IMG_2265It looks as if it were a castle designed by Disney for a princess. But Carcassonne isn’t a castle. It’s a fortified city (la Cité) with a castle inside it. I’ve been to the castle many times, and recently went back with visitors. I really don’t get tired of it–there are so many details. La Cité became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1997.IMG_2246IMG_1463The castle is a museum and you have to buy a ticket to get in. Only fair–I can barely keep up with maintenance of my house; I can’t imagine what this joint must require. The oldest parts date to 2,500 years ago. Ouf! Talk about built to last.

A Roman tower in front, with a medieval tower behind. The Romans used the strip of red bricks to make sure the walls were level. 

You enter through a barbican. The castle was the last defense within the well-defended city. The city itself had a drawbridge and walls–eventually a double ring of walls, which is unique–with many barbicans. A barbican is a brilliant piece of design–a half circle, it allows the residents 180 degrees of range of attack toward the outside. If, horrors, the attackers overwhelm the residents, the residents retreat farther inside and the attackers find themselves in the half-circle of the barbican–which has transformed from defense to trap, because there’s always a spot just a little beyond the barbican from which the residents can shoot at those in its confines, like fish in a barrel.

Barbicans, here and below, on the outer city wall.

IMG_2270 2So if attackers made it over the first drawbridge they would be stuck in the sets of double doors that would drop down to trap invaders between, with a trap door above so the residents could pour boiling water, boiling oil, stones or whatever down on them. The trapped invaders would be left to die of their injuries/starve to death or, if the invaders seemed not worth the wait, the outer door could be opened so they could flee.IMG_2243If the attackers breached this defense, they could run up the narrow lanes of la Cité. The residents would have already absconded for the castle, the final refuge. It has a barbican–a big one, separated from the castle proper by a drawbridge over a dry moat. Why a dry moat, you ask? Well, Carcassonne is on top of a hill, so it isn’t like there would be water in the moat. (Except during the filming of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” with Kevin Costner.) But the structure was useful anyway because it slowed down the attackers and kept them corralled where it was easy to shoot at them.

A covered gallery for archers to aim at attackers, and, when not used for that, for members of the court to get around the castle.

There’s another set of double drop-down doors and then you’re in the Courtyard of Honor. Time to forget about invasions and to think more about court life.

Fascinating mix of materials in the Cour d’Honneur.
Through the wavy glass.

The museum shows a wonderful short film about how Eugène Viollet le Duc restored la Cité, starting in 1844, saving it from almost being torn down. How he looked for traces of what was before–where there was a window, supports for a ceiling, etc. In other words, what you see today is a restoration of what was left centuries later but not quite as it was in its heyday in the early 13th century.IMG_2247IMG_1435

Another inner courtyard.

What do you think of historic restorations? I think it’s important to preserve the past, but you can’t bring it back. And so I like la Cité. It takes me to another time, another perspective.

The slate roofs were/are controversial–the roofs were gone when the restoration took place, and Viollet-le-Duc was criticized for using slate instead of terra-cotta tiles.

Do you go to the tourist attractions in your town? In France, the entire country is a tourist attraction. La Cité is very popular, and in the summer, in the afternoon, it is crowded and hot and unpleasant with daytrippers who come over from the Mediterranean beaches for a few begrudging hours of culture. But even in summer, in the mornings and evenings, it’s not crowded and is so interesting. And off-season you can practically have the place to yourself, to let your imagination run wild. I love going to la Cité. After all these years, I still make discoveries.

Fireplace mantels.

IMG_1460The little details grab me more as time goes by. Long ago when I lived in New York, I had a membership to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and would pop in once or twice a week. When you go that often, you don’t feel obliged to see everything. I spent one visit just looking at the Grecian urns–a room full of them–marveling at the stories painted on them. I also was impressed by how few people stopped to look at them, instead just passing through to more “important” things.

A knight’s sarcophagus, just the legs–can you make out the skirt top right? The detail carved into his shoes amazed me.
They even carved the hinge on his armor.

The museum holds quite a few things from the cathedral, especially mascarons that were too fragile to leave in the elements.IMG_2253IMG_2251IMG_1450

IMG_1451IMG_1452Check out this pillar…hard to get good exposure on the two sides, so there are two shots of the same thing.

Human face, with lion’s claws?
The tail…

What people did with stone is so incredible. Sculptors’ names lost to time. IMG_2252IMG_1461IMG_1444IMG_2255The other cool thing about visiting the museum is you have access to the ramparts, which offer amazing views over the “new” (1260) city and the countryside, down to the Pyrénées, if you’re lucky.

Olive grove.


The “new” town. Our AirBnBs are just beyond the funny tower with round windows in the center. About a 15-minute walk (10 minutes to go back because it’s downhill).
The golden field is wheat.

