by Dennis Bunnik
Carcassonne, yes, it is as good as it looks.
Carcassonne lies in the south of France in the foothills of the Pyrenees, near the Spanish border, giving it the ideal strategic position. It was founded in the 5th century by the Visigoths and has a long and turbulent history having survived many attacks and in the process gaining a reputation of being impregnable.
Carcassonne played a key role during the Albigensian Crusades when it was a stronghold for the Occitan Cathars and a century later, during the Hundred Years’ War, Edward the Black Prince tried, but ultimately failed, to take the city.
A Castle Built for Protection
The reason they failed to conquer the city is because of its location on top of a small hill and the sheer size of its walls and fortifications. This place really needs to be seen to be believed. Behind its high walls is a fully functioning town, complete with cathedral and town centre and, of course, the castle.
Before visiting Carcassonne I knew nothing about it. I hadn’t even heard of the famous board game. I therefore went in a complete Carcassonne virgin but came out besotted by the place – this is, without doubt, the best preserved castle I have ever been to. The restoration work, managed by Eugene Viollete-le-Duc during the 1800’s, is nothing short of amazing. Walking along the walls and through the narrow laneways of the town you can actually get a sense of what life was really like during medieval times. The castle itself is something else with a whole new dimension in fortifications.
Great Photo Opportunities
The thing I liked about it most though is how beautiful it is – this really is a classic castle in every sense. As such, you can get some amazing photos, often without heaps of people in them.
For my wife, Carcassonne was a completely different but equally enjoyable experience. She’d read Kate Mosse’s excellent novel Labyrinth, which charts the course of the city’s history. Actually walking through those same streets and standing on the ramparts and towers brought a whole new dimension to the experience for her.
A True French Experience
While wandering through the old town streets, we came across a medieval museum-come-shop which was run by an absolutely mad Frenchman. He was convinced he was a knight from medieval times and never quite forgave the English and their long-bows. He gave us, and a couple of confused Slovakians, a high energy rendition of his version of history complete with flaying swords and armour. It was brilliant to watch him in action, explaining the various exhibits and skills. His claim to fame was the fact that he taught Kevin Costner to shoot a bow and arrow during the filming of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, part of which was filmed at Carcassonne.
You can read more about this UNESCO World Heritage-listed site here.