The Fortified City of Carcassonne
UNESCO Heritage List, Grand Site de France
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Carcassonne citadel "Cité de Carcassonne" is the crown jewel of the southwest of France medieval fortified towns. It is the real fortress that Disneyland's or any other amusement park's castles (or the Excalibur casino in Las Vegas!) take as model. It belongs to UNESCO's World Heritage list since 1997.
Standing on a hilltop overlooking to the north the Aude river and to the south the vineyards of the Languedoc region, the "Cité of Carcassonne" is, with its 3kms of fortified walls and 52 towers, the largest Middle Ages fortified town of Europe.
The oldest traces of human settlement in the region date to about 600BC. During the time of the Roman occupation of Gaul (that territory that included modern France) Carcassone was the fortified Roman colony of Carcasum. The Roman occupation ended in the middle of the 5th century when the Visigoths conquered the region that includes nowadays south west France and Spain. The Visigoth King Alaric (facing the southern side of the Cité there is a hill that bears to this day the name "The Mountain of Alaric"!) fortified the roman ramparts and the city was able to defend itself from the attacks of the frank king Clovis.
However the rule of Visigoths in Gaul was over in the 6th century when the Franks became the new masters of the region.
In 725AD Carcassonne fell in the hands of the Moors ("les Sarrazins") that already control the whole Iberic peninsula. They renamed the city "Carchachouna".
The next big event in the history of the city took place in 750 AD when the Frankish King Pepin le Bref - the father of Charlemagne or "Charles the Great" the first Holy Roman Emperor - recaptured Carcassonne from the Moors. The break-up of the Franks' empire after the death of Charlemagne signals the start of feudal era and the town becomes the seat of powerful Trencavel dynasty, viscounts of Albi, Carcassonne, Beziers and Nimes until 1209.
During the Albigensian Crusade of the 13th century Carcassonne, a hotbed of the catharism heresy (its own ruler the Viscount Raymond Roger Trencavel a heretic defender), was one of the first targets of the papal army.
Carcassonne fell into the crusaders hands in August 1209, the second cathar stronghold to be defeated after the town of Beziers (the latter surrendered in July of the same year).
After a brief period when the fortress became the property of the Montforts (crusader leaders father Simon and son Aumery) it was handed over to King Louis VIII in 1224. In 1234 an Inquisition tribunal was established in Carcassonne under the leadership of the Dominican monks who were given by Pope Gregory IX limitless power to chase and destroy the cathar heretics.
Until 1659, when after the Treaty of the Pyrenees France gains the Roussillon region (which is now the department of Pyrenees-Orientales) and the border with Spain is moved more south, Carcassonne forms with other castles - Queribus, Puilaurens, Termes and Aguilar - a line of border defending fortresses. It is during these times and during the successive reigns of Louis IX, Philippe le Hardi and Philippe le Bel that is takes present day fortified characteristics.
The next attack that the town successfully foiled came from...French Government in the 19th century. Having lost its military significance after 1659, the walled "Cité" was gradually abandoned and fell into such a decayed state that the government decided to demolish it. Saved by the joined efforts of its mayor and the writer Prosper Merimée, the fortress starts a new life in 1853 when the architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc begins its restoration. The restoration work concerned mainly the roofs and milling.
Inside the fortified town there are several important monuments and museums.
The Comtal Castle which was the seat of the Viscounts of Carcassone and later of the Royal Governor (le Senechal, the royal envoy in charge of the finances and justice).
The Inquisitor’s residence established here since 1233. The archives of the Inquisitions are still in Carcassonne.
The Saint Nazaire and Saint Celse Basilica built on the site of a former church founded in the 6th century by the Visigoths. The modern church is mentioned for the first time in the 10th century when the Pope Urbain II, on the 12th of June 1096, blessed the construction site of the new Romanesque church. In the 13th century the new lords of the place, the French, overhauled the construction and replaced most of the parts of the church with Gothic structures.
The Well (Grand Puits) the oldest of the 22 wells that used to bring the water to the city. According to the legend, that some took to its face value, the well hides the treasure of the Temple of Solomon, left there by the Visigoths frightened by the Huns arrival.
The double fortified walls that include some parts built during the gallo-roman times in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD were rebuilt and enhanced mainly in the 13th and the 14th centuries.
While not as spectacular as its wall surrounded counterpart, "The Bastide Saint-Louis" situated across the river from the Cité, is also point of interest of the City of Carcassonne.
The bastide was established on the order of the King Saint Louis (Louis IX) of France on the 21st of January 1247. The order specified that the inhabitants of the Cité were to be relocated on the left bank of the river Aude in a new town.
In 1355 the bastide was burnt to the ground by Edward Prince of Wales - the Black Prince - but immediately rebuilt. After the fortifications lost their military importance the bastide or the lower town continued to flourish due to its economic activities. The lower town, with its parallel streets and strange high perched park/old cemetery created on the top of one of the bastions of a former fortified wall, is definitely less spectacular then the Cité.
The Bastide and The Cité are linked via the "Old Bridge" (Pont Vieux) built in the 14th century (the new bridge was built in the 19th century).
Related article: Saint Nicholas Medieval Festival of Carcassonne
Carcassonne is indeed a magical place!
I just saw the 4th season of The Tudors and the battle of Boulogne was \\\\\\\"3D\\\\\\\"-ed after Carcassonne castle. \\r\\nVery impresive place.
In June there is each week a "festival of lights" that is wonderful to see.
I read somewhere that after Tour Eiffel and Mont Saint Michel is the most visited tourist attraction of France
Quite extraodinary! In architecture.Very nicelly iluminated when the night falls.
Unfortunatelly very very crowded when we went there!
I forgot to rate it as impressive!