Explore Carcassonne, one of the largest fortified towns in Europe, and one of the best conserved thanks to restoration work carried out by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century. Almost at the centre of the Aude département lies the two-tiered city of Carcassonne. The lower town – La Ville Basse – is built around the bastide of St Louis, built in 1260 to the customary chequerboard pattern of these fortified settlements.
There are over 300 bastides in the south of France, and as well as meeting defensive strategies, they served to garrison and control the changing and feckless populations of the Middle Ages. Today, St Louis is consumed by the sprawl of the modern town, a bright, bustling place and one of the most-visited cities in the whole of Languedoc-Roussillon.
Above the bastide, across the River Aude is the Upper Town, La Cité, the largest fortress in Europe, consisting of a central building, the Chateau Comtal, surrounded by a double curtain wall within which hundreds of people once lived. These days, there is a resident population of a little more than a hundred , with access by the narrow but massive Porte Narbonnaise, a crenellated redoubt built on a bridge across the moat. Wandering the streets of La Cité at night, after the clamour of tourists has subsided and the walls are floodlit, is one of the great pleasures of Carcassonne.
Enter by the Porte Narbonnaise and you are suddenly pitched into the Rue Cros Mayrevielle which, it has to be said, is a mess of tacky souvenir shops. But this narrow street - used by vehicles, although only those resident or staying at the hotels can drive in the city - leads up to the place du Chateau. Through an archway and over a dry moat, and you enter the world of the Chateau Comtal.
Discover the ramparts and the château of the Counts of Carcassonne, lying in the heart of the city. They are Gallo-Roman and medieval masterpieces of military architecture on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Admission charge.
Open: April-September 0930-1830; closed 1 Jan, 1 May, 14 Jul, 1 and 11 Nov, 25 Dec. Tel: 04 68 11 70 70; http://carcassonne.monuments-nationaux.fr.
The regular layout of the lower town means that it is difficult to get lost: just keep turning left and you’ll probably find your friends wondering where you got to, still ensconced outside the café on the Place Carnot, one of the city’s most favoured meeting places, where markets are held beneath the gaze of a statue of Neptune, and the problems of the world are put to rights, at least for the next hour or so.
Walk up Rue Georges Clemenceau, and eventually you come to Pont Marengo spanning the Canal du Midi, just in front of the railway station. The canal is a remarkable engineering achievement and, like La Cité, a World Heritage Site. This 360km network of navigable waterways linking the Mediterranean and the Atlantic is one of the most remarkable feats of civil engineering, one that elevates engineering to a work of art, thanks to the care that its creator, Pierre-Paul Riquet, took in its design and the way it blends with its surroundings.
Wandering the floodlit streets of La Cité at night is a joy
Arrive late, stay late...avoid the tourists...and stay for dinner
28, rue de Verdun, 11890 Carcassonne. Tel: 0468 102 430; www.carcassonne-tourisme.com.
Comité Régional du Tourisme de Languedoc-Roussillon
954 avenue Jean Mermoz, Montpellier. Tel: 04 67 20 02 20; www.sunfrance.com.
Maison de la Région Languedoc-Roussillon
6 Cavendish Square, W1G 0PD LONDON. Tel: 020 707 9334; www.sunfrance.com.
Comité Départemental du Tourisme de l’Aude
Chemin du Moulin de la Seigne, 11855 Carcassonne. Tel: 04 68 11 66 00; www.audetourisme.com.
From Ouistreham (Caen) ferry port (Brittany Ferries) it is a drive of 615 miles to Carcassonne down the west side of France, mainly on autoroute, and 648 miles via Clermont-Ferrand and the more central A75 (but there are no toll charges on the A75 south of Clermont Ferrand, except for the Millau bridge.
The easiest route to drive is from Caen, as it's almost all autoroute, or the equivalent. Although the distance can be covered in one long day, it's best to stop off en route, maybe at La Rochelle or Niort, and take it rather more leisurely. This route passes Rennes and Nantes before heading down to Bordeaux, with fabulous river crossings on the way. From Bordeaux, you head south-east to Toulouse, with Carcassonne just an hour further on.
For a slightly slower route you could head across country to Dreux and Chartres, picking up the autoroute near Orléans. The A71 feeds into the A75, for a splendid drive through the Auvergne and over the Millau viaduct, finishing not far from Béziers, which is only an hour and a half from Carcassonne.
All rail services
throughout France can be arranged through Voyages SNCF in
Tel: 0844 848 4070, or call into 193 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EU.