48 Hours In Carcassonne

The capital of Cathar country in south-west France has history, beautiful scenery and cassoulet in abundance. Simon Calder takes a weekend break


WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

Among the many French cities reachable on cheap flights from the UK, the most alluring destination for a quick and intriguing weekend away is Carcassonne. The self-styled capital of Cathar country combines a beautiful setting and superb architecture with a deep and tangled history. The first settlement was in the sixth century BC; the Romans built a city in the second century AD; the Moors were in control in the eighth century; and for hundreds of years Carcassonne was the front line between France and Aragon. The medieval fortifications have been preserved and embellished to create a unique ambience.

BEAM DOWN

The only direct flights to Carcassonne are from Stansted on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com). The airport is 4km west of the Bastide St-Louis, the lower town. A connecting bus departs about 20 minutes after the flight arrives: it runs first to the upper town, the Cité, then takes a circuitous route for those bound for the Bastide St-Louis. The fare is a steep €5 (£3.50). The low-budget alternative is to cross the main road outside the airport, walk for five minutes along rue Jacques Vaucanson, turn left along boulevard Henri Bouffet for another five minutes and, at the roundabout, catch bus 1 or 3 (not Sundays) for a fare of €0.90 (65p). The no-budget option is to walk to town, which takes about 40 minutes to the Bastide St-Louis and another 20 minutes to the Cité.

The other main gateway is Toulouse, served from Birmingham, Bristol and Southampton by FlyBE (08705 676676; www.flybe.com); from Cardiff by Bmibaby (0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com); and from Gatwick by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyjet.com). Catch the airport bus to Toulouse railway station, and take the 40-minute train ride to Carcassonne's handsome station.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Carcassonne is two fine cities for the price of one. This guide assumes that you will spend most of the first day in the 13th-century Bastide St-Louis, on the left bank of the Aude, and the second in the medieval city, Cité, high above the right bank. Carcassonne's main Office de Tourisme is on the eastern edge of the Bastide St-Louis, looking out over Square Gambetta. It opens 9am-6pm daily (only to 1pm on Sundays), and shares space with the city's fine-arts museum, which you can wander around free and see the history of art in the course of just 18 works. Another office is just across the Canal du Midi from the station, but this opens only 2-6pm daily. The longest hours are kept by the branch at the Porte Narbonnaise of the Cité, which opens 10am-6pm daily.

CHECK IN

Top of the town in every sense is the four-star Hotel de la Cité, high in the old quarter at Place Auguste-Pierre Pont (00 33 4 68 71 98 71; www.hoteldelacite.com). It is an Orient Express property, and has a basic room rate of €300 (£220) double, with buffet breakfast an additional €24 (£17) per person. France's most beautifully located youth hostel is a couple of minutes' walk away on rue Raymond-Roger Trencavel in the heart of the Cité (00 33 4 68 25 23 16); a bed costs €15.50 (£11), including breakfast. The third option is the B&B (Chambres d'Hôtes) at 8 Place du Grand Puits (00 33 4 68 25 16 67), which is especially good value for families wishing to share a room. Rates range from €42 (£30) for a double to €68 (£48) for a room sleeping five; breakfast, in "kit" form, is included.

At river level, the Trois Couronnes at 2 rue des Trois Couronnes (00 33 4 68 25 36 10) is an eyesore right next to the Vieux Pont, but it has some spectacular views. A panoramique double room costs €96 (£69), with breakfast an extra €9.50 (£6.70) per person. In the Bastide St-Louis, the Grand Hotel Terminus at 2 Avenue Maréchal Joffre (00 33 4 68 25 25 00) is the place for historical resonance.

WINDOW SHOPPING

The market takes over Place Carnot on Saturdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, with a colourful and appetising range of Mediterranean produce. Just south-west of here, the covered market at Place d'Eggenfelden is also worth a look. The main shopping street is the pedestrianised rue Clemenceau, which leads from the elegant 18th-century Porte des Jacobins northwards towards the railway station. Most of the offerings are branches of French retail chains. For an alternative, go shopping for retro clothing and kitsch at Frip'One at 37 rue Albert Tromey (00 33 4 68 71 59 02; www.fripone.com); it opens 10am-12.30pm and 2.30-7pm (not on Sundays or Monday mornings).

Most of the shops in the Cité are full of souvenirs, including replica swords and firearms; don't try bringing them home in your hand luggage.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

If you are not staying at the Grand Hotel Terminus, use lunch as an excuse to visit it. The attached brasserie has reliable daily specials.

