Vue sur les montagnes depuis Carcassonne

From the Middle Ages to the 21st Century

With its troubadours and singing stars, its equestrian tournaments and its little trains, the Museum of Torture and the toy wooden swords, Carcassonne is one of the most beautiful fortified towns in Europe and attracts millions of visitors every year.

“Fantastic!” An American is sweating heavily under the blazing Carcassonne sun. Sitting across from the ramparts, he tells his two teenage sons the history of the city. "I read a book about the city and I wanted to it see for myself, as well as to show it to my children”. This mechanic from San Diego can’t stop marveling at the door to the entrance to the City. "It's beautiful..." he repeats before wandering off into the cobbled streets.

Prolific in the City’s boutiques are sets of knights’ armour, princesses’ costumes, wooden swords and bow and arrow sets. Two little trains take visitors on tours of the ramparts, their carriages gliding smoothly along the rails. Here you see knights competing in a tournament inside a wooden fort, there you see, in front of the basilica and dressed in period costume, proud gentlemen and beautiful ladies, listening to a troubadour. A witch is handing out flyers inviting people to visit the Museum of Torture and of The Inquisition.

The queue to get into the Château Comtal (the Count’s Castle) snakes along under the ramparts. "From the motorway, I thought I was seeing a fairy castle", explains a young history student from Nantes. "I have wanted to visit this iconic city for a long time,” she adds. “For me, this is one of the most beautiful fortified cities in Europe. It is also one of the best preserved thanks to the restoration works of Viollet-le-Duc.” Everything here authentically exudes the Middle Ages; coming to Carcassonne is like taking an enormous step back in time.

But you are still however anchored in the 21st century - the on-site restaurants are full, with the traditional local dish of cassoulet on the menu. In the shadow of the Cathedral, a violinist plays wonderful Gypsy jazz. Throughout the summer, on the Castle’s ultra-sophisticated stage, French singers perform. At night, the city is lit up with a spectacular number of lights. It’s no wonder that Carcassonne, a true modern icon, annually attracts more than two million visitors.

The time machine

More than 2,000 years of military history

A key strategic position between the Atlantic ocean and the Mediterranean, a prosperous medieval city, the home of the Cathars, a royal stronghold, an important textile production center; Carcassonne has seen many incarnations between its abandonments, looting and subsequent royal restorations.

Located on the Carsac plateau and built on and inhabited since antiquity, occupation of this strategic high point would be desired by many. The Roman conquerors move in during the 1st century BC and are the first to build solid walls. Repeatedly conquered and then lost, the city would be successively occupied by the Visigoths, the Saracens and the Franks.

The Cathar epic

When Raymond Roger Trencavel proclaims himself Viscount of Carcassonne in the 11th century, it is a thriving city. He sets to work on its renovations and he repairs the walls. Set away from the centre, the castle backs onto the Gallo-Roman fortifications. The Viscount is a rich man with an open mind. He lives well in the Castle: hosting grand occasions of feasting, fun and deal-making. Two villages develop adjacent to the walled city which would later be razed.

The fate of Carcassonne shifts with the arrival of Catharism and the crusades which came to destroy it. After the victory of Simon de Montfort over Trencavel, Carcassonne returns to the King of France who transforms it.

In order to make this strategic emplacement as secure as possible, St. Louis builds a second wall with a flattened passage between the two, called a ‘pomerium’. A city would come to be built outside the walls on the other side of the river.

The outer wall is extremely secure due to its many defensive features: crenellated curtain walls with fine loop holes pierced with a spade for archers, barbicans (circular or semi-circular narrow defensive passages which open towards the inside) and several towers including the Vade Tower.

Gallo-Roman fortification

Any attacker who by chance happened to get past this first hurdle was not yet home free. Taken from behind, he would be attacked by the archers in the barbicans and the towers that open onto the pomeriums. The view from the Grand Burlat Tower, located at the south-west corner of the castle walls, enables you to envisage the efficacy of this architecture.

Internal protection is in the form of a wall more than a kilometre long, which in places demonstrates Gallo-Roman elements recognisable by the brick pattern in the stones. Much higher than the first wall it includes imposing towers such as the Trésau Tower, the Moulin du Midi Tower or the twin towers at the Narbonne gate, significant by their stone protrusions in the form of a spur. This is the main entrance to the city.

This entrance is protected by a chain and a stone archway where two portcullises drop down. As an extra precaution, a deadfall trap is located at the top of the arch - any invader who managed to pass through this entrance risked all kinds of deadly items landing on him.

