know? They can’t help but exude a sense of history and regal divinity. Or maybe that’s just because I live in a city that’s only been around for about 100 years, in a country where castles and cobblestones are few and far between. Maybe if I lived near Carcassonne, the castle depicted in this photo by Luke Robinson, I wouldn’t be so awestruck by every castle I see. Then again, maybe not — It looks pretty darn awesome from what I can see here.

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