Carca – what?
Car – ca – zone.
I went the entire weekend there trying to say it correctly. But, unlike most French words, it’s pronounced pretty much exactly as it looks. And it’s fun to say, once you get the hang of it. Carcassonne. Carcassonne.
Carcassonne is about a 4 hour train ride from Marseille. We headed west, towards Spain. I was expecting it to be a small town which, compared to cities like Marseille and Nice, it is. But I was thinking about something along the lines of my tiny town of La Ciotat. Instead, Carcassonne was surprisingly large for such an old place. In fact, their train station even had wifi.
Sadly, I was still trying to recover from whatever I had picked up in Budapest. I had spent the week before in bed and still didn’t really feel up to traveling. But I bought those nonrefundable round trip tickets. Sick or not, I was going to see this medieval city.
We stayed in the Bristol Hotel, an old, rather unremarkable building. The inside was quaint and vintage, with coarse red and yellow carpet, white halls, and white wooden banisters. Empty frames were hung on the walls and there was this large puppet-like thing with a straw hat that sat guard on one of the landings. I named him Bobby because passing Bobby on the way up to my room was less creepy than seeing that smiling doll.
The beds were creaky and the heater constantly burned like the fires of hell, but it was great for the price. The ladies at the reception didn’t even ask for identification or payment when we arrived, handing us the key and telling us to have a great stay.
The main attraction in Carcassonne is the citadel (la cité), or the gigantic medieval fort that’s just chilling on the top of the hill, surrounded by the Black Mountains. It was like stepping back in time – with the added benefactors of modern medicine (as I was still popping those antibiotics) and plumbing.
We dropped our stuff off at the hotel and headed off into town, our sights set on finding the citadel. Good thing it wasn’t too hard to miss.
It’s about a 30 minute walk from the train station to the citadel. While it seems far, the route takes you right through the city. Carcassonne was an interesting place, mixing the old with the new, the medieval with the modern. It’s very easy to navigate even without a map as there are signs pointing you in any and every direction you’d want to go. There were a lot of high end stores, small boutiques, outdoor cafes with red umbrellas, and 15th century churches butting doors with ice cream shops.
While you don’t have to pay to get into the citadel and explore, there is a fee to go inside the main fort. I think one ticket is about 11 euros for adults, 8 for students. I didn’t have to pay (best teacher perk ever), but I would have. I mean, you can’t go to Carcassonne without seeing the fort! It’s also the place to go for the best of views.
You can get an audio tour or even pay extra for a guide. But once you’re in, it’s pretty much free rein. Literally. They’re like – here’s your ticket, here’s a map, au revoir.
The grounds were empty; the only employees I saw were in the bookstore at the end of the tour. There’s a suggested route (head into the fort first and take the 20 minute tour through the military base turned palace/monastery) but we (me) being the rebels that we are, went against the crowd. Instead of heading inside we took a walk along the catwalks that guarded the fort.
The citadel is like something out of Inception. The fort is guarded by walls, those walls are fortified by the walls of the citadel, and then the citadel is defended by an even bigger wall. Jagged square windows and thin arrow slits line every inch of every wall, inside and out, and it’s no wonder it was deemed to be impenetrable. La cité de Carcassonne is every robber’s worse nightmare. Even if it were still up and running today, I don’t know if it would be possible to break in unnoticed. One look at it and enemies probably thought, eh, never mind.
While climbing the walls made me feel like Robin Hood, there were many areas that were dangerous. Many parts were blocked off and some of the walls had ledges around waist height that gave way to a 50 foot drop. You don’t really realize how high up you are until you’re already at the top of the tower, the rough wind whipping through your hair, and take a peek over the edge.
Since the climbing and chilling wind made me wheeze like I had chain smoked 10 packs of cigarettes, I headed back to the hotel for a break. My friend went exploring for a few more hours before the sun set and brought back snacks and sandwiches. We spent the rest of the night flipping through the select and few channels on the hotel TV. I ended up finding a dubbed episode of Doctor Who – the one where 12 and Clara end up on the Dalek planet of Skaro. It wasn’t too difficult to understand . . . granted, I had seen the English version a few days before by chance. But it was fun to hear the translation differences. “EX-TER-MI-NER!”
On the other side of the citadel there is the Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus. The original church is thought to have been constructed in the 6th century but it wasn’t completed until about 6 more centuries after that. It’s clearly gothic in design, with intricately carved arches, dark pointed steeples, and gargoyles with decaying faces. Like the rest of the citadel (except for the fort), entry is free.
However, that grand cathedral isn’t the Cathedral of Carcassonne. La Cathédrale Saint-Michel is located in the middle of town, away from the citadel. It’s a bit less dramatic, but still just as beautiful.
A visit to Carcassonne also would be incomplete without tasting the famous cassoulet. It’s a slow cooked casserole with white beans, pork skin, and some kind of other meat, usually duck. The meat is often preserved, or confit, in its own fat. And then that preserved meat is cooked over time in the casserole of beans, more meat confit, and oil to give you cassoulet.
It was perfect for the cold and windy day, though I was spooning around large chunks of fat most of the time. I don’t think I could eat this everyday but, hey, when in Carcassonne.
The touristy shops in the citadel surprisingly weren’t too overpriced. The shelves are lined with crowns, wooden swords (the real ones are behind glass), knight figurines next to miniature nobel ladies in pretty dresses, and tiny citadel replicas. Go ahead, splurge a bit, get that tapestry. I know I did.