La Cité de Carcassonne: Magical Medieval Town

Doorway to La Cité
Doorway to La Cité

I don’t have a bucket list, but, if I did, I would have now put and crossed off the hilltop portion of Carcassonne, France, generally referred to as La Cité. Before my visit, all I had known of Carcassonne  was derived from a board game based on the castles, cathedrals and river of that town. It’s a fun game. The real life version of Carcassonne, in particular the fortified La Cité, is amazing.

Before getting into a discussion of why I loved Carcassonne, and especially La Cité, so much, first a bit of a digression. In preparation for my trip I took a look at some tourism web sites. Some of those sites had comments sections. There, I read a few people’s complaints about Carcassonne having been spoiled because there were too many tourists.

I found these comments to be more than a little ironic. The commenters were all tourists. They, in essence complained that too many people visited a place that they enjoyed visiting. OK. I have a solution for those folks. Don’t go. Then there will be more room for me. Problem solved for both of us.

View from the ramparts
View from the ramparts

Yes, there were a lot of tourists in Carcassonne when I was there—and I visited in late May, which is probably the shoulder season rather than the high season. But it would be a tad hypocritical and imperious of me to tell everyone to stay away because I wanted to visit. Sure, I might have enjoyed having the place more to myself. (Although, I doubt restauranteurs would have been thrilled about keeping their establishments open solely to cater to my whims.) But I found it to be an enchanting place nevertheless.

A great many people often visit beautiful, lively, interesting, entertaining, cultural and/or enchanting places. Ugly, bleak places typically see far fewer visitors . If you want to avoid other people who, like you, are tourists, then, by all means, choose the latter.

OK. Digression over.

Overview of Carcassonne’s La Cité

Square in La Cité
Square in La Cité

The La Cité portion of Carcassonne is a human-scaled, medieval town sitting on top of a hill. It’s comprised of narrow, bricked streets flanked by contiguous two- and three-story buildings. True, the medieval mystique is diminished by a few of the buildings having TV antennas and satellite dishes on top of them. But, hey, it’s a real, living town, not Disneyland.

La Cité is surrounded by two concentric walls. You can walk along the tops of some of the ramparts on those walls.

The streets of La Cité are almost entirely for pedestrians, but once every hour or so in the off-hours you might see a private car go by. My hotel had a small shuttle van that was usually parked out in front rather than driving around.

The buildings of La Cité house restaurants, shops, hotels and locally focused museums. There’s an old cathedral and an honest-to-goodness medieval castle. (I’ll write individual posts about the cathedral and castle and try to remember to come back and add links.)

There are also a few small, busy public squares, including one that is ringed largely by restaurants that have tables out on the square.

Despite all of the tourists flooding the place, the old town does have permanent residents. Be respectful of them if you go.

Walk Between the Walls

Between the walls
Between the walls

There is a walk between the inner and outer walls. Some portions of it are cobblestone and others are bare grass and stone. If you visit Carcassonne and you’re up to walking all the way around, walk between the walls at least from the Narbonne Gate to Porte D’Aude—and do it at least twice, once during the day and once after dark. (If you are up to it, by all means, wall the full circumference.)

During the day, the inner wall is very impressive in an imposing sort of way. In addition to the formidable walls, turrets and ramparts, you also get some great views of the lower town and the surrounding area through the openings on the outer wall’s rampart.

At night, the walk is incredibly impressive in a magical sort of way as the inner wall is stunningly lit. (The side of the outer wall that faces the “downtown” section of the lower town is also lit. More on that later. The outer wall might also be lit on the other side, but I didn’t venture over there at night, so I’m not sure.)

If you’re in La Cité for a couple days or more (I spent three days and nights in Carcassonne and my hotel was in La Cité), hope for variable whether. I know that’s not what one normally wishes for. Persistently sunny skies is what tourist usually crave.

However, one of the days when I was there was overcast with a little rain. I considered myself lucky. While I’m not a big fan of rain, the somber weather gave the place a very different feel than on my sunny day walks. The gloomier day lent the walls, ramparts, towers and turrets a darkly ominous quality, which, for me, heightened their medieval quality. That having been said, I don’t think I’d want to do the walk in a pouring rain.

La Cité at Night

La Cité viewed from the lower town at night
La Cité viewed from the lower town at night

On your nighttime walk, don’t stop at Porte D’Aude. As I mentioned, the outer wall is also lit. Walking down the path to the lower new town provides a view of the dramatically lit outer wall that is absolutely stunning.

Walking a bit further into the lower town (I’ll talk about the lower town in another post), onto Le Pont Vieux (the old bridge) over the Aude river just below La Cité, affords a view of the full width of the dramatically lit La Cité. It’s spectacular. The picture I took of does not come anywhere close to even hinting at the delight of the live experience.

Been there? Done that? Do tell.