The historic fortified town of Carcassonne, France

Le Cité de Carcassonne

Carcassonne Citadel is a medieval citadel, located in the city of the same name. It stands in the old part of the city, on the right bank of the river Aud. It is one of the most interesting fortresses in Europe. Around it there is a double row of walls, about 3 km long, above which rise 52 towers. At one time the fortress of Carcassonne was considered the most impregnable in Europe. On its territory there are Comtal Castle and the Basilica of St. Nazarene and Celsius. Since 1997, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Video: Le Cité de Carcassonne

Highlights

The fortress of Carcassonne looks especially impressive from a distance, when the eye can fully grasp the full scale and grandeur of the architectural structure. That is why a few kilometers from the castle you can find photographers hunting for the best pictures. Moreover, many historical movies are often shot against the background of the French fortress, because it’s quite difficult to find such a realistic medieval “scenery” anywhere else in Europe.

A distinctive feature of the fortress is that there is an ordinary life – the locals live and drive cars. This is not a closed museum object with a paid entrance – here you can feel yourself like a resident of a medieval town – the entrance to the fortress is absolutely free!

History

The history of the fortress begins in the II century B.C., when the Romans erected a fortified camp and settlement on the site of an ancient Celtic stronghold. The year 20 BC is the date of the entry in the registers of the Roman Empire of the “Colonia Julia Carcaso”. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Visigoths seized the city and rebuilt the Gallo-Roman fortress walls. Their period of domination lasted from 440 to 725. In 725, Carcassonne was conquered by the Saracens. One of the legends about the appearance of the name Carcassonne is associated with this period.

Dame Carcas was the wife of the Saracen King Balaac. Charlemagne had already laid siege to Carcassonne for 5 years, and the entire garrison perished. Then Carcas plunged into a ruse: she made several dolls of soldiers, which she set up on the fortress walls and showered the enemy camp with arrows. Then she found the only living pig in the city and fed it with its last remaining grain, after which she threw it down from the fortress tower. The impact of the blow on the ground ripped the pig’s belly open and its grain spilled out. Charlemagne’s warriors decided that if there were so many pigs to be thrown down the ramparts and so much grain to feed the pigs, they would be unable to crush the besieged city. And they lifted the siege. Dame Carcas, celebrating her victory, began to play the trumpet. Charlemagne’s squire exclaimed: “Sir, Carcas is calling you!” (“Sir, Carcas te sonne!”) Thus the name Carcassonne was born.

The statue of the Lady of Carcas is in front of the Narbonne Gate, the main entrance to the citadel. It faces east towards the town of Narbonne, hence the name.

After the death of Charlemagne his empire was divided. For nearly three centuries, Carcassonne was ruled by local counts. The city reached its power under the Tracavel dynasty, who built the castle and the Romanesque nave in the Church of St. Nazareth.

In the XI century, Carcassonne became one of the centers of the Cathars (Albigensians – after the name of the place Albi in the north of Languedoc) – the sect that recognized the God of Good, creator of the spiritual world and the devil, the creator of the material world. In 1209, Pope Innocent III declared a Crusade against heretics, but Raymond-Roger Tranquavel was able to repel the Crusader attack. However, on August 15, 1209, the fortress fell into the hands of Simon de Montfort – lack of water and treason did the trick. A dark period began in the history of the Languedoc: wars, inquisitions, massacres.

Louis the Saint, who was able to repel an attack by his son Tranquavel, decided to fortify the fortress. A second wall was built, towers. Under his son, Philip the Bold, Carcassonne became a royal fortress. In 1270-1285, it was rebuilt again with a rampart built between the two lines of walls, which made it impregnable.

It held out during the Hundred Years’ War, when the Black Prince, son of Edward III of England, burned the Lower Town.

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The seventeenth-century Treaty of the Iberian Peninsula shifted the border between France and Spain into the Pyrenees Mountains, and the fortress began to lose its strategic importance. In 1791, Carcassonne was given a third rank, and in 1806 it was removed from the list of fortresses. Carcassonne began to deteriorate, but thanks to a local man named Jean-Pierre Cro-Mairevieille, restoration work began in 1840, led by Viollet-le-Duc. Carcassonne was also returned to the Ministry of National Defense and reclassified as a fortified town. Since 1997, Carcassonne Castle has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sights of Carcassonne Castle

Today, Carcassonne Castle and City is a working open-air museum. Tourists can see the ‘death ditch’ and imagine what the soldiers went through in that terrible trap.

