The fortified hilltop city of Carcassonne is a delightful place from which to begin an exploration of medieval castles, pretty waterways and some of the most celebrated wines in the south of France. Carcassonne is the capital of the Aude,
it is classed as a city but with a population of +/- 50,000 it feels more like a town.
There has been a fortified settlement at this spot overlooking the River Aude since before Roman times. Carcassonne is of such historic significance that is a designated UNESCO world heritage site, and is the second most visited tourist attraction in France, topped only by the Eiffel Tower. Carcassonne and is made up of two distinct historic areas separated by the River Aude but linked by the 14th century Pont Vieux bridge.
- La Ville Basse (the lower town), dates back to the Middle Ages and includes a charming square dominated by a large fountain. It offers a mix of typical French bars, cafés and restaurants, a handful of shops and boutiques, and a vibrant market offering a variety of fresh produce.
- La Cité de Carcassonne is the upper town and is also known as The Walled City because it lies inside the ramparts of a medieval castle. It features a large, central castle, 52 towers, the 12th century Château Comtal, an open air amphitheatre, a fine Gothic cathedral, and the St Nazaire basilica with its Gothic-Romanesque architecture. Its fairy tale-like appearance is said to have inspired the castle in Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, and its ramparts stretch for more than 3km, offering stunning elevated views across the rolling hills and picturesque countryside.
Venture out of Carcassonne and you’ll find many more fortifications. The nearby Château de Quéribus is one of five medieval castles known as the Cinq Fils de Carcassonne (Five Sons of Carcassonne) which were heavily fortified during the 13th century because of their strategic position on the border with Spain. Since 1907, the Château de Quéribus has been listed as an historic monument by the French Ministry of Culture, and in 2002 it was opened up to visitors following four years of restoration work.
A little further afield in the Haut-Minervois area is the picturesque Château Las Tours, a castle with four towers which is much less busy than the tourist magnet of Carcassonne. A lovely medieval abbey lies nearby in the village of Caune-en-Minervois.
Travel a bit further south from Carcassonne and you’ll find the atmospheric Corbières region with its charming villages, magical medieval castles and atmospheric abbeys. Corbières is also one of the two finest wine-growing areas in this former Languedoc region, the other being the Minervois to the north of Carcassonne. Vineyards surround Carcassonne in all directions, making it an ideal midpoint base from which to take wine tours.
The Canal du Midi runs through Carcassonne, offering ample opportunities for boat trips along the pretty tree-lined routes west towards Bram or east towards Trèbes. TV chef Rick Stein was so charmed by the canal and inspired by the area’s delicious produce that he featured the waterway in his TV series A French Odyssey.
Water-lovers must also visit the beautiful Lac de la Cavayere, five minutes from the centre of Carcassonne. This lakeside recreational beach is the perfect place to unwind, sunbathe and swim. There’s even a supervised children’s swimming area to give parents peace of mind.
The popularity of Carcassonne is further enhanced by its international airport, offering low-cost and easy travel to this charming area for those looking to emigrate to France or buy a holiday home in the south of France.