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Why go now?
With a mild climate typical of the south of France, the attractive walled city of Carcassonne is an appealing and accessible destination for an out-of-season weekend. The Gauls, Romans, Moors and Cathars have left their mark on the place and contributed to its atmosphere – but the restaurants and shops ensure that there is more to Carcassonne than just history.
The only airline with direct flights from the UK is Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), which flies from Stansted four times a week in winter (daily in summer) and from Liverpool and East Midlands twice a week (with four and five weekly flights respectively in summer). Carcassonne’s tidy little airport is 4km west of the city.
Get your bearings
Carcassonne is two cities in one, divided by the river Aude. On its east bank stands the medieval city, whose main entrance is the Porte Narbonnaise (1); on the right the Bastide St-Louis, 13th century in origin, but now spilling out beyond the boulevards that mark the location of its ancient city walls. On its north-west side is the Canal du Midi, the 17th-century waterway that links France’s Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts and provides some lovely canalside walks.
The two halves of the city are a short walk apart, across the medieval Pont Vieux (2). But this guide assumes you will spend most of the first day in the Bastide, leaving exploration of the Cité until day two.
From the airport, a connecting bus (00 33 4 68 47 82 22) leaves about 20 minutes after each flight arrives, for a fare of €5 It heads first for the medieval city, then makes a tour of the Bastide St-Louis, ending at the railway station (3). You can also walk from the airport to the Bastide St-Louis in about 40 minutes; the Cité is a further 20 minutes.
The main tourist office (4) at 28 rue de Verdun (00 33 4 68 10 24 30) opens 9am-6pm daily (Sunday to noon); see carcassonne tourisme.com for more.
The most stylish place in town is the Hôtel de la Cité (5), a historic, ivy-clad property in Place Auguste-Pierre Pont run by Orient Express (00 33 4 68 71 98 71; hoteldelacite. com). Double rooms start at ¤310, with an extra ¤28 for the buffet breakfast. The Hôtel de Terminus is a three-star establishment opposite the station (3) at 2 avenue Maréchal Joffre (00 33 8 25 82 62 05; soleilvacances.com); rooms with breakfast are available from ¤98.
For a combination of urban and rural, there are few better places than La Maison sur la Colline, an elegant guesthouse set amid vineyards at the Mas de Sainte-Croix (00 33 4 68 47 57 94; lamaisonsur lacolline.com). There are lovely views of Carcassonne from the property, and although it is out of town, it’s only a 20-minute walk from the medieval city. Double rooms are available from ¤80 including a copious breakfast.
The main shopping thoroughfare, Rue Clemenceau is less appealing than Rue Verdun, where there are plenty of intriguing small shops to browse in. The store On Dirait le Sud (6) has plenty of home accessories, while La Ferme has an extensive selection of local wines, chocolate, cheeses and other deli goods. Carcassonne has a colourful and lively market, with stalls that are piled high with the produce of the region; it takes place on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings in Place Carnot (7).
Lunch on the run
Place Carnot (7) is an excellent spot for a light lunch, whether it’s market day or not. Check out Chez Félix or the Bistro Florian for a good selection of salads and hot dishes.
Take a hike
Begin a walking tour of the Bastide at the west side of the Square Gambetta (8), the rectangular space just outside the boulevards that encircle the city
The most elegant building is the Museum of Fine Arts, whose permanent collection is of French and Dutch paintings that span the 17th-19th centuries. It opens 10am-noon and 2-6pm Tuesday to Saturday, and from 2.30-5.30pm on the first Sunday of each month (daily 10am-6pm from mid-June until mid-September). Admission is free.
Walk down the Rue Ramond; on the right you pass the Hôtel de Rolland (9), one of the finest 18th-century buildings in Carcassonne. Now the Town Hall, it is built around an impressive inner courtyard. Take a detour as far as the Porte des Jacobins (10), one of the original city gates; remains of the old city walls are clearly visible to one side.
Turning right you will pass the Cathedral of St-Michel (11) and the Bastion de Montmorency (12), one of four such structures added to the city walls in the 16th century
Head north past the Jesuit College (13) and, a couple of blocks east, is the Maison du Sénéchal (14), built in the 14th century and later restored by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the 19th-century architect who did so much to restore Carcassonne’s old buildings.
Continue past the old covered market (15) to the Canal du Midi and the Port of Carcassonne (16), from where pleasure cruises (00 33 4 68 71 61 26; carcassonne-croisiere.com) depart in summer.
Wine lovers might want to head into the medieval city for an early evening drink at Le Comptoir des Vins et Terroirs (17), at 3 rue du Comte Roger (00 33 4 68 26 44 76; comptoir-vins.fr). It has an excellent selection of local wines by the glass, as well as plates of cheese or charcuterie to accompany them.
Dining with the locals
Stay in the Cité for a delicious feast of Carcassonne’s signature dish, cassoulet, a hearty mix of sausage, pork and duck served with haricot beans. This is included on the ¤18 menu at the Auberge des Lices (18), 3 rue Raymond-Roger Trencavel, a pleasant place away from the main tourist beat.
Sunday morning: Go to church
Start your Sunday with a visit to the main church in the medieval Cité, the Basilica of St-Nazaire (19), with its mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture and striking stained glass. Inside is a stone believed to have survived the siege of Carcassonne in the 13th century. Once Carcassonne’s cathedral, St-Nazaire lost this title to St-Michel (11), over on the other side of the river, 200 years ago.
Out to Brunch
Le Bar à Vins (20) might sound more like an evening venue than a breakfast spot, but this café at 6 rue du Plô (00 33 4 68 47 38 38) serves a French breakfast of juice, coffee and fresh baguette with preserves for ¤7. For something more substantial, try Le Cinq (21) at 5 place du Petit Puits (00 33 4 68 77 14 93). This specialises in dishes from the Languedoc region, made with locally-sourced ingredients; expect to pay around ¤12 for a main course.
Medieval Carcassonne developed on a rocky mound that had first been fortified some 800 years before: remains of the 4th-century ramparts are still visible along the inner walls of the city. The Cité still has 128 inhabitants, but most of the people strolling through narrow streets and attractive squares such as the Place Marcou (22) are visitors who have come to soak up the atmosphere. The main entrance is the Porte Narbonnaise (1); straight ahead is the Cité’s main landmark, the 12th-century château (23). Located on the west side of the mound, it was built as the feudal castle of the Trencavel family before becoming the property of the king and an important defensive position along the frontier with Aragon. The castle is a magnificent building, now heavily restored by Viollet-le-Duc, containing courtyards, towers and a museum whose artefacts were found in the Cité and the surrounding district. The complex opens 9.30am-5pm daily (10am-6.30pm April to September); admission ¤8.
Take a view
Before you leave the old city, take a half-hour stroll around the Lices, a path that meanders round between the inner and outer fortifications, and enjoy tantalising glimpses of the countryside through narrow window slits and panoramic views of the Pyrenees as you turn towards the south.
A walk in the park
On the opposite side of town, south of the Pont Vieux (2) on the right bank of the Aude, is a pleasant grassy area ideal for a riverside stroll as far as the weir. The silhouette of the Cité above, and the residential area south of the Bastide opposite, provide a picturesque framework.
The icing on the cake
The Lac de la Cavayère – better-known locally as Carcassonne Plage – is a pleasant, man-made lake 5km outside the city. This is a lovely place at any time of year to enjoy some fresh air and a relaxing walk. Take bus 1 from the Bastide, fare ¤1.10.