“Since the pre-Roman period, a fortified settlement has existed on the hill where Carcassonne now stands. In its present form it is an outstanding example of a medieval fortified town, with its massive defences encircling the castle and the surrounding buildings, its streets and its fine Gothic cathedral.” UNESCO
Carcassonne in the south of France is another of those memorable places where I spent several days just chilling out and taking a break from travel. I’d spent three months in Africa, followed by about a month travelling in Greece and Italy before I found myself staying – according to my imagination – in this fairy-tale castle.
The city of Carcassonne is divided into two main parts – Ville Basse (Lower City) and La Citè de Carcassonne. The latter is a fortified medieval walled city, which was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. It has a double row of fortified walls, almost two miles long, and 56 watchtowers. La Citè sits majestically above the more modern Lower City, a settlement which gradually grew around the castle.
La Citè was an expensive place to visit, because it is very touristy during the day, but there is a Youth Hostel there (and I found a supermarket just outside the walled city). It ended up being the perfect place for me to while away several days (and, for those thinking of going now, the Youth Hostel is still there).
La Citè has a great atmosphere. In the morning it’s quiet and peaceful, and I wandered along the narrow cobblestone streets and circled my way around the inner wall. My favourite landmark was an old Romanesque cathedral – the Basilica of Saint-Nazare – which is known as ‘the jewel of the old city’. It was wonderful, and I must’ve spent an hour sitting quietly in the pews gazing up at the vivid colours of the stained glass windows.
By late morning, throngs of tourists have arrived and this was generally when I abandoned La Citè and headed down to the Lower City to explore the gardens, markets, and more spectacular cathedrals. Another day, I took a walk in the country, strolling past vineyards, crops, and fields of roses and tulips. I walked as far as a sunflower field, so I could stand there and look back to the impressive La Citè.
I love sunflowers – the inspiration for Van Gogh – and I spent a long time enjoying my surrounds there, before heading back. People on bicycles cycled past, calling out ‘bonjour’; huge smiles across their faces. I felt I was in heaven.
In the evening, La Citè comes alive with people dining in restaurants and musicians performing with great gusto. But the thing I remember with the most clarity is heading to the outer wall on my own and finding a quiet niche near one of the watchtowers. I put my Walkman on and listened to Irish band, Clannad, as they sang about myths and legends. As I gazed at the castle and surrounding countryside, I began day-dreaming about ancient times and mythical heroes. (For anyone who knows me, this is not unusual 😉 )
La Citè de Carcassonne was the backdrop for the Hollywood film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, so I could almost imagine Kevin Costner and his band of merry men riding forth… Ah, it was the perfect place for dreamers…
As I sat there, after sunset, surrounded by old stone walls and ancient battlements, lightning lit the sky and thunder rolled overhead. Large drops of rain began to fall, but I didn’t move. I was too happy, sitting there, reflecting on how wonderful it was to be staying in a castle in the south of France…
And, I couldn’t help but think the lightning and thunder really suited my surrounds…