I climbed every step on the way up to this ancient, wall-enclosed city with reverence. The sun was just barely above the horizon. With each step, I tried to remember the facts I had read about the long history of the city. Over time, the Celts, Romans, Visigoths, Saracens, and Franks took, fortified, and strengthened the city. After the Treaty of the Pyrenees, the castle fell into disuse and was almost destroyed, but the locals put up a fight and the city was restored and rebuilt by the famed Viollet-le-Duc. If it wasn’t for them, Carcassonne, as it was, would only exist in history.
For the entire journey up the stairs, I kept thinking to myself, “I hope there’s no one here. I hope the streets are empty and quiet.” For reference, I had visited Carcassonne the night before, but it was the 14th of July, a National Holiday, and I was in the second most visited city in France. The streets were narrow and completely jammed with people. I felt like I was at a concert, I was hardly able to move and people were jostling about. Far from the most opportune way to experience such an enthralling location.
When I got to the base of the ramparts, the yellow swathes of paint I saw from a distance that covered portions of the walls suddenly made sense. It was an art piece based on perspective. In order to truly see the concentric circles, you had to be standing in just the right spot. Part of me found it interesting. The other part of me was infuriated that a bright yellow paint had been applied to the ancient stone that made up the city.
I passed under an arch into the space between the two sets of ramparts. As it was early and I still had plenty of time before the shops and museums opened, I decided to do a walk of the outer ramparts to see what the lower city and surroundings looked like from the chemin de ronde (wallwalk). I made my way halfway around the ramparts before hitting an area that was blocked off for an event that was being hosted.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I entered the city through the arch in the inner ramparts. There wasn’t a person in sight. I always love waking up early when I travel to avoid the crowds, it allows for some really great, people free photos of normally packed locations. In fact, for the majority of the time I was exploring the streets, there wasn’t a person to be seen.
I wandered the streets for a while, snapping pictures of cute streets and shop fronts. There isn’t a modern looking building inside the walls, at least, not that I was able to see. A lot of the buildings are half-timbered closely line the narrow cobbled streets. The city is mostly pedestrianized and it was nice not to have to worry about cars. I felt a sense of wonder as I strolled. It didn’t take much to be able to picture what the city had looked like hundreds of years ago.
I was surprised the chapel was open as early as it was so I decided to check it out again, this time, without other people. Despite being small, the chapel holds all of the energy, strength, and beauty of its larger counterparts. The sun was in just the right position to shine directly through the stained glass windows behind the altar. As opposed to some of the other cathedrals I visited, this one was bright, welcoming, and almost cheery instead of somber.
As I continued to stroll, people began to show up very quickly. At this point, it was nearing the time when the castle museum opened anyway so I decided to head that direction. Word to the wise here, if you know you’re going to visit a museum, buy your tickets online first if you can. Lines form quickly and in most locations, buying a ticket online first allows you to skip the majority of the waiting you would do otherwise. Besides, I knew I had a train to catch so I wanted to get inside as quickly as possible.
The Château Comtal is a relatively large castle up against the inner ramparts. The only way to visit the inside is to buy a ticket for the museum, but the visit is worth the price. As with most museums, there are audio guides that lead you around and give you information on the rooms and artifacts. The fact that I got there early and skipped the line was really nice because I avoided the crowd and was able to experience each room in relative peace.
One of the more interesting parts of this museum is the wall walk of the inner ramparts. At first, you are lead through a narrow timber walkway, complete with arrow slits and wooden machicolations which look out over the dry moat and upper city. You then make your way out onto the inner ramparts. Some of the towers along the way date back to the ancient Roman fortified town that existed in this spot long ago. This goes to show just how old Carcassonne really is. Near the end of the publicly accessible part of the inner ramparts, there were a few houses with a beautiful garden and I couldn’t resist taking a quick photo.
Overall, it’s very easy to see why Carcassonne is the second most visited city in France after Paris. Ancient and medieval architecture and history combine in a way that makes you feel almost like you’re walking through a giant outdoor museum. Whether you visit when the streets are empty, or crowded, it’s still an exhilarating place. Combined with an impressive fireworks display over the castle and city for the holiday, the time I spent in Carcassonne was exciting and memorable!