What better way to celebrate Bastille Day than a look back at our lovely break in Carcassonne at the end of May? We spent a little over 48 lovely hours in the city, discovering the fairytale Citadel and the equally intriguing lower town, the Bastide, finding out why it is the most visited tourist attraction in France after the Eiffel Tower. Hopefully these photos will reveal the answer!
The first evening we arrived after a lovely drive through the mountains from Salles-sur-Cerou where we were staying for the wedding of my friends Rebecca and Aric, and found our very eclectic AirBnB (meeting our eccentric hostess Patricia), which we were delighted to realise was only a ten minute walk to the citadel, and you could see it from the end of the street. We took a stroll straight away and caught our first glimpses of the fortress.
After a fairly long drive and only a short sandwich pit-stop, we were both starving, and I was desperate for some authentic cassoulet, a southern french casserole dish made from beans, bacon and sausage, so we found a small prix-fixe restaurant that a quick google suggested was nearby and highly rated for home-cooked cuisine – Restaurant Le Trivalou. It was indeed a great find, the paté starter was delicious and the cassoulet was everything I’d been waiting for. Ste had duck confit and was equally enamoured. I even had a mini bottle of lovely local wine to myself, which made me very happy.
After supper we took a sunset walk up to the edges of the citadel and watched the sun go down over the lower town.
We headed back to our AirBnB over the bridge, and realised that we had a perfect view of the citadel as the sun lowered and the lights came on, illuminating the walls from below. I only had my phone so the pics aren’t great, but you get the idea – it’s simply beautiful.
The next morning we started as we meant to go on – I headed out to a local bakery and bought a huge baguette, and we breakfasted French-style at home.
As soon as we were done we walked back over the bridge again, and climbed up to the citadel, and this time we went in to explore. The windy little streets lined with tourist shops and restaurants are so medieval, you can sometimes round a corner and feel like you’ve stepped back in time. We took a while finding out how to get up onto the walls of the city to walk around it (which you have to pay €7 for, but Ste got free entry as an EU citizen under 25), complicated by the fact that the main entrance was shut for building work, and the route to the other entrance was blocked by a crane that was doing some repairs to one of the houses nearby! We encountered a lot of angry people trying to get up there, but decided instead to wait it out over a glass of wine in the sunshine and a browse of the shops.
Once we set off again, the crane had moved a bit and we were able to get through and up onto the walls, which offer spectacular views down over the lower town and off into the distance, but also over the citadel itself. It was extremely windy up there though, short skirts are not recommended! We ended inside the fortress and had a wander through some of the rooms inside, which had exhibits about the fortress and when it was built and what it used to look like. I love that kind of thing, and luckily so does Ste. If you visit, walking the walls is an absolute must in my view.
All the walking gave us an excuse for yet more food, and we found Restaurant le Chaudron which had a lovely sunny terrace and a very reasonably priced lunch menu. It turned out to be an extremely good choice, the starter was simply sublime – deep fried goats cheese with smoked duck breast and walnut salad. I’m not normally a goats cheese fan, but this was just delicious. I am still dreaming about it.
Having seen most of what the citadel had to offer in a morning, we then walked back down into the lower town and explored the Bastide area, which also has some lovely little shops and its own city walls. In fact, there is a walled city within the lower city, which once upon a time was the new town outside the citadel, but is now the oldest part. I became a little obsessed with finding beautiful doors with amazing handles, which are seemingly everywhere.
We walked along to the pretty area of the Canal du Midi near the station to watch the canal boats and have a doze in the sunshine on the banks.
Later we tried to visit an antiques shop that I’d spotted as we were driving into town, but unfortunately it was closed, so we made plans to go back and visit it the next morning.
That night we ate at a restaurant recommended by our hostess Patricia, L’Oeil Le Resto, which is a traditional feu du bois (or wood fire) restaurant (with a sideline in drag cabaret apparently!). The Trip Advisor reviews were not good, grumpy service, too little choice, poor welcome, difficult to find on a residential street, but our experience was brilliant. The welcome was indeed grumpy, but when the owner (one of whom serves, the other lady cooks) realised I spoke French, it warmed up extremely quickly, and a complimentary glass of the house white was delivered to our table. I love wine, and had been doing my best to taste as much local wine as I could on the trip, but this has to have been one of the nicest glasses of wine I’ve tasted. And it was a great price (I know because I ordered a couple more!). The food is basically meat, cooked over a wood fire, accompanied by baked potatoes done in the coals. They have no sauces, other than a really nice salt, and get offended if you ask. But when you taste it, you understand. Simply fantastic. One reviewer said his wife did a good ‘When Harry Met Sally’ impression on tasting her steak, and I can well believe it! It was also really well priced, and by the time we left, full of locals. A hidden gem this, evidenced by the fact that I was enjoying my food and wine and chat with the owner so much, I totally forgot to take a single photograph!
On our final day we just had time to check out the huge antiques shop before leaving for Toulouse, and I am so glad we went back. It was an aladdin’s cave of treasures. If we’d driven our own car over, rather than hiring at the airport, we would have returned home laden with linens, flasks, garden furniture, a metal bedstead…. Let’s just say Ste was relieved we only had hand luggage, and that as a result I restricted myself to one old beer bottle embossed with the name of the city for my new vintage bottle collection. I could have done a lot more damage to the bank balance given half the chance.
I would say that 48 hours in Carcassonne is plenty to see the highlights of the city and get a feel for the relaxed pace of life. You can fly directly there as well, which makes it the perfect weekend break destination, and I imagine it will be equally lovely in winter when the braziers are lit and you can snuggle up in a cosy cellar bar in the citadel. Have you ever been? Did I miss any must-sees?