Royal Bastide

To the South lies the Saint-Nazaire gate with its square tower and its platform on which was placed a large catapult capable of downing large numbers of the enemy. To the North, in the oldest part of the castle lies the Bourg door. To the West: the Aude door near the Castle, access to which is extremely difficult due to the steep terrain.

With its two walls, its biased entries with barbicans in front of them, uneven stone towers and its military measures, the city is well guarded.

Because of its reputation as an impregnable city, Carcassonne existed quietly, but would lose its military interest after the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees. It would become one of the most important manufacturing places in France and grow rich through the production of sheets. The prosperity that trade brought to the lower town led to it becoming a royal fortified town. But this  success and expansion came at the expense of the city, which became impoverished. The rich left and the poor settled in the pomeriums.

Viollet-le-Duc remodels the city

Left abandoned in the 18th century, demolished and plundered for its stone, the city would owe its salvation to these important men: Pierre Cross-Mayrevieille and Prosper Mérimée the then Inspector-General of Historical Monuments, to whose attention Pierre Cross-Mayrevieille brought the Castle. The architect Eugène Viollet le Duc was made responsible for the restoration work starting in 1855. He completely designed the city, rebuilding what was nothing more than ruins. The walls were rebuilt, the towers repaired, completely transformed. Some of the higher towers with wide openings would lose their crenellations to be replaced with sloping slate roofs. The architect removed all the dwellings that were built in the pomeriums, bringing the city back to its previous splendour. This was a huge task to which he devoted himself until his death in 1879. The restoration of the city was completed by his pupil Paul Louis Boeswillwald and then by the architect Henry Nodet. In all, the work lasted more than 50 years.

Meet

Amancio Requena, Cultural Manager at the National Monuments Centre We innovate to present the count's Castle in the best way possible

Contemporary exhibitions, conferences, ephemeral gardens and historical pageants; for two years, Amancio Requena, Cultural Manager at the National Monuments Centre, has been working with his team on the cultural and educational prospects for the site.

More than 500,000 people have visited the Count's Castle and the city walls. Do these visits come under the jurisdiction of Monuments of France?

Absolutely! Every day, ten guided tour visits and three lecture tours allow visitors to study the city walls, to access unusual places such as the Inquisition Tower or the Bishop’s Tower, where Eugène Viollet Le Duc had his Office.

For these presentations we rely on new technologies to bring history to life. Touch screen technology enables us to see the manuscripts of days gone by more clearly and to visualise the restoration of the site in an interactive way.

Many foreigners are attracted to the site

Approximately 50% of visitors are foreigners:  tourists from Spain, Italy, India and Australia, as well as many more, tour the City. Of course, we adapt the language we use, and there is today a wide variety of means of information dissemination. Americans and Japanese, for example, come to Carcassonne aware that the site they will discover is part of humanity’s heritage. They are able to identify with these stones as they have made their journey here especially. They are perhaps more interested even than people coming from the centre of France. The presentation of the site makes visitors realise that here lies is a story. We offer the keys of interpretation that will assist in understanding the sequence of events that marked the city.

Apart from the visits, you’re aiming for a wider appeal to the general public. Can you explain how you’re actually doing this?

By hosting contemporary exhibitions and historical re-enactments. Within the Museum, the photographer Sarah Moon is exhibiting her photographic interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood by Hans Christian Andersen. Her photographs and films interact with the medieval fortress to encourage visitors to free their imagination and their dreams.

Specially designed for the Castle of Carcassonne by Christian Salès, musician and director, this nightly show is a chance to experience the courtyard of the castle in the evening. The projection of an animated film on the walls of the Castle immerses the viewer in the events depicted in "The Canso." This epic poem, 9600 verses long, tells the story of the first ten years of the Crusade against the Albigensians. Inspired by the drawings from this illuminated manuscript, Christian Salès uses his imagination to relate this epic story.

Tell us more about the medieval garden at the foot of the Castle

This ephemeral garden, designed by a landscape architect with students from the agricultural Lycée Charlemagne of Carcassonne, replicates an authentic medieval garden, showcasing plants that were grown in the Middle Ages. We will be adding a vegetable garden to this space in order to showcase ‘the castle and its kitchens’.

During the heritage days you open the castle to acrobats, actors etc.  Once again we see your spirit of innovation.

But not just that! We want to keep the image that people have of this iconic site fresh in their minds and we do this by presenting many different animations. Our ambition is to constantly offer new experiences in order to maintain the attraction of the site.

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