Spending a Medieval Day in Carcassonne
The second UNESCO listed small town that I wanted to visit as a day trip while in Toulouse was Carcassonne. When I thought I was going to have less time in Toulouse, I spent a while deciding whether Albi or Carcassonne would be the better day trip.
Whilst Albi was my favourite of the two, I’m glad I didn’t have to pick between the two. Carcassonne was also an amazing town to visit. In fact getting to see both Albi and Carcassonne is more than enough of an excuse to get yourself to the Mid-Pyrenees on your next visit to France.
Getting to Carcassonne
I was a little bit more organised when it came to booking my trip to Carcassonne. Instead of booking my blabla car the morning of my trip, I booked it the night before. The best thing about doing this was I couldn’t be lazy, I booked an early ride and it meant I arrived in Carcassonne really early.
Carcassonne is one of those small towns that can be overrun with tourists. It’s more well known than Albi and even though I was visiting in February, as the day progressed so did the steady stream of tourists. Hence I’d absolutely recommend getting there early, especially if you are visiting in high season.
The Old Town of Carcassonne
However there is a reason that tourists flock to this town; visiting it is a special experience. The old town of Carcassonne is entirely fortified. The whole of the old city can be found within the old walls of the fortress that used to protect Carcassonne from outside intrusion.
In fact Carcassonne was once the most protected medieval city in this part of France, and the main keep of the castle was so fortified at one stage in history that no one dared to attempt to breach it.
The result of Carcassonne being basically a castle is that as soon as you step through the main gate you feel like you have been transported back in time. As I walked up the old streets amongst the buzz of visiting tourists, restaurants and shop owners, I could imagine what Carcassonne used to be like all those years ago.
Instead of tourists there would be locals. Instead of modern shops selling technology there would be local traders and I’m sure the restaurants back then wouldn’t have been using the same cooking utensils as the restaurants I visited. Although potentially I might have found some similar dishes, especially those made from regional ingredients.
It’s easy to think that Carcassonne was always this perfectly put together. The walls of the city, the buildings and the streets look like they have never been faded by time. But Carcassonne was once only a ruin and it took a lot of painstaking work to get it fully restored to what it is today.
For the first couple of hours I spent in Carcassonne I was content to just wander around the city. The old town is a maze of winding streets and I did find myself getting lost and walking in circles more than once. But you can’t get too far, the city having four walls and everything.
Where to Eat in Carcassonne
Carcassonne was another place where I decided to break the budget on a nice meal. There were some dishes specific to the Mid-Pyrenees region that I was determined to try before I left Toulouse, and I figured if I was going to do that, I may as well do it right.
I went for a three course menu which included an entrée of foie gras, a main of cassoulet with confit duck and a crème brulee to finish.
I’m aware of the ethical concerns surrounding eating foie gras, and the part of me that wants to be a vegetarian really wants to stop eating it. But I deal with it the same way I deal with my need to eat meat; everything in moderation.
Hence I’ll only have it once or twice whenever I’m in France, and considering at this rate I’m in France once every six years, I’m not eating it too often.
I’m not sure anything will ever beat the homemade foie gras my host mum made when I was living in France, but this one came pretty close.
Cassoulet is another dish that is distinct to this part of France. It’s sort of a white bean stew and it’s often served with confit duck, which is what I had it with. Whilst I loved the duck, I still can’t say I’m the biggest fan of cassoulet. I find it just a tad bit boring if I’m being perfectly honest. It doesn’t have the rich flavours I expect of French food.
It’s pretty difficult to be served a terrible crème brulee in France and the one I ate in Carcassonne was one of the best. It came to my table on fire (which I might have enjoyed more if I wasn’t dining alone) and it tasted even better. Although I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I’ve come to prefer the Crème Catalan better since eating it in Barcelona.
Walking the Walls of Carcassonne
Rejuvenated from my massive French feast, I headed back out to explore Carcassonne. Unfortunately by the time I had left the restaurant the weather had taken a bit of a turn for the worse. There was still plenty of sun out by the wind was incredibly strong.
So when I started walking the city walls I got more than I bargained for. Whilst the wind made it a slightly painful experience, it was still worth it for the view that I got over the rest of the town.
Visiting the Keep
Climbing the walls isn’t a free activity but it is included in the entrance fee to the main castle which is absolutely worth the visit. Like the rest of Carcassonne it has been beautifully restored and the rooms you can walk through are accompanied with some useful information.
Given how much I love history I almost always invest in an audio guide which was an absolute brilliant way to experience the castle and keep.
The Cathedral of Carcassonne
I ended my trip to the castle by walking up the other part of the city wall that leads directly to the cathedral. Thankfully, this part of the wall seemed slightly more sheltered from the wind in comparison to the other part that I had previously climbed.
To be perfectly honest I wasn’t completely enamoured with the cathedral. It is surely pretty, especially from the outside, but from the inside it looked like any other church or cathedral I had visited. Although at this point in my trip I had definitely seen a lot of them, including some pretty spectacular ones that are still very difficult to top.
By the time I’d finished exploring Carcassonne I had time for an afternoon hot chocolate before meeting up with another blabla driver for my ride home to Toulouse.
Where to Stay in Carcassonne (or Toulouse)?
I visited Carcassonne as a day trip from Toulouse, where you’ll find plenty of options on Booking.com for both hostels and hotels, and a range of great Airbnb options. If you haven’t used Airbnb before you can get a discount off your first booking with my referral code.
But if you want the experience of staying within the old walls of Carcassonne there are some hotels located right in town. You’ll obviously be paying a lot more for a room than you would in Toulouse but if you have the budget a night in the old town could be an amazing experience.
Carcassonne or Albi?
My final verdict on the Carcassonne or Albi question is you really just need to make time in your French holiday plans to fit both of them in. I’d go as far as to say that putting these two towns on your itinerary would justify taking a day away from other major southern cities such as Avignon, Lyon or Marseille (all of which I was able to do in essentially a day and didn’t like as much).
But if you absolutely must only visit one, my vote still goes to Albi (sorry Carcassonne!).