Carcassonne (Occitan: Carcassona) is a fortified city in the South of France. It was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1997.
The Sarrasin occupation provided inspiration for one of the best-known legends of the Middle Ages…
The emperor Charlemagne laid siege to Carcassonne, then ruled by the Sarrasin king Ballak, who was succeeded after his death by his wife, “Dame Carcas”. The town had already been under siege for 5 years when famine overcame the last of its defenders. So alone Dame Carcas kept watch from the ramparts. To give the illusion that the city remained well guarded, she made straw figures and dressed them as soldiers and fired arrows at the besieging army.
All that remained in the town was a little pig and one sack of wheat. Dame Carcas fed the pig with all the wheat and then threw it from the ramparts! At the sight of such a well fed fat animal, the amazed assailants concluded that the inhabitants had plenty of food and probably weren’t going to surrender any time soon. Charlemagne called off the siege in despair. But before the huge army had quite disappeared Dame Carcas rang the bells of the city to celebrate victory.
Many believe that Dame “Carcas sonne” (Dame “Carcas rings”) is where the name of the city came from. Dame Carcas is now memorialized in a neo-Gothic sculpture near the Narbonne Gate…
First signs of settlement in this region have been dated to about 3500 BC. The hill site of “Carsac” (Celtic name) became an important trading place in the 6th century BC. Carcassonne became strategically important when Romans fortified the hilltop around 100 BC.
The fortification consists of a double ring of ramparts and 53 towers.
The entrance has a drawbridge and the walls have towers built over quite a long period. One section is Roman and is notably different from the medieval walls with the tell-tale red brick layers and the shallow pitch terracotta tile roofs. One of these towers housed the Catholic Inquisition in the 13th Century and is still known as “The Inquisition Tower”. Today there is a museum “Musée de la Torture”, which shows some of the original torture equipment employed by the Catholic Church. The narrow winding lanes of the City also have many Restaurants, Cafes, souvenir shops etc.
Restoration: Carcassonne was struck off the roster of official fortifications under Napoleon and the Restoration, and the fortified cité of Carcassonne fell into such disrepair that the French government decided that it should be demolished. A decree to that effect that was made official in 1849 caused an uproar. The antiquary and mayor of Carcassonne, Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille, and the writer Prosper Mérimée, the first inspector of ancient monuments, led a campaign to preserve the fortress as a historical monument. Later in the year the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, already at work restoring the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire, was commissioned to renovate the place.
In 1853, works began with the west and southwest walling, followed by the towers of the porte Narbonnaise and the principal entrance to the cité. The fortifications were consolidated here and there, but the chief attention was paid to restoring the roofing of the towers and the ramparts, where Viollet-le-Duc ordered the destruction of structures that had encroached against the walls, some of them of considerable age. Viollet-le-Duc left copious notes and drawings on his death in 1879, when his pupil Paul Boeswillwald, and later the architect Nodet continued the rehabilitation of Carcassonne. Viollet-le-Duc’s achievement at Carcassonne is agreed to be a work of genius, though not of the strictest authenticity.
Carcassonne is a popular tourist destination and has around 3 million visitors a year . . . See our favourite Hotels in Carcassonne