Narbonne Gate

The main Narbonne Gate with its two tall twin towers accesses the fortress. The gate gets its name from the direction to the east towards the city of Narbonne. Even today Carcassonne impresses with its power and impregnability. It was fortified by all who owned it – the Romans, Visigoths, Saracens, Franks, the feudal lords of Trancaveli, the kings of France. On one of the columns of the bridge can be seen the statue of a slyly smiling woman. “This is Dame Carcas.”

Rising 25 meters in height, the twin towers were built in 1280 and had the main purpose of protecting the citadel’s only entrance gate from enemies. Their walls were made of roughly hewn sandstone blocks, which were quite common at that time. The walls were made of roughly hewn sandstone blocks of that time – which made them impregnable, so they could bounce off any shell.

The outer part of the towers was protected by a lattice of projections at their foundation to protect them from enemy breach attacks. The towers are flat on the city side, connected by a wall, and have the appearance of a single piece of brickwork. The first floor of the south tower has a hall, which served as a pantry where the garrison kept provisions. There are four embrasures in the wall, which face outward, and two others facing a passageway.

The halls on the second floor are very similar to each other, quite spacious, beautiful and have stoves and fireplaces. Between these halls is a small room, the main purpose of which was to protect the opening in the gateway. The third floor is undivided and has the appearance of a huge hall, lit by five Gothic-style windows facing the city. This hall is called the Knights’ Hall. There is also a fourth hall, situated under the roof.

Komtal Castle

A must-see is the Château de l’Comtal, the last line of defense of Carcassonne. According to the assumption of Viollet-le-Duc, the castle was built around 1130 by Bernard Anton Trancaval or his son. It was here that the viscounts of Trancavel lived, and it was here that Raymond Roger Trancavel died as a prisoner in 1209.

Subsequently, Simon de Montfort organized his headquarters in the castle. During the monarchy, the castle was the residence of the seneschals. They supervised the royal estates, under the direction of the governor, the king’s direct representative.

On the eve of the French Revolution, the castle was used as a house of correction for young men who wanted to be punished by their parents.

The castle became a barracks in the 19th century and during the First World War about 300 German officers were held here as prisoners of war.

In March 1944 the Germans occupied the citadel as their headquarters and the locals were forced to leave their homes, where they returned on August 20 of that year, after the liberation of the region.

In the Middle Ages the castle served as a last refuge, a fortress within a fortress. The three facades – east, north and south – had strong defenses, thanks to the high craftsmanship of the builders. On these three sides, the walls formed a regular rectangle. The solid masonry on top was provided with merlons, interspersed with embrasures. Long narrow loopholes were punched in the merlons, which could be used for archery.

The east side has five towers, cylindrical on the outside and flat on the inside. Each had four stories, with circular halls on the first floor. The second floor has a hall with a vaulted ceiling, in the form of a dome or a spherical bowl. The towers have loopholes on each floor. These loopholes are placed obliquely so as not to weaken the brickwork.

According to Raymond Ritter, the castle of Carcassonne, the original source of feudal architecture, contains all the major examples of military defense which continued to be built up to the 16th century, with greater or lesser skill.

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Without a doubt, the castle can be called the ABC of military architecture.

The first thing one encounters on the eastern side of the castle is a gate built in front of the defensive moat. The defensive structures of this gate have survived to this day: first of all, these are huge hooks, which were used for the double-winged wooden door; then – loopholes with shutters and battlements. The upper part of the barbican was open on the castle side to prevent its use by enemies should the barbican fall into their hands. This barbican was built under Louis the Saint to protect the castle from rebellious townsfolk, or from enemies who would manage to enter the city.

In the past, the moat was deeper, but without water: it simply served as a barrier to siege machines. Originally the stone bridge ended 2 meters before the gate, and these two meters were equipped with a removable wooden bridge (the use of a lifting bridge spread only in the XIV century).

The entire length of the eastern side of the castle still has two rows of square holes, so-called “scaffolding holes”, for a kind of wooden gallery canopy. These galleries were made because the keep of the castle was so narrow, and the soldiers had to stick out to defend the foothills of the castle.

Thick beams were inserted into square apertures at the doorway level. The slanting beams connected to each other with planks were attached to the ends of the beams on the outer side. A planking was laid on top of the main beams, with gaps between the planks so that they could be used as loopholes. There was a ceiling over the whole structure. These galleries, in fact, machicolations, were reconstructed according to the drawings of Viollet-le-Duc. The advantage of these fortifications was that they allowed defenders to stand on the outside of the battlements and view the base of the wall while being completely covered.

