A Midsummer Fairytale – Carcassonne, France
“Are you sure/That we are awake? It seems to me/That yet we sleep, we dream”
It felt a little like a dream, this past week. We decided to go on an outing in LMB, a last little “hurrah” before the madness of summer steps in.
Originally our plan was to head deep into the mountains and find our solitude there, but the forecasts showed nothing but rain and cloud. So we looked East, past the mountains and towards the sea, and our eyes landed on a fairytale place, a Castle of legend and a city of the past with a campground just steps away. It looked ideal, and in normal times we wouldn’t hesitate to go. But these are not normal times, and we weren’t at all sure.
Would we be able to enjoy this tourist spot, with enough distance & barriers to feel comfortable? Or would it be over-run, as so many of these spots are?
But much like Shakespeare’s great play, it seemed we were taken by fairies and lived it all through a dream, because nothing turned out quite like we expected, which was a very pleasant surprise indeed.
Carcassonne, The City of Two Cities
The Cité of Carcassonne is arguably the most famous medieval citadel in France.
Set on a hilltop above the valley, it was first built in Gallo-Roman times, then hugely expanded in the 13th and 14th centuries and finally restored by theorist and architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in 1853. Today it’s a spectacular monument with 3 kilometres of double stone outer walls that envelop a 12th century castle (Château Comtal), a magnificent cathedral (La Basilique Saint Nazaire) and 53 majestic towers that can be seen from miles away. It’s in pristine condition and it’s enormous. The first time you see it, it takes your breath away.
Of course that also means it’s crazy popular, drawing over three million visitors per year (!)
I’ve heard it described as a tourist trap, and have been warned that the crowds within the old city are often so thick you can only move at the pace of the masses. It carries the curse of being a spot that is both un-missable and over-visited as practically all beautiful spots are these days, once they’re discovered.
There’s not just an old medieval Cité here, either.
Directly west of the citadel, across Pont Vieux over the Aude river, the other half of Carcassonne known as the “Bastide” is equally enchanting, albeit in a less dramatic way. Built in the 13th century by Saint Louis, it offers delightfully colorful cobblestone streets, an airy center square, masses of shops & restaurants, and several interesting cathedrals and museums. It’s the modern side of the city, if you can call ~800 years or so of history “modern”.
Plus of course Carcassonne sits in the midst of a famous wine region, the Languedoc-Roussillon* area, which produces more than a third of France’s total wine production. It’s home to multiple grapes thanks to its Mediterranean climate and rich soils that vary from chalk, limestone and gravel in the inner regions to alluvial near the coast.
With so much going on, it’s not surprising that so many people are drawn to visit this area.
* An Interesting Side-Note: during the two world wars Languedoc was responsible for providing the daily wine rations given to French soldiers. Back then it was a cheap, blended wine, very different from the quality you see today. Languedoc wines have come a long way since then.
We Decide To Splurge On The Campground
For motorhomes, Carcassonne offers both an Aire and a full-service Campground, which sit together just ~20 mins walk along the riverfront footpath from old town.
The Aire de Camping is actually quite nice with clean, spacious and green spots for only ~EUR 15/night, but it offers no electrical hookups.
The 4-star Camping La Cité campground (right next door) is lovely, with huge sites, separated by hedges and full services (toilets, showers, on-site laundry, pool, spa, game area, dog area etc.). Some of the sites even have slice views of the old city. However it’s also somewhat pricey.
This time of year (mid-season) it costs EUR 22/night which seems inexpensive until you add in all the “extras” such as EUR 2.90 for your pet and EUR 4.90 for electricity, meaning you end up paying ~EUR 30/night for your site. Ah well, you only visit Carcassonne once right?
Temps were expected to be hot while we were here, so we decided to splurge and got an enormous, private site in camp. We loved it and felt it was totally worth it for the few days we were visiting.