IMG_1436IMG_1438 While it’s great to see Carcassonne off-season, the summer has advantages despite–or thanks to–the crowds. Tonight, I’m going to see a dance performance in the Cour d’Honneur–talk about a setting! It’s part of the Festival of Carcassonne, with concerts, theater and more, some awfully expensive but other events free. And in August, it’s all things medieval, with jousting tournaments between the walls.

For a small town, there’s never a dull moment.



23 thoughts on “Keys to the Castle

  1. I love visiting your blog on Friday with a cup of cocoa and time to sit and read and then reread the post. I always learn something new. I am fascinated by the barbican, an interesting concept and protection for the cite.

    I was just speaking this morning to our guests about a house in the neighborhood next door that was built in 1659, and I walk over and look at it and the garden, it is part of the National Park. But to your point, there is history all around if only you take the time to look. Maybe not as interesting or beautiful as what you would find in France but still interesting.

    I too love to go to museums and if I have been there before I skip the main/important pieces and visit the small pieces that are my favorites. One summer that I spent in Paris I spent 2 weeks walking the city just walking in and out of churches and it was fascinating. Another summer I only visited smaller museums and often times I was the only visitor which was a treat.

    I hope that you are having a wonderful summer and enjoying your guests. Happy weekend my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Elizabeth,
      Thank you for this beautiful comment! Yes, small, off the beaten track museums are often gems. Even in the big ones, there are marvels that nobody even bothers to look at.
      I had no idea there were houses built in the 17th century in the U.S.!!!


  2. Absolutely amazing…. and how glorious, to walk through a history scene such as these ancient cities… They say New England has loads of history, and this is true – but we don’t have anything like the old cities of your country… some day I hope to visit. For now I’ll enjoy your tours…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful pictures and history, truly it is a joy to read. I must say if any of you go to NYC and carefully study the buildings, you will find beautiful art. I know, there is much to see and do and one gets distracted. Truly, look carefully, a wealth of info. And yes, buildings that were built in the 1700’s. One of these was the home of my ancestor that came across the continents. It is so helpful to hire someone with extensive knowledge for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Majestic! The city I grew up in is 2500 years old and although it has many archeological pieces on display in the museum and parks, the defending wall is now mostly a ruin. So I’m in awe looking at how well this fortress has been preserved. There is something to say about perseverance, grit and ingenuity of humans in times when all the modern machinery didn’t exist. Thank you for sharing, I am learning so much about Carcassone.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Whenever we have visitors, we always end up in la Cité. Everyone wants to go there – understandably. We have now been there, across the seasons, and it has been very interesting to be able to appreciate this amazing site from different perspectives.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. In 1991, pregnant with my first child, we moved to the very pretty but very distant town of Barnard Castle in north east England. We bought our first house and I soon took possession of a free pass which residents were entitled to, giving us unlimited access to the castle. Many hours were spent there, kicking a ball or just enjoying ourselves. As castles went, it was great, a total outpost and practically impregnable. In Britain, castles stood till our civil war when many were slighted (destroyed) and remained either as ruins or as something to enjoy on a bright day. We don’t really have a Carcasonne here. But visit the castle in Barnard Castle in January, in the snow…well worth it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are so many totally amazing places all across Europe and sometimes the smaller ones are all the better for being a place to explore on your own. But the big ones, like Carcassonne and Prague, are very impressive too.


  7. I believe LeDuc made one major change to he castle. It originally had crenellated towers, and he changed them to the later “witch hat” style as seen on castles in the Loire Valley, which were not defensive. There must be many illustrations existing of the castle before he undertook the restoration.
    bonnie in provence

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I ADORED this TOUR! I agree with YOU the DETAILS are INCREDIBLE!
    Everything done in THE PAST MUST BE SAVED!!!
    And NO I donot do the TOURISTY things in San Francisco!IN fact I have NEVER walked across the GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE!It’s always been there and its too cold and windy!SO, that’s my excuse!Not the same as YOUR CASTLES!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re kidding! I used to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge every chance I got, pinching myself all the way that it wasn’t just a dream. I even did it 8.5 months pregnant. But seriously, the touristy stuff tends to be (1) beautiful, (2) interesting, often because of history or (3) all of the above.
      That said, you would just love the little villages. Saissac isn’t very touristy, despite the château–there are some, for sure, but it isn’t overrun by any stretch.


  9. I ADORED this TOUR! I agree with YOU the DETAILS are INCREDIBLE!
    Everything done in THE PAST MUST BE SAVED!!!
    And NO I donot do the TOURISTY things in San Francisco!IN fact I have NEVER walked across the GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE!It’s always been there and its too cold and windy!SO, that’s my excuse!Not the same as YOUR CASTLES!!!


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