Above the guard passages were structures that allowed the guards to reach the outside through embrasures, which in this case functioned as doors.

A circular arch between two towers, flanking the entrance gate, concealed a machicolation, behind which was the first grille and a wooden door. As a precautionary measure, there was a second grille, followed by another machicolation and a second door.

A large caponier, a covered passage with stairs, has partially survived to this day. It extended all the way up to the great barbican tower, built by Louis the Saint on the site of older fortifications. The barbican tower was dismantled in 1816, and Viollet-le-Duc built the church of Saint-Guimer around 1850, partially occupying the site. A large caponier connected the citadel with the barbican tower, whose function was to protect the fortress from the river.

The river used to be much closer to the citadel than it is now. After the founding of the Lower Town, Louis the Saint changed the course of the river and drained the marsh.

The west side of the castle is built on top of a Gallo-Roman rampart. From left to right go the powder tower (Tour de la Poudre: 13th century), the watchtower, the pseudo-dungeons, the Tour Pinte tower (Tour Pinte), in the right corner is the “Tower of Justice” (Tour de la Justice). Curiously, the château has no donjons, which at the time of its construction were already in widespread use north of the Loire.

At Carcassonne, the builders contented themselves with the construction, on Gallo-Romanesque foundations, of a rectangular tower with a long façade facing the Pint Tower (or Pinto). At 28 meters high, it was a watchtower, one of the functions of which was to transmit signals. Violet-le-Duc found in it all the characteristics of Romanesque architecture, so the possibility of dating it to the Saracen period is ruled out. It obviously belongs to the first phase of the construction of the castle (around 1130) and does not have an arch.

The tower was originally divided into ten floors by wooden floors, which have since disappeared and so it is now impossible to reach the top of the tower. The floors were, no doubt, connected by wooden stairs.

One legend tells how the Pint Tower “took its hat off” to the emperor. This legend is quoted in The Chronicle of Charlemagne.

Between the gunpowder tower and the watchtower there is an arch, under which, the western gate of the castle is located. Access to the castle was blocked by the outer walls. There were only two gates, this one on the west side and another one on the east side.

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The interior of the gate towers is a single whole and, in general, is close to the composition of the Narbonne towers. However, the connection between the upper and lower floors was carried out only with wooden stairs from the side of the flat wall facing the courtyard. The entrance from the first to the second floor was through a hatch in the vault of the first floor. This part of the fortification, as in all towers and gates of the outer walls and inside the castle, was arranged so that the defenders of the fortress could reach the defensive point on the top. It is all the more surprising to see a beautiful Romanesque double window on the second floor of such an austere structure.

The southern side of the courtyard is occupied by the building, which separates the front courtyard (kurdoner) from the small inner courtyard. The courtyard includes a large hall, lords’ quarters and a kitchen in the basement. In the center of the courtyard stood an elm tree, a symbolic “feudal” tree, which is often mentioned in descriptions of the period. It was here that the assemblies of the “Court of Love”, led by Adelaide de Bourlat, daughter of the Count of Toulouse, wife of Roger Trancavel and mother of the poor Raymond-Roger Trancavel, victim of the Crusade against the Albigensians, were held.

Museum of the Inquisition

The Inquisition Museum was set up within the Citadel of Carcassonne to remind visitors of the times when heretics were subjected to terrible torture. And the museum was not created by chance! For it was here, on Carcassonne land, that the first trial of the Catholic Church, created by Pope Innocent III in 1215, took place. Four years later, an ecclesiastical tribunal was founded in Southern France to investigate crimes against the faith. In Carcassonne, the Tower of the Inquisition, in whose underground dungeon heretics were tortured, is well preserved; above it there is a circular hall consisting of two large windows and a huge fireplace. The museum also displays the old-fashioned electric chair, the guillotine, the belt of allegiance, the garrotte and the rack, as well as the skull press and the so-called masks of shame.

Younger travelers will enjoy the Haunted House or La Maison Hantée, which is located next to the Museum of the Inquisition. On the same square there is also a well that was used when the Cathars lived there.

Other Sights

Many tourists are delighted by some ascetic elements of the interior decoration of Carcassonne: a few fountains, rare moldings, a small number of religious objects, gargoyles sculptures and stained-glass windows in the temple – that’s all the medieval citizens needed (quite well-to-do).

Toilets dating back to the Middle Ages also deserve special attention. They are holes on different levels of the building: most likely, those who lived on the lower floors often had to receive unexpected “surprises” from their neighbors from above.

