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by Jeremy Josephs, Freelance Writer and Journalist,,

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Approaching Carcassonne for the first time is a dreamlike experience. And visitors catching their first glimpse of this extraordinary city might be forgiven for thinking that they have travelled centuries back in time to a France in the Middle Ages. In fact they have arrived at Europe’s most complete example of a fortified medieval city. Perched high on its promontory overlooking the vineyards of the Languedoc region of the south-west, this city, with its distinctive skyline of 52 towers and pointed turrets looks like an illustration taken from a book of fairy tales.

But behind the romantic charm of Carcassonne’s visual impact lies a tumultuous past echoing to the clash of military adventures and armed struggles against aggressors. For over the centuries the Cité’s strategic position between modern-day France and Spain has attracted the eager attentions of Gauls, Romans, Visigoths, Saracens and Franks – each occupying force leaving their own distinctive traces, making the Cité a fascinating monument to military architecture.

Exploring the city inside the walls reveals a completely contrasting aspect. A leisurely stroll around the narrow, winding streets offers the considerable enjoyment of seeing a genuine medieval city in almost ‘mint’ condition. But this is no historical theme park attraction or museum piece.

Many of the outstanding attractions within the Cité date from Carcassonne’s glory days during the 11th and 13th centuries’ feudal period, when the city wielded tremendous influence under the dynasty of the Trencavels, the Viscounts of Albi, Carcassonne, Beziers and Nimes. This was a period of immense prosperity and culture for the city, which became a renowned centre for the arts, attracting Europe’s best poets, scholars and troubadours. It was the Trencavels who built the Chateau Comtal and the Romanesque cathedral, the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire, two of the highlights of a visit to Carcassonne.

In the midst of so much splendour, it is easy to miss a simple tombstone almost hidden from view – that of Simon de Montfort. Almost eight centuries after de Montfort’s death, his name still stirs feelings of deep hatred in this part of France, due to the part he played in the bloody Albigensian Crusade of 1209 against the followers of the Cathar religion. Better known as the Albigensian heresy, this religion was bitterly opposed to the decadence of contemporary Catholicism and was adopted by many inhabitants of the Languedoc as a symbol of their independence and fierce opposition to the rule of both Paris and Rome. They conducted their services in the local langue d’oc, after which the region is named. The mission of the crusaders was therefore to crush Catharism and to bring the Languedoc into the Kingdom of France.

After annihilating the Cathars elsewhere throughout the region in a merciless blood bath, the Albigensian Crusaders took Carcassonne after a two-week siege and the last Trencavel’s lands and title were taken by Simon de Montfort. And the countryside surrounding Carcassonne is studded with craggy peaks topped by the ruins of the gaunt Cathar castles where the ‘heretics’ made their last stand against the crusaders. Visiting these Cathar castles makes one of the most memorable day’s excursions from Carcassonne.


As visitors explore Carcassonne’s rich wealth of historic attractions, it’s almost impossible to believe that the whole city came close to being completely razed to the ground 150 years ago. Not by foreign aggressors but by order of the French government. For after the city lost its strategic role as the country’s most southern point of defence, it fell so far into ruin that by the 18th century it was little more than a half abandoned slum. We have to thank the Carcassonne scholar Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevielle and the writer Prosper Mérimée that the entire city was not demolished in 1850, as decreed earlier that year by the State. They argued forcibly for the preservation of Carcassonne as a unique monument in European military history and as a result, the master architect Viollet-le-Duc was called in to restore the Cité to its previous grandeur.

By the end of the century, the Cité, beautifully restored to pristine condition, was ready to be admired by the world’s great travellers. The Cité’s inhabitants have long grown used to seeing royalty, heads of state, business tycoons, writers, musicians and film stars strolling along their picturesque narrow streets.

Such eminent visitors demand the very best in accomodation, and since the early years of the 20th century, the Hotel de la Cité has been their preferred choice. An ancient building set into the fortifications of the city between the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire and the Chateau Comtal, the Hotel is almost as steeped in history as the Cité itself. Occupying the site of the former Bishop’s Palace, the vestiges of which inspired its architecture, it was opened in 1909 as the Cité’s first hotel. Guests strolling around its gardens are following in the footsteps of the many popes, bishops, kings, queens and powerful feudal lords who previously trod this ground. Built in the Gothic style, the hotel is packed with works of art each one carefully chosen because of its associations with Carcassonne. Frescoes, sculptures, and paintings abound, each with some special historical significance. Many of the paintings are of Carcassonne itself and most noteworthy are the four huge canvasses in the bar, by the celebrated Jacques Ourtal, tracing the development of the city from the time of the Gauls.

But the hotel does not only provide a feast for the eyes. Its restaurant is one of the most prestigious in France, having recently been awarded three toques rouges by the authors of the Gault Millau guide. The hotel’s visitors book reads like an International Who’s Who – Michael Jackson, Yehudi Menuhin, Goldie Hawn, Gene Hackmanm, Winston Churchill, Maurice Chevalier – to name but a few.

Their written comments on their visits make fascinating reading, but perhaps the one which will ring truest for most guests, past present and future, is the one penned by the French novelist Colette: "Après tant d’hôtels, enfin un chez-moi" – after so many hotels, at last one where I feel at home. A fitting accolade for this haven of history and culture set within its noble crown of turrets and towers.

The hotel, which reopened in May of last year – and is now undergoing extensive restructuring carefully surveyed by dozens of officials from the French administration - has 54 beautifully appointed rooms and suites with elegant ensuite bathrooms. Each room is individually decorated with unusual features such as baldaquins, canopies and antique beds, while at the same time being equipped with the most up to date facilities including air-conditioning, sound-proofing and so on. The renowned restaurant, La Barbacane, is situated in the heart of the hotel and displays Gothic opulence, with magnificent fireplaces, high ceilings and cathedral chairs. Outside the hotel’s spacious private gardens beckon. Here you can have a drink while enjoying the view of the medieval Basilica of Saint-Nazaire, or take a dip in the pool, surrounded by lush greenery. And just a step away, Carcassonne’s maze of cobbled streets and historic building, all part and parcel of the most magnificent and best preserved walled city in the whole of Europe.*

There is good news too for Francophiles attracted to this exciting part of France – and that applies for those living in England and France alike. Ryanair is now offering regular cheap flights between Carcassonne and Standsted airport. It is most refreshing to see an airline which lives up to its slogan – in Ryanair’s case ‘the low fares airline’. Readers of Living France are advised to make hay whilst the sunshines – for Carcassonne is one of the few airports in France which offers long term parking – free!

*Readers of Living France are entitled to an automatic upgrade (when available) upon production of a copy of the magazine.

For more information contact:

Katia Buval

Tel: 00 33 468 71 98 71

Fax: 00 33 468 71 50 15

Or write to Hotel de la Cité,

Place de l’Eglise, Carcassonne, France



The main Web site of freelance writer Jeremy Josephs is at Please check there if you might be interested in engaging him as a writer.

Many of his articles are available online. Please check the sitemap for a complete list.

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