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The fairy tale city of Carcassonne stands on the hill above the lower part of the town, dominating the view from all around. Moira McCrossan and Hugh Taylor explored the UNESCO World Heritage Site, La Cité and discovered a fascinating mixture of almost Disney style restoration and history.


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La Cité is a popular film location, providing the background for gothic and mediaeval tales including Robin Hood, The Bride of Frankenstein and various films about the bloodline mystery, popularised by the Da Vinci Code.

This was not hard to understand as we strolled around the narrow, cobbled mediaeval streets, with their ivy clad walls and overhanging upper storeys. Although the streets are now filled with shops for tourists there are many quirky little shops and good restaurants but with a permanent population of only 45 people, the bakers, the grocers and the ironmongers are long gone.

The basilica and the massive defensive walls, gates and towers, are the really impressive part of the city. To reach our hotel we had to park outside and walk in through the double walls to reach La Cité. As we walked between the walls we could see the remains of civilisations dating back to the Romans, a hundred years before Christ.

First settled around the 6th century BC, probably because of its strategic position on the Aude at a crossroads between the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and inland Europe, it became an important Roman town in the 1st century BC, and the imposing remains of some of the Roman walls and towers can still be seen. Over the centuries the city was held by the Visigoths, the Saracens, the Francs and the Trencavels until the end of the 12th century, when the King of France and the Pope decided that the Cathar heresy, which was gaining strength in the city could not be tolerated. Eventually after a bloody crusade by the vicious Simon de Montfort, the city became a royal fortress and the populace was banished to the other side of the river. The new town of La Bastide Saint-Louis was built there in 1260.

The mediaeval city was built on Roman foundations, incorporating the remaining Roman buildings and using recycled Roman stones. Walking round the walls we could see Roman, Gothic, mediaeval and 19th century restoration elements, sometimes within the same edifice. There are towers, with original Roman brickwork visible midway up but propped up by a mediaeval base to stabilise them. One is still leaning, indicating why they needed propped up. Another has been completely restored with mediaeval base, Roman mid section and a 19th century restoration on top. Then just to perplex the visitor totally, a mediaeval window has been inserted between original Roman and 19th century restoration.

The massive inner defensive wall was built in the 3rd and 4th centuries, the outer wall was added later. The gates to the city are strongly defended, particularly La Porte Narbonnaise, with its double defences, two sets of doors, two portcullises and two sets of openings to attack from above.

The massive restoration was the result of the relentless campaign of one man, Jean Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille, whose monument stands in the centre of the city, surrounded by a faithful bronze replica of the remains before restoration. The mediaeval city, as it stood then, was being demolished stone by stone for new building, when Cros-Mayrevieille began his fight to save it. In 1850 he managed to have the order allowing the removal of stones reversed and continued to fight for a plan of restoration. This was begun by the architect Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who first restored the basilica and continued work on the walls, gates and towers until his death in 1879. The work was continued by Paul Boeswillwald and eventually completed in 1910.

The middle ages come to life in the city with festivals throughout the year, from the pig festival in March, which celebrates the saving of the city by Dame Carcas, to the burning of the city on July 14th, a unique firework display on and above the city walls, to the jousting knights, who take to the lists between the walls. But as well as these annual events, there are many more events organised in the streets in the upper and lower town, in the open air theatre and many other venues. If your taste is for theatre, opera or ballet, pop music, classical or flamenco or outdoor sports and spectacles, check the Carcassonne website for the calendar of events. During the summer festival there are over a hundred events, many of them free.

La Cité is not the only UNESCO World Heritage site in Carcassonne. The other one is the Canal du Midi, constructed in the 17th century and now the oldest navigable canal in Europe. It joins the River Garonne to the Etang de Thau, effectively linking the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. It was a powerful trading link, cutting out the long and at times hostile shipping route around Spain. The driving force behind the construction was Pierre-Paul Riquet, who ended up penniless, having sunk all his own money into the enterprise. However it was a very good investment for his descendants. The engineering difficulties were immense because of the need to supply the high watershed between the two oceans. The problem was solved by a massive dam on the River Laudot, Bassin de Saint Ferréol, connected to the highest point of the canal by a 25 km channel. Completed in 1681, the canal was a huge commercial success for 200 years until it was superseded by the railways. The next 100 years saw a long slow decline until the last commercial boats of the 1970s. However the canal is still busy with leisure boats and took a short trip along part of its length on one of the many boats carrying tourists. It’s also possible to take a longer trip or to hire a canal boat and glide lazily along this lovely waterway, delicately dappled green by the hundreds of plane trees that line the banks.


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