Winding medieval streets lead to the cathedral of Saint-Nazaire. In its southern part there is a fragment of the tombstone plate of Simon de Montfort, who took the castle. If you wander through the dark staircases and corridors inside the castle you can reach a hall where a film about the history of Carcassonne is shown.

The space between the two rows of fortress walls, where there used to be a moat, now called the boulevard, will seem familiar to many. And for good reason. This is where scenes from the movies “Robin Hood” with Kevin Costner and Luc Besson’s “Joan of Arc” were filmed. There you can also find the Tower of the Inquisition, St. Michael’s Cathedral, and a dried up medieval well where King Solomon’s treasure is said to be hidden. But don’t rush to see everything at once, which would make sense to come back and dive again into the mysterious and beautiful world of the past.

Little travelers will love the Haunted House or La Maison Hantée, which is located next to the Museum of the Inquisition.

Walking behind the walls of the fortress of Carcassonne, you can see the ancient lodges of the city and even get into several museums. For the most part, these small museums are located in the castle. There are amazing exhibits on display: a model of the entire fortress, which can be “a bird’s eye view” of its impregnability; a model of the castle and even a trumpet played by Dame Karkas. The question: “Is the trumpet of Dame Carcassonne the original or is it a new creation to lure tourists?” is for visitors to answer.

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Every year there is a festival dedicated to the old town in Carcassonne from 1st to 14th August. On the 14th of July you can see a mock capture of the Bastille.

What time to visit?

Entrance to the castle is free but no cars are allowed from 10.00 to 18.00.

To visit Château de l’Comtal you must join an official guided tour (daily, April to September from 9.30 am to 6 pm, October to March from 9.30 am to 5 pm; cost €6.5).

The Saint Nazaire Basilica bell tower is open from mid-June to mid-September, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. and 1:45 to 6 p.m., Sundays from 9 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. and 2:00 to 4:30 p.m.

Cuisine

One of the nicest dishes in Carcassonne is the traditional French dish called cassoulet, an oven-baked bean with goose, lamb and sausage. For example, in L’Écu d’Or restaurant on 7-9 rue Porte d’Aude you can choose from five varieties of the dish.

The Auberge de Dame Carcas on Place du Château 3 specializes in suckling pig and is particularly popular with tourists for this dish.

How to get to Carcassonne

Carcassonne train station connects the city with Toulouse (travel time 50 min, cost 12.7 EUR), Narbonne (45 min, 9.3 EUR), Beziers (50 min, 12 EUR) and Montpellier (1hr 20 min, 12.2 EUR). Prices are as of August 2011.

Carcassonne even has its own airport, which since the late 1990s began to serve flights of the budget airline Rynair from Europe and now has regular flights to the UK (London, Liverpool and Nottingham), Ireland (Dublin, Cork and Shannon) and Belgium (Charleroi).

History of the fortress of Carcassonne

In the south of France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains is the city of Carcassonne with its famous fortress of Carcassonne (Cité de Carcassonne, ville fortifiée de Carcassonne). I went there from Andorra, which is a very interesting journey through the Pyrenees. Carcassonne (sometimes spelled “Carcassonne”) is a beautiful place with a long and intricate history.

View of the Lower Town of Carcassonne

View of the Lower Town of Carcassonne

The fortress occupied an important strategic position, controlling the routes between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. It is situated on the right bank of the Od River, on the edge of a plateau about 150 meters above the town of Carcassonne. The western steep slope was a natural defence. The eastern slope is gentle, so all the most important defensive structures are on this side. Site (i.e. city) is protected by a double row of fortress walls with a total length of about 3 km and 52 towers. Inside is a medieval town with narrow streets, Count’s Castle Comtal and the Basilica of Saints Lazarus and Celsius (Celsius) .

Walls and towers of the fortress of Karkason

The walls and towers of the fortress of Carcassonne

The history of the fortress begins in the II century BC, when the Romans erected a fortified camp and settlement on the site of an ancient Celtic stronghold. The year 20 BC is the date of the entry in the registers of the Roman Empire of the “Colonia Julius Carcaso”. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Visigoths seized the city and rebuilt the Gallo-Roman fortress walls. Their period of domination lasted from 440 to 725. In 725, Carcassonne was conquered by the Saracens. One of the legends about the appearance of the name Carcassonne is connected with this period.