TAKE A RIDE

The Canal du Midi is an 18th-century engineering marvel that still serves to link the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, though these days it is used mainly by pleasure craft. Carcassonne has a fine port. From the railway station side, you can take a cruise on the canal of between 90 minutes (€7/£5) and two hours (€10/£7) aboard a vessel belonging to Lou Gabaret (00 33 4 68 71 61 26).

A WALK IN THE PARK

The quiet, low-rise residential area south of the Bastide leads you to the river Aude just upstream from the weir, at a point where it is relatively tranquil. Follow the water's edge, and the silhouette of the Cité soon appears. Continue around the curve to the Pont Vieux, a 14th-century masterpiece of civil engineering.

AN APERITIF

Le Quai Bellevue, a bar on the left bank of the Aude, has a fine view of the upper town. In the Cité itself, the best venue is probably Le Trauquet, which is located at the Place du Petit Puits in the most villagey part of the Cité. You can choose from kir, muscat or local wine, and tuck into a plate of charcuterie.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

In the Cité you can choose from dozens of options, almost all of them promising the best cassoulet in town. This is the town's signature dish: sausage, pork and a leg of duck served in a steaming pot of haricot beans. Among the places off the tourist trail, the Auberge des Lices at 3 rue Raymond-Roger Trencavel (00 33 4 68 72 34 07) has the least appetising name but a pleasant ambience and a good €16 (£11.50) menu that includes cassoulet.

For the best value dining, head downhill to the Bastide. On the south side of the main square, Place Carnot, two adjacent brasseries battle it out for customers. Le Longchamp is something of a sports bar inside, but it serves a decent €11 (£8) cassoulet. Next door at the Bistro Florian, the cassoulet is one euro cheaper, but the service is slower. Go half a block north, and Le Petit Couvert at 18 rue de l'Aigle d'Or (00 33 4 68 71 00 20) has very reasonable food and excellent service. The menu soir costs €15 (£11): it includes a wide range of starters (salads, seafood, charcuterie); a fish or meat dish; dessert; and a quart (250ml) of local wine.

SUNDAY MORNING: TAKE A HIKE

Walk across the Pont Vieux and continue along rue Trivalle even after the signs direct you to the right for the Château; this will take you past a stretch of wall decorated in newly painted historic murals. From here, walk through the car park and follow the crowds up the footpath to the Porte Narbonnaise, the gate through which most tourists enter the passes. To get away from the crowds, turn left as soon as you can and explore the quieter lanes that lead to the St-Nazaire church.

GO TO CHURCH

The Lesser Basilica of St-Nazaire, stresses a sign at the entrance, has always been a Catholic church. Those who are decorously dressed are able to visit (and note the ancient stained glass) between 8am and 6pm daily, though with a flexible midday closure of a couple of hours. The Bastide St-Louis worship option is the vast and austere St-Michel, which took over from St-Nazaire as Carcassonne's cathedral in 1801. It opens 8am-6pm.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Book in advance for the Brasserie le Donjon at 4 rue Porte d'Aude (00 33 4 68 25 95 72), which opens at noon. The menu Cathare (€26.50/£18) makes the most of fresh local ingredients and inventive regional specialities.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

After the Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed between Spain and France in 1659, Carcassonne lost its strategic importance and, in effect, became fossilised. The Viscount's Castle (00 33 4 68 11 70 70; www.monum.fr), built on Roman foundations, was "rescued" by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who restored it in the mid-19th century, perhaps with rather too many imaginative flourishes - decide for yourself on an organised tour of the walls (the only way to visit the perimeter of the castle). At least one tour each day should be in English, but most are in French.

The castle opens 9.30am-6pm from April to September, and closes an hour earlier from October to March. The basic admission fee of €6.10 (£4.30) includes the "blue" walking tour; the "red" tour costs an extra €4 (£2.80), and does not operate every day.

WRITE A POSTCARD

Depending on the recipient, choose an arty view of the château or a cartoon image of a cow urinating in the Aude with a slogan that translates as: "Why you shouldn't drink the water in the south of France". If the post office in the middle of the Cité happens to be open, you can buy a stamp; either way, write it from the terrace of L'Aquarelle Crêperie, above the post office.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Walk around the lices, the open space between the outer wall of the Cité and the inner fortifications. The wall-to-wall 3km walk can be accessed at several points from the Cité, and will take half an hour, not including stops for photographs and admiring the vistas of the Montagne Noire to the north and the Pyrenees to the south. You get close-up views of the tottering towers and a cross-section of a couple of millennia of fortifications.

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