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Captivated in Carcassonne

by Julie Baxter | 26 October 2016

Some destinations come alive in your imagination long before you visit. A passing conversation, article or even blog like this opens your mind to some intriguing possibility of a place, and loiters there awaiting its time.

And so it was for me, finally bound for the fairytale landscapes of medieval Carcassonne which had nestled in my mind since, bored and fractious on a long hot summer drive with my parents to the south of France years ago, I had been temporarily distracted from the miles ahead by a thick tourist guide to French castles.

I was young and impressionable, hungry for the romantic stories of knights, jesters, and ladies’ favours, gripped by tales of witches, crusades and the torturous, unrelenting inquisition.

We had never actually visited back then but finally advancing on Carcassonne as an adult, more recently, first impressions did not disappoint my childhood imagination. Crenallated walls, perfect watch towers and dramatic ramparts stood in vivid contrast to the clear blue wide horizons that stretched beyond into the surrounding Languedoc area of France.

This is the single biggest wine-producing region in the world, being responsible for more than a third of France's total wine production but it’s the castle that calls visitors first.

My camera was working overtime and my mind filled with images of the violent crusades and embattled Cathars as I crossed the old bridge from the 'new' city of Carcassonne (bustling with designer shops, convivial squares and colourful markets) and headed upwards to the historic hilltop 'Cité' which is the destination's historic jewel.

The largest medieval citadel in Europe, La Cité, is now a tourism magnet, a status which means its picturesque cobbled streets feature more plastic swords, tea towel souvenirs and over priced restaurants than the handsome knights and royal courtiers of my imagination.

But scratch beneath the touristy surface and Carcassonne delivers an historic punch. The first protective walls were built in Gallo-Roman times, there were major additions made in the 13th and 14th centuries and the imposing Château Comtal is a 12th-century castle packed with historic tales and archaeological exhibits that easily absorbs you among the ramparts for a few hours.

And while the cité’s Knights Museum was somewhat parochial and homespun in style it set the tone for medieval life; while the Museum of Torture left me genuinely shocked at the horrific ingenuity of human minds bent on causing maximum pain to others.

Visitors do have limited accommodation options in the UNESCO-ranked walled part of the city but I preferred my base in Ville Basse, beyond the ancient walls and on the other side of the Aude river. This ‘new’ side still dates back to the Middle Ages but was created after the Crusades.

It’s a more authentic, working city with a gentle pace, plenty of pavement cafes and bistros and easy access to slow river cruises along the Canal du Midi. I hopped aboard seeking a much-needed chance to restore my equilibrium with fresh air and a glass or two of the local drop, as I tried to dismiss the ugly tales of medieval chastity belts, racks, human cages and saws, spiked iron chairs, head crushers and knee splitters, left echoing around my brain!

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