The Château de Carcassonne, in the hilltop, old-town section of Carcassonne, La Cité, is a real, live, honest-to-goodness medieval castle. (Click here for it’s web site.) The castle and its ramparts were accurately restored in the 19th century. Since then, they have been beautifully preserved. The result is amazing—amazing enough that it was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997.
The result could have been disastrously otherwise. The powers that be at the time considered at least one alternative to restoration. The other option under consideration was to turn the site into a quarry. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.
There is a fee to enter the castle. It’s definitely worth it.
I’d also recommend renting an audio guide. It is available in a variety of languages, including English. The audio guide provides a wealth of informative historical and descriptive narratives about the major points of interest.
Château Model and Film
The first of the principle rooms that you enter when touring through the Château contains a scale model of the castle, which seems a bit meta to me.
In a normal home, the room containing the model would be the equivalent of at least two storeys tall. You enter the room onto a walkway that hugs the perimeter at about halfway up the wall, i.e., roughly the equivalent of what would be the second floor of a normal home. This allows you to get a bird’s eye view of the model below. You can also walk down some stairs to get a closer, eyes-on perspective from the room’s floor.
A room past the one containing the model hosts a short film that plays continuously. The narration is in French, but there are English subtitles. (Hint: The film also displays subtitles in one language (I didn’t make a note of it and I’ve now forgotten which language it was, but probably Spanish). The English subtitles are on the left side of the screen. So, if you need to read the subtitles to understand what’s being said, grab a seat in the center or on the left side of the theatre. Otherwise you’ll have to constantly twist your head to the left throughout the film.)
The film provides an fascinating account of the history, restoration and preservation of the castle.
Ramble Through the Castle
After viewing the film you can ramble through the rooms, towers and castle keep at your own pace. There is descriptive text with English translations on unobtrusive posters throughout. The audio guide augments that with additional information.
A few of the rooms of the Château de Carcassonne contain sculptures, capitals (i.e., tops of pillars, not wealth or seats of government), gravestones, grave caps and furnishings. Most of the sculptures, furnishings, etc. were not originally in the castle. Instead, they are mostly brought from elsewhere, but representative samples of the medieval period when the castle was inhabited and the seat of power of the Counts of Carcassonne.
There’s also a room with a fountain, although the fountain was dry when I was there. I think dry is its permanent state in modern times.
Of course, before you exit there’s a gift shop to pass through. The one near-constant at all tourist tractions is that you, as Banksy’s documentary film title says, exit through the gift shop. The gift shop at the Château de Carcassonne offers a wide selection of trinkets, trash and books about Carcassonne—both nonfiction and fictional books that are set in Carcassonne.
The castle towers and ramparts offer amazing views of other parts of La Cité, along with parts of Carcassonne’s lower town and the surrounding area. But a ticket into the Château also allows you to walk along a portion of the ramparts of the higher, inner wall of Carcassonne’s double-walled La Cité. Walking along those ramparts provides additional fabulous views.
There are two sections of wall ramparts that are accessible from the Château, the northern and western ramparts. The signage to them was not terribly conspicuous when I was there. Either that or I was just not terribly observant. Probably the latter. I’m prone to walking around in a daze.
If you tour the castle first and then walk on the ramparts afterwards, follow these directions to get to the ramparts: After coming out of the Château, as you walk toward the exit, you’ll come to a smallish courtyard. (Smallish for a castle; but it would be more than largish for, say, a middle class North American home.) Walk to the back of that courtyard. The entrance to the west ramparts are to the left. There’s just one catch. The west ramparts were closed when I was there. It didn’t look like a permanent closure so they might be open if you go.
As you continue walking toward the exit you’ll come to a bigger courtyard. (If you follow these instructions, relax. No, you’re not experiencing déjà vu. You also walk through this to get to the Château from the entrance.) Again, walk to the very back of the large courtyard. The entrance to the north ramparts is, again, to the left. Make the effort to find it. The views are well worth it.
In front of the castle there is what I assume was a moat at one time. To get into the castle you have to walk across a stone bridge over it.
Contrary to my mental image of a moat, this one was dry and landscaped. It’s lawns, flowers, trees and benches rest a level below the tourist-infested hubbub of La Cité, making them quite peaceful.
You don’t need to pay to walk through the gardens. There’s a path into the moat from the road that passes the Château’s entrance. Despite being free; despite being easy to walk to, with only a short, gentle slope; and despite being tranquil, very few people ventured down when I was there. Then again, that’s a redundant statement because if a number of people did venture there the gardens wouldn’t have been particularly tranquil.
I went into the moat/gardens, had a seat and meditated profoundly for quite a while on the deeper meaning of life. Or maybe I spent the time contemplating where to have dinner. I don’t remember which. Probably the latter. My mind works that way.