36 hours in Carcassonne
Approaching Carcassonne, flanked by the Pyrenees on our right and the Black Mountain to our left, we caught our first glimpse of this wonderful region of France. I thought we were lining up for a run of the mill landing but then the pilot made a sweeping low-altitude 180 degree turn over the old Ramparts of the Viscount’s castle to line up with the runway. This offered a perspective on these stunning vistas that can only unlocked by the privilege of flight.
Where to stay
We planned to spend 36 hours here (you can see I dug deep for the article title) so we needed to crash for the two nights. Hotel Montmorency is nestled in the shadow of the Ramparts of the castle, literally a 2 minute walk from the main gate of the Medieval City. With postcard-perfect views of the castle, comfortable rooms and great breakfast, it was a very pleasant experience. The staff were really friendly and helpful but a special hat-tip, or tail wag, goes to the boss Elliot, the most laid back dog ever.
If you’re staying in Carcassonne everything is within walking distance. From here, La Cité (Medieval town) and La Bastide (lower town) are only 15 minutes each way.
If you’re venturing further afield you can rent a car through Ryanair when booking. Perfect if you want to explore the many small villages and towns which populate the region.
Lunch – Au Four Saint Louis
Before we started we were in need of some good food to fuel our foot-powered jaunt around La Cité. We popped into Au Four Saint Louis after a recommendation from a colleague. The restaurant uses seasonal ingredients to prepare simple, hearty and outrageously tasty dishes. The atmosphere was cosy, the staff were friendly and the wine list extensive. We idled over our food and wine for an hour or so, soaking in the atmosphere and quiet bustle, and even got chatting to some of the other customers. It’s just that kind of place.
Exploring La Cité (Old Medieval Town)
You can walk around the perimeter of the old town in Carcassonne in about 30 minutes but there is so much to take in we recommend giving it about 3 hours. Highlights include spectacular views of the Pyrenees, The Black Mountain and Bastide Saint Louis, or the lower town.
The Basilica of Saint Nazarius and Celus is located inside the Ramparts and is a national monument whose architecture takes its cues from the Gothic-Romanesque tradition, with stained glass windows that filter and refract the beauty of the afternoon sun in an almost ethereal manner. It’s an experience not to be missed. Go inside the Viscount’s Castle to take in the medieval artefacts and explore the Cathar history of the region, but make sure you’re there before 4pm to give yourself at least an hour to get around.
Experience Occitan Cuisine – Restaurant Adelaïde
France is synonymous with food, and the Occitan region is famous for cassoulet. Cassoulet is essentially a slow-cooked dish typically containing meat, pork skin and white beans. The exact ingredients depend on which one you eat. Castlenaudary, Carcassonne and Toulouse all have their own version which collectively form the trinity of Cassoulet. However there is quite a lot of crossover. We went to a Restaurant Adelaïde to experience ours, which was prepared with duck confit. It was as delicious as it was filling. So be warned, if you’re eyes are bigger than your belly you might be better off sharing a dish. The low light, quiet ambience and local wine made for a pleasant sleepy end to the day.
Bastide Saint Louis
Breakfast done,it was time to explore La Bastide, or the lower town. Not exactly new at 4 centuries old with buildings dating back to the 17th and 18th century, but certainly newer than La Cité.
Now, I like to kick the day off with a nice sit down and cup of coffee. If it’s an environment where I can people-watch, all the better, so my first stop was Les Halles, a covered market just off Place Carnot, the main square. Here you’ll find all the ingredients you need to cook up a storm if you’re self-catering. Or if you’re like me, and just want to have a nice coffee while watching the locals do their thing, there’s no better place.
Speaking of Place Carnot, there is a great little market that runs on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Plus, the main square is surrounded with lively bars and restaurants should you want to indulge later in the day.
From Place Carnot it’s only a short stroll to the church of Saint Vincent. The epitome of Languedoc Gothic architecture on the outside, finely decorated on the inside with paintings from Gamelin, Nicolas Mignard and Pierre Subleyras, and breath-taking views from the tower – it’s not to be missed.
The Fine Arts Museum is about 10 minutes away from Church Saint Vincent and is a cultural must-see. It houses a collection of paintings and ceramics from the 17th century to modern day, as well as three temporary exhibitions per year. Entrance is free and it’s set over two floors, so there is plenty to see, which is great if you get caught in a rain shower like we did!
Suitably cultured up, it was time for lunch. We stopped by Creperie Le Ble Noir. Everything we’d read about this place was true. Great food, nice atmosphere and reasonably priced. It’s also veggie friendly, so there’s something to suit most palettes.
Get Out Of Town
Just a ten minute drive from town lies the artificial Cavayére lake. As well as taking beautiful walks, you can kayak on the lake, zipline in the forest or go for a leisurely bike ride. Or you can just skim stones like we did (watch out for kids, ducks and subsequent legal action). It’s a great place to spend a day or afternoon in good weather, especially if you have kids that you need to tire out.
Do not go on Mondays, everything is closed. 2 days is probably enough to see everything Carcassonne has to offer so it’s a great spot to factor into a wider visit to the region.
If you find yourself there in July, you could do worse than catch the Festival de Carcassonne. This a multi-stage festival that runs throughout July with over 120 performances, 80 of which are free. It’s set in Medieval City which offers one of the most unique backdrops of any festival in the world.
Regardless of when you go, I guarantee the magic Carcassonne will not escape you.