If one were to look at the map of southern France and northern Spain, you cannot but notice a range of mountains that appears to separate the two countries forming a natural border. This range is approximately 430km long, and rises up to 3400m in altitude.
But for the first millennia (up to 1000AD that is), this mountain range was not the defining border between the two current countries. Despite this physical barrier, it was a porous area that movements of peoples such as the Goths, Moors and Franks. After the partition and fall of the Carolingian empire, this region like most of the rest of western Europe fragmented into smaller domains.
Herein comes Carcassonne, a mighty fortress city in the southern end of present day France.
A long time ago (~300BC), the Celtic tribes settled in this area. Changing hands between Romans, Gauls and later on the Visigoths and Franks, the city entered the Middle Ages as a fortress town. At that time Spain was dominated by the Moors and threatened intermittently to cross over. Thus successive owners of this fortress both enlarged and also further fortified its defences.
We had drive over from Perigord on our “tour de France” and stopped over for a day.
The fortress town has two walls – one inner and the one outer one forming a perimeter that is said to run about 3km all round. Situated on a hilltop, the fortress within (the 2nd wall) is now a myriad of shops, hotels and restaurants. There are said to be still about 100 families that still live within, descendants of the original city.
We decided that a morning walk about on the ramparts would be an excellent way to start off our exploration. We entered the town via the famed Narbonnaise gate (‘Porte’ in French) with its statues of Dame Carcas. Legend has it that this lady led the city to fight off a siege and the city was named after her ringing a bell – Carcas te sonne, shortened to Carcassone. Of course it’s only a legend and invented only lately in the 16th century!
For our first stop along outer wall, we combed the area for interesting photo views. This is newer and only added during the 13th century. So it wasn’t all that fascinating, since it’s utilitarian purpose was just as a formidable barrier against invading armies. There are many gates through which we walked to and fro between the inner and outer walls, which made it all rather fun!
Carcassonne became famous in its role in Albigensian Crusades (early 1200s) when the city was a stronghold of French Cathars. Catharism was a sect that differed from Catholicism. The contemporary Roman Catholic Church branded them as heretical and sought to exterminate them. All this added to the confusion of France in the 1200s, with a combination of religious wars, English domination and crusades to the middle east.
The real fortress which dates from the 12th century is within the inner town wall. We spent many an hour just strolling the streets, watching the local folks go about their business, and other tourists clicking away at photo angles that reflect the life within this old fortress city. There is this stele in the center of town, with bronze casting of the 53 barbicans and towers that ring the city. Accompanied by the ‘local’ who pretended to be just mulling around, we guess it was an unintended guided tour!
The old wall or ramparts hails from Roman days and to be able to distinguish which section was from that era, one needs only to look at the towers.
The distinctive flat roofed towers reveals those sections that were built more than 1500 years ago. If one were to examine it closely, the stone slabs used are smaller and thinner.
We did not enter the Chateau Comptal, but walked all the front façade of it. This Count’s castle itself has seen numerous conflicts, not least the one that we mentioned earlier – ie the Cathars. It is a fortress within the fortress and served as the final bastion for the counts of the Trenvencal family. Ruling over a countship that was aligned with peers in as far away as Barcelona, this was the political seat of Carcassonne that was only incorporated into France in the mid 1200s.
The castle is rectangle, flanked by a square tower and eight semi-circular towers, each protected by a barbican. On the top of the walls, were constructed hoarding (“hourds”) and towers, which for were formerly erected all around the city. All attributes of castle building architecture in that era.
Just in case a checklist is needed, must-see sights to see within Carcassone are:
- St. Nazirius’s Basilica
- Aude gate
- Jousting ground
- City theatre
- The castle (Chateau Comptal)
- Narbonnaise towers
After our walk, we drove to the Pont de Vieux, just a little further down in the new city area. Here you can have a good overview of the fortress.
Carcassonne definitely holds its crown as the largest fortified city in Europe very well. It was the major defense position facing Spain until the Bourbons took the crown on both sides of the Pyrenees in the mid 1500s. From then and especially after the 1650s it had fallen into a lower strategic value as France’s border moved south.
This very beautiful fortress city is definitely one we would recommend to stop over for at least a few hours. Better yet, if one were to stay here for a few days in the city (the new part that is), it would also be memorable indeed.
This journey took place in June 2005