A view of the old city of Carcassonne on a sunny day, with townhouses below it.
Photo by Mike1550  –  Link

Carcassonne

France

With just one glance up at the old fortified city of Carcassonne, you can understand how the rumours about it being the inspiration for Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty may have started. Dominated by a castle complete with 53 turrets and an enormous rolling defensive wall, it's the kind of place that makes fairytales - and history - seem almost touchable. Just below it sits the 'new town', which today is home to just under 50,000 people and serves up some of the South of France's best cassoulets. Yes, Carcassonne may be a tale of two cities, but each certainly has something exceptional to offer.

Carcassonne is just under two hours' drive from both Montpellier and Toulouse, so if you're doing a road trip around the south of France it's worth making a stop here to see what it's all about.

History

As ancient as the fortified city may look, the true history of Carcassonne goes back even further. While the city has been a trading place since the 6th century BC, it was the Romans who first fortified it, in around 100 BC, having spotted its strategic position and defensive possibilities. This then-little French town really became famous during the 12th century, however, amid the backdrop of religious crusades and dramatic sieges. By the late 1240s it was being used as a border fortress between France and the Kingdom of Aragon, and it was around this time that King Louis IX founded the 'new' part of the city.

Carcassonne continued to be an important military site until 1649, when a treaty was signed which led to the moving of France's border. No longer seen as relevant, the old city was left to decay and fell into such disrepair that in the 1840s the whole of the older area was very nearly demolished. Fortunately, locals weren't having any of it, and the city was instead renovated, a move that led to it being given World Heritage status by UNESCO in 1997. The new town, meanwhile, continued to grow on the back of the woollen and wine industries, only really slowing down with the decline of the textile trade in the mid- to late- 1800s. Today, Carcassonne attracts over four million visitors every single year.

A tale of two cities

Just a short walk uphill from the new town, the old fortified city is packed with little alleyways, outdoor cafes and shops to browse, as well as hosting daily jousting shows to give you a taste of Medieval life. Spend the morning exploring, and once the afternoon hits wander back to Place Marcou, the old city's central square, for a spot of people watching with a glass of wine in hand. For a fee, you can also enter the castle ramparts, stand in one of the towers and imagine yourself as Rapunzel or a noble knight, whichever takes your fancy.

While this old city may be a big draw, definitely don't overlook the new town during your visit. Start in the town's central square, Place Carnot, which hosts a morning market three times a week, then go for a stroll around the side streets and boutiques, taking in its many churches and museums as you go. Stop for a delicious lunch somewhere local, then hire a bike (or a boat) and go for a gentle cruise along the Canal du Midi, which links the city of Toulouse to the Mediterranean sea, some 240km away. Don't worry, we don't expect you to ride the entire way.

Where to eat

Although there is some great food within the old city, the restaurants can be a little touristy and so for a more authentic experience try to eat away from the centre. Les Jardins de l'Estagnol is an option worth considering - yes, it's a little out of the way, located in an industrial area of the new town, but their outdoor terrace is beautiful and their cassoulet is exquisite.

Cheese fans should also check out the brie-lliant Fromagerie la Ferme, which stocks fresh local produce including cheese (surprise), meats and antipasti, as well as delightfully drinkable wines starting from €5 a bottle. Top tip: don't be afraid to ask the staff for their pairing selections - their friendliness is legendary and they really do know what they're talking about.