|La Cité, Carcassonne, France
|Experience a large medieval city and its fascinating Château Comtal.
La Cité is what most people think of when they envision Carcassonne. Though only a small part of Carcassonne geographically, it is the main attraction by far.
You approach this huge fortress, built on a pre-Roman site in the 12th and 13th centuries, and enter through the Porte Narbonnaise, the main gate. Walking up the main street, you may be shocked at first by the 21st century souvenir shops selling plastic coats of arms and swords, and restaurants offering pizza and coke. But don't be discouraged—there really is a fascinating medieval city here!
As you approach you can appreciate the broad lices, large earthen gaps between the inner and outer ramparts. Looking up the lices you can get a sense of the structure of La Cité and see some of its many towers.
The Château Comtal, which dates in part from the 12th century, is well worth a visit. A brief film provides an overview of the château's history and its restoration in the mid 1800s by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (who also did Notre-Dame in Paris).
Wandering through the castle (self-guided tour) and along the parapet walk gives the visitor a sense of the château and its functions. It also provides beautiful views of the surrounding area.
The stonework museum includes a variety of statues, paintings, sarcophagi, and more.
From the main courtyard you can also access the Northern Ramparts and walk on the ramparts all the way back to the Porte Narbonnaise. You'll want good walking shoes for this, and a sign warns "Take care. The visitors circuit includes spiral staircases, separated steps, heights, narrow passages, and low lintels." If you're up for it, it's a wonderful walk with views into quiet residential parts of La Cité, La Bastide, and the beautiful surrounding countryside.
La Cité is also home to the Basilique St-Nazaire, with its Romanesque nave and aisles, and later Gothic constructions. Its beautiful stained glass includes pieces from the 13th and 14th centuries, as well as some 19th century additions.
But perhaps my favorite part of visiting La Cité was simply wandering the narrow streets and getting the feeling of a medieval town. Winding streets with stone houses and pots of flowers, surprising views as you rounded a corner—all combined to make a wonderful visit. In addition to wandering the streets inside the Cité, there are also several places where you can access the ramparts and enjoy the views from there.
And when you want to sit and have lunch or a coffee, head to the Place Marcou, with its many cafés and restaurants, and enjoy a break there.
It's also wonderful to see La Cité at night, lit up, and with the streets quiet after the throngs of day visitors have left. If your schedule permits, stay overnight in one of Carcassonne's hotels and experience it after dark.
After you've visited La Cité, walk down the hill and across the Pont Vieux to La Bastide. The Pont Vieux (Old Bridge) offers some lovely views of La Cité and the River Aube. At the northern end of La Bastide, near the train station, you'll see the Canal du Midi.