After cavorting around Catalonia and spending time dallying with Dali we left Spain and headed for France. Our original idea was to stop briefly in Béziers after seeing it on one of those ‘A House in XYZ’ TV programmes. The impression given was of a pretty town with a church perched high on a hill overlooking the river Orb, the reality after a bit more research suggested it was little more than a grey town with horrendous traffic jams. We, therefore, decided when almost at Narbonne to give it a miss and head straight for Carcassonne.
The last time we visited the city was 2007 and as we enjoyed it then, we thought we would see whether it had changed. Firstly it should be pointed out that ‘Carca’ as the locals call it, is actually a city within a city. There is ‘Le Cité’, the ancient fortress and then there is the lower town, Bastide Saint Louis, a small charming and pretty, workaday authentically French town dating back to the 13th century.
Bastide has an array of restaurants and cafés and some quite nice shops. It’s easy to wander around, because like most fortified towns it is set out in a grid and several streets form a pedestrian zone, making strolling along looking at the shops even easier.
We arrived in a blustery spell of rain and cold winds and checked in to our hotel. It was on one of the many new ring roads around town that was home to numerous commercial centres. Initially we thought it was hard to find but then realised it was just two roundabouts with a short stretch of duel carriageway between from Le Bastide and three roundabouts and a continuation of the duel carriageway from the walled city. It was clean and very comfortable so we booked a second night.
Our first day wasn’t exactly great weather for wandering around so we found a restaurant in the centre of the old town. We were attracted by the prospect of the restaurants speciality, cassoulet, which is a traditional dish of white beans, sausage and duck. Fortified with a warming lunch which we lingered over by the open fire, we headed out to continue our tour but the weather was unbelievably cold and we eventually decided to head back to the hotel for an early night.
The next morning with breakfast under our belts we headed for Le Cité. It was under 5 minutes in the car and straight into an almost empty car park, which considering it was now almost 11.00am was a surprise as we believe this attraction (because it is as much an attraction as a town) receives 3 million plus visitors each year. Perhaps it was because it was still rather cold. Nothing like the previous day but walking up to the cobblestoned entrance, I clutched my jumper around my shoulders against the strong wind. Once inside the portcullis there were only a handful of other visitors around.
Carcassonne puts all other medieval walled cities I’ve visited in the shade. Just the sheer size of it is amazing. Touristy and over-restored but magnificent. A fairytale walled city of drawbridges, towers and fountains, secret gardens, courtyards, churches, ancient buildings, and delightful narrow cobbled streets where you will discover something new around each corner. Admittedly it is heavily geared to tourism, so expect the usual array of shops selling jewellery, souvenirs, fashion and “Cathar heritage”, but generally not as overpriced as I would have expected. There were even a couple of rather quaint shops that sold beautiful tiles and wall decorations not available elsewhere. (Bought two then had the nightmare of figuring out how to get them home – Remember we are flying Ryanair!!)
We spent time wandering in and out of the shops and around between the walls. Come late afternoon we took our food and rested our weary feet in the courtyard of the church all the time dribbling gooey filling from our freshly made crepes. By now the wind had dropped, the sun was out and the number of people around us had grown. It was finally time for us to continue our journey, so back to the car which now had several coaches parked around it. Hardly surprising, Carcassonne is quite simply a must see and we were more than happy to do the touristy thing and see it all – it was great fun.