Dame Carcas was the wife of the Saracen king Balaak. Charlemagne had already laid siege to Carcassonne for 5 years, the entire garrison perished. Then Carcas set out on a ruse: she made several dolls of soldiers, which she set up on the fortress walls and showered arrows on the enemy camp. Then she found the only living pig in the city and fed it with its last remaining grain, after which she threw it down from the fortress tower. The impact of the blow on the ground ripped the pig’s belly open and its grain spilled out. Charlemagne’s warriors decided that if there were so many pigs to be thrown down the ramparts and so much grain to feed the pigs, they would be unable to crush the besieged city. And they lifted the siege. Dame Carcas, celebrating her victory, began to play the trumpet. Charlemagne’s squire exclaimed: “Sir, Carcas is calling you!” (“Sir, Carcas te sonne!”) Thus the name Carcason appeared.

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The sculpture of the Lady of Carcas in Carcassonne

Sculpture of Lady Carcas in Carcassonne

The statue of Lady Carcas is in front of the Narbonne Gate, the main entrance to the citadel. They face east, towards the city of Narbonne – hence the name.

Narbonne Gate in the fortress of Karkason

Narbonne Gate of the Citadel of Carcassonne

After Charlemagne died, his empire was divided. For nearly three centuries Carcassonne was ruled by local counts. The city reached its power under the Tracavel dynasty, who built the castle and the Romanesque nave in the Church of St. Nazareth.

The Castle of the Count in Karkason

The Castle of the Counts in Carcassonne

In the XI century, Carcassonne became one of the centers of the Cathars (Albigensians – after the name of the place Albi in the north of Languedoc) – the sect that recognized the God of Good, creator of the spiritual world and the devil, the creator of the material world. In 1209, Pope Innocent III declared a Crusade against heretics, but Raymond-Roger Tranquavel was able to repel the Crusader attack. However, on August 15, 1209, the fortress fell into the hands of Simon de Montfort – lack of water and treason did the trick. A dark period began in the history of Languedoc: wars, inquisitions, massacres.

Basilica of St. Nazareth in Carson

Basilica of St. Nazarene in Carcassonne

Louis the Saint, who was able to repel an attack by his son Trancavel, decided to fortify the fortress. A second wall and towers were built. Under his son, Philip the Bold, Carcassonne became a royal fortress. In 1270-1285 it was rebuilt again, and a rampart was dug between the two lines of walls, as a result of which the fortress became impregnable.

The walls and towers of Carson

The walls and towers of Carcassonne

It held out during the Hundred Years’ War, when the Black Prince, son of Edward III of England, burned the Lower Town.

View of the Lower Town of Carcassonne

View of the Lower Town of Carcassonne

With the 17th century Treaty of the Pyrenees, the border between France and Spain was moved to the Pyrenees Mountains and the fortress began to lose its strategic importance. In 1791, Carcassonne was given a third rank, and in 1806 it was removed from the list of fortresses. Carcassonne began to deteriorate, but thanks to a local resident named Jean-Pierre Cro-Mairevieille, restoration work began in 1840, which was led by Viollet-le-Duc. In addition, Carcassonne was returned to the Ministry of National Defense and reclassified as a fortified town. Since 1997, Carcassonne Fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The walls and towers of Carson

The walls and towers of Carcassonne

Entrance to the castle is free but no cars are allowed from 10.00 to 18.00.

To visit Château de l’Comtal you must join an official guided tour (daily, April to September from 9.30 am to 6 pm, October to March from 9.30 am to 5 pm; cost €6.5).

The bell tower of the Saint-Nazaire Basilica is open from mid-June to mid-September, Monday to Friday from 9.00 to 11.45 and from 1.45 to 6.00, on Sundays from 9.00 to 10.45 and from 2.00 to 4.30.

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Maria, how do you manage to travel so much and review so many interesting things? It is amazingly simple. It is very interesting to read your notes. Thank you for introducing me to places that I will probably never get to visit.

Irina, this is something that has accumulated over quite a few years. I usually manage to go somewhere far away two or three times a year, sometimes more often, sometimes, alas, less often. In 2011, for example, I did not leave the Moscow Region at all. Hopefully, now I can catch up I’m very interested in history, old times.

I am very interested in history, ancient places and buildings. Whenever I go somewhere, I visit such places and definitely museums.

Likewise! I love to “feel” history like that, to feel it.

The history of such old places is always interesting. When was it built, what happened to it?

I love castles and their stories. There’s so much mystery in them! At school I drew ships and sailing ships, and now I am fascinated by fortresses. Already have my eye on the count’s castle, my hands are itching to draw it ))))) Thanks for the photo and history.

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