Cite de Carcassonne

A traveler approaching Carcassonne France would be excused for supposing that he is coming into a fairy tale world. The fortified city stands majestically on a hill overlooking the lush countryside of the Languedoc and the distant Pyrenees Mountains.

Carcassonne history goes back as least as far as Roman Gaul; parts of the city's fortifications date from 1st century AD. Located at the strategic intersection of two historic trade routes, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and from Spain to the center of France, Carcassonne's defenses were strengthened by successive owners. In the 5th century, the Visigoth's extended the Roman defenses and for many years after Carcassonne Castle proved impenetrable to invaders.

One legend from Carcassonne history is the attempted siege by Charlemagne in the 9th century. According to the story, a Madame Carcas cunning fed the last of the city's wheat to a pig in full view of the invading army. Believing that the besieged townspeople had an inexhaustible supply of food, Charlemagne retreated from the walls and the town was renamed in honor of the ingenious lady. The story is apocryphal; Carcassonne France took its name (or a version of it) even before the Roman conquest of Gaul.

Carcassonne France came under control of the French crown in 1247. King Louis IX (St. Louis) and his successor Philip III further strengthened the fortifications of Carcassonne Castle and built the "new town" outside the defenses. English troops laid siege to the city during the Hundred Years War, but once again in Carcassonne history, the fortifications proved impenetrable.

Many French castles, such as Chambord Castle and Chenonceau Castle in the Loire Valley, were built not as defensive structures, but as palaces for entertainment. Carcassonne Castle is more like the fortresses along the English-Scottish border (Alnwick Castle in England and Stirling Castle in Scotland, for example), in that its defenses were an essential part of its architecture. For many years, Carcassonne France marked the border between France and Aragon (a kingdom in modern Spain). In 1659, however, the border moved south to the Pyrenees and the Cite de Carcassonne lost its military significance.

For the next several centuries of Carcassonne history, the fortified walls were allowed to fall into disrepair. In the mid-19th century, the French government proposed demolishing the walls. A popular uproar saved Carcassonne Castle and the architect and historian Eugene Viollet-le-Duc was commissioned to restore the medieval fortifications. (Viollet-le-Duc also restored the famed Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.)

The restoration, though not strictly authentic, proved a great success. Today, over three million visitors come to Carcassonne France every year. The double walls stretch over 2 miles around a maze of medieval streets and museums. Over 50 towers rise from the fortifications to overlook the River Aude River and the surrounding green countryside. Admission into the walled city is free; tickets to the central Château Comtal are about $10 per person.

The Cite-de-Carcassonne is located in the lovely Languedoc region of France, near the border with Spain. The closest big city is Toulouse, about sixty miles to the northwest.

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