Early Next Morning We Head Into The Heart Of The Cité
The French are not really morning folks. They prefer to ease into the day with détente, and tend to do their sightseeing later rather than earlier. It’s something we’ve seen everywhere since we’ve lived here. So the next day we decide to take advantage of that little nugget of insider info.
Right after breakfast, we leash Polly up and walk together along the pleasant riverfront path to the Cité**, turning up at the Porte de l’Aude exactly at open at 9AM. We thought this to be the best way to avoid the crowds and in fact, it ended up being even better than that.
There was literally no…one…there!
Cafes and restaurants were mostly closed (a few were just opening up), shops were shuttered and the streets were completely, wonderfully, spectacularly empty. It was as if the wind swept through and left only dust and stones, the historic site abandoned and quiet, waiting just for us. What an absolute treat!
So we walked through as if in a dream, wandering the narrow cobblestone alleys, admiring the church and the majestic 12th century castle (Château Comtal), soaking in the history and reveling in the eerie silent atmosphere. A few cafe owners glanced at us, surprised to see anyone around so early, and a dog trotted up to visit Polly from one of the shops, but other than that our time in the old city was completely ours. A magical moment indeed.
**Visitor Info: The Cité is free to visit, and completely dog-friendly to boot (there are even doggie bag dispensers at all the main entrances). However if you want to visit the castle, or any of the in-city museums there is an entry charge (and doggie cannot go with you inside). Also normally the city is open all hours, but due to COVID-19 restrictions during our stay, visits were limited to between 9AM – 10PM.
I Make A Few More Visits
Over the next day I go in to visit the area a few more times.
I travel by bicycle to the Bastide side of town, where things are somewhat busier. The town square is open, with chairs and tables out, colorful umbrellas hung in strings between buildings, and everyone is enjoying the sun (only few are wearing masks, unfortunately). I bike through and don’t linger, as I’m still not keen to be around crowds. What’s strikes me however is that everyone is speaking French, something that doesn’t really sink in until later, when I realize the city would normally be full of international tourist at this time.
Right now there are no tour buses, no tour groups and no international tourists. Admittedly I rather like it.
Late that afternoon I go for a final photography outing at the Cité, with the aim of walking around the entire 3km perimeter of outer walls. Once again, I enjoy what I can only describe as a magical experience. I pass a cat enjoying the evening out, just like me. And I see pigeons everywhere, the stone walls echoing with the fluttering of their wings, and their cooing as they court each other. I pass a meager sprinkling of people, but for the most part I am totally alone.
It seems somehow fitting to be here, at this time, in this way. Everyone else is (presumably?) inside the old city, going to restaurants, shopping, buying tourist attractions. But where I find peace is here on the outside of everything, awed by the walls towering above me, the stones bursting with stories to tell, and transporting me back in time to listen to them.
I so want to stay in this moment, in this mental space….
I spend the next hour wandering along the outer ramparts, climbing up and down worn steps, going through arches, and following hidden paths to undiscovered places. This is totally my jam. As the sun drifts lower on the horizon the rocks change from grey to a warm ochre, and I click away on my camera, enjoying the glorious architecture and solitude. Perfection!
We Finish Up At A Winery
The next morning we head out, wanting to avoid whatever crowds might descend on the place in the week-end.
On our way home we stop at a winery (Domaine Le Fort) recommended to us by our local neighbors. They’re a family shop, very low key, but they make excellent wines that all sell by word of mouth. We load up LMB with five cases and then follow the back-roads back home. It’s a quiet, and pleasant drive along rolling hills and through small towns. The quintessential French motorhome experience.
And just like Shakespeare’s play, we wake up at home the next day and wonder if it was all a dream. Did we really see the old city of Carcassonne with no-one around? Did we really have it all to ourselves? Could something beautiful like that actually happen in this year, this crazy year of suffering and rife?
But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images
And grows to something of great constancy,
But, howsoever, strange and admirable.
Indeed, I think we did…
HAPPY FATHERS DAY to all the dad’s out there! We made it home to spend the day with mine, and that was also rather special. May you all have a magical day!