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Touring Carcassonne: Europe’s largest fortified medieval city

Observer photo courtesy of Tourisma-Carcassonne Tourists visit the walled French city of Carcassonne, Europ's largest fortified medieval city, with 4 million annual visitors and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Observer photo courtesy of Tourisma-Carcassonne
Tourists visit the walled French city of Carcassonne, Europ’s largest fortified medieval city, with 4 million annual visitors and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

By Sharon Whitley Larsen

Creators News Service

You never know how a pig may change the course of history! (More about that in a minute.)

As I strolled the cobblestone streets of Carcassonne in southern France — Europe’s largest double-walled fortified medieval city, with 4 million annual visitors — I expected a knight in shining armor to gallop by on his horse any second, perhaps to rescue a damsel in distress (or maybe a tired tourist!).

This was my second visit here, and I’ve always been fascinated by its history. Spread over almost two miles of ramparts atop a cliff in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, the stunning “Cite” of Carcassonne — creatively built over the centuries to withstand invasions, with 52 towers, gatehouses and turrets — includes the 11th-13th century Viscount’s Castle, 13th-17th century Inquisition House (where heretics were punished) and the fascinating Basilica of St. Nazaire (blessed by Pope Urban II in 1096). The large fortress overlooks the River Aude, which separates it from the “modern” town below of 46,000, built in the mid-13th century by St. Louis (Louis IX).

Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, Carcassonne — known to be a human settlement as far back as 600 B.C. — encompasses more than 2,000 years of nature, art, architecture and history in its strategic Languedoc location, on a historic corridor between the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and a gateway to the Pyrenees. The Romans were here in the second century B.C. (naming it Carcaso); following that, the Visigoths, Saracens, Franks, feudal lords, Seneschals, Trencavels and various kings of France were among those who put their mark here throughout the centuries — some peacefully, some tragically brutal.

It was in this region, for example, at the end of the 11th century, that the Cathars (named from the Greek word “Katharos,” meaning “pure”), disenchanted with the Roman Catholic Church — feeling that it was run by a greedy and corrupt clergy — formed their own version of Christianity. They believed there had been two creations — one good, the other evil — and they considered themselves to be the “good Christians,” the true church of God.

The Cathars, who were vegetarian, had a single prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, and were baptized but did not partake in communion or use the cross as their symbol. They were led by bishops called parfaits. By the early 13th century the Cathars were viewed as dangerous heretics, and in 1209 Pope Innocent III decreed that all of them be killed. The bloody Albigensian Crusade, led by Simon de Montfort, turned this area into a killing ground. In 1247, the Cite came under the rule of the king when Louis IX founded the newer city across the river below. The outer ramparts constructed during his reign were continued under his son, Philip III; Carcassonne became so strongly fortified that it even stopped Edward, the Black Prince, in 1355.

Today, as visitors wander through the peaceful, charming walled city — which is still inhabited by some 100 townsfolk, mostly craftsmen and shopkeepers who sell local food items, wines, candies and crafts — it’s hard to believe that in the early 19th century it was almost torn down.

Or that a pig once reportedly “saved” it!

It was in the late eighth century, during the five-year siege when Charlemagne was determined to starve the residents of Carcassonne, driving out the Moors and Saracens. After nearly the entire garrison had died of hunger, legend has it that Lady Carcas, the wife of the Saracen King Balaak, made some dummies that she arranged all along the ramparts to make it look as if they were still fortified. She then heroically shot arrows at the enemy below — and had the only pig left devour all the remaining grain. When it was stuffed, she tossed it over, and when it hit the ground its belly ripped open, exposing the undigested grain. Upon seeing that, Charlemagne gave up, thinking that the residents were doing quite well and could not be beat. He decided to lift the siege and turned to leave. Lady Carcas, thrilled at defeating him by such a clever ruse, sounded the trumpets to call him back. But he didn’t hear them. His esquire, who did, reportedly said to him: “Sire, Carcas te sonne (Carcas is calling you).” This is supposedly how the town got its name.

Following the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, which ended Carcassonne’s reign as a strategic area, the city went downhill. By the beginning of the 18th century houses were built between the walls, with residents using materials they tore down from the fortification.

“That was the beginning of the destruction of Carcassonne,” said my tour guide, as we strolled around on a chilly, rainy day. Eventually, the walled city was condemned for demolition. But in 1850, it was saved by the passion and perseverance of historian and archaeologist Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille and Inspector General of Historical Monuments Prosper Merimee, who pleaded with the French government to preserve the historic fortress.

After a massive undertaking, it was subsequently restored by renowned 19th-century French Gothic architect and writer Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who once said of Carcassonne, “I doubt that there exists anywhere in Europe as complete and formidable a system of defense of the sixth, 12th and 13th centuries, as interesting a subject of study and a more picturesque situation.”

And today this unique, historic fortified city remains a testament to his vision.

WHEN YOU GO

Instead of flying or driving here from Paris, I took the train (including the high-speed TGV, via Nimes and Montpellier); it’s about a five-hour ride: raileurope.com.

The five-star Hotel de la Cite opened in 1909: hoteldelacite.com.

I stayed just outside the walled city at the family-owned Le Domaine d’ Auriac, a historic, romantic 24-room, five-star chateau: domaine-d-auriac.com.

Best months to visit are May, June, September or October for nice weather (and fewer crowds). And for the popular Festival de Carcassonne in July: festivaldecarcassonne.fr/en/festival.

For more information (click on English versions): carcassonne-tourisme.com and carcassonne.culture.fr and please seefranceguide.com.