All about Carcassonne: its castle, its ramparts and its city

Carcassonne is a French city located in the department of Aude, in the Occitanie region. Its historic ramparts and imposing castle make it one of the most popular tourist destinations in southern France. Each year, Carcassonne welcomes nearly 2 million visitors and since 1997, its medieval city has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located 60 kilometers from Narbonne and 100 kilometers from Toulouse, Carcassonne is also on two major traffic routes, linking the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and the central massif to the Pyrenees. In this article, we are going to discover Carcassonne and its medieval city, while dwelling on the history of its ramparts and its castle.

The history of Carcassonne and its medieval city

The city of Carcassonne is located in a corridor between the Black Mountain to the north and the Corbières massif to the east and it covers an area of 65 km². The history of Carcassonne is linked to its medieval city whose origins date back to the Gallo-Roman period. In the 3rd century, the Roman Empire and its barbarians launched looting throughout Gaul. To counter the Roman attacks, the inhabitants of Carcassonne build ramparts of one kilometer equipped with more than 30 defensive towers. Around 1130, the fortified Comtal palace was built in the heart of the city which, a century later, would become a military zone but also a religious center thanks to the Saint-Nazaire cathedral. At that time, the Comtal Palace was transformed into a fortress and the city wall was doubled and reinforced. In 1247, the city of Carcassonne expanded with the creation of the Ville-Basse, also known as the Bastide Saint-Louis. In the 14th century, the production of wool from the Black Mountain and Corbières farms made Carcassonne the leading textile producer in the kingdom. From 1667, major development work was carried out in the medieval city: luxurious hotels were built, the streets were paved and lit. The ramparts of Carcassonne were demolished in the 18th century and the Jacobins portal was installed. After the French Revolution, the department of Aude was created and the city of Carcassonne became its capital. From the 19th century, an interest in national monuments appeared because France wanted to enhance its heritage. The city of Carcassonne, economically ruined, receives the support of the archaeologist historian Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille and Prosper Mérimée, inspector of historical monuments. The first restoration works concern the Saint-Nazaire cathedral, supervised by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

Walk on the lists, the path located between the 2 ramparts of the medieval city of Carcassonne
Walk on the lists, the path located between the 2 ramparts of the medieval city of Carcassonne

The ramparts and towers of Carcassonne

The medieval city is the medieval architectural ensemble located in the heart of the city of Carcassonne. This fortified city owes its fame to its double ramparts reaching almost 3 kilometers and comprising 52 towers dominating the Aude valley. The city of Carcassonne also includes the Comtal castle and the Saint-Nazaire basilica. The city of Carcassonne owes its survival thanks to the intervention of the archaeologist Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille in the aftermath of the French Revolution, as well as to the restoration work supervised by the architects Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Paul Boeswillwald in 19th century. Carcassonne is currently the largest fortress in Europe. The medieval city is made up of two ramparts and several buildings:

  • The ramparts : Two ramparts built of sandstone and molasses from Carcassonne surround the medieval city. They are separated by a flat space called “the lists”. At the time, the two ramparts of Carcassonne presented, by their construction, many defensive advantages and made it possible to attack the assailants according to two lines of fire. The outer rampart made it possible, in the event of crossing, to slow down and divide the attackers who had become vulnerable in the lists, a space devoid of shelter. The first rampart was built in the Gallo-Roman era to dominate the valley and the course of the Aude. Its thickness varied between 2 and 3 meters for a total length of 1070 meters. The second rampart around the city was built in the 13th century, at the request of the kings of France. The walls reach a height varying from 10 to 12 meters and imposing gates, as well as new towers, are built.
  • The towers : initially, the first rampart had 30 towers, and to date, there are only 17 left. The Pinte tower was the only rectangular tower and the other towers are easily recognizable from the outside with their horseshoe shape. The towers measure between 4.50m and 7m in diameter and are embellished with large arched openings at the top, allowing the effectiveness of the throwing weapons of the defenders. The height of the towers of Carcassonne ranges between 11 and 13 meters.

The gates of the city

The medieval city of Carcassonne is accessible via 4 main gates located at the 4 cardinal points.

  • The Narbonnaise gate : located to the east of the city, the Narbonnaise gate was built around 1280 and owes its name to its orientation towards the city of Narbonne. During the renovation undertaken by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century, the Porte Narbonnaise, made up of 2 imposing towers, was completed by a drawbridge.
  • Porte Saint-Nazaire : located to the south of the city, Porte Saint-Nazaire is housed in a square and massive tower of the same name. Built to protect the Saint-Nazaire cathedral located a few meters away, it also accommodates the garrison and a long-range war machine.
  • The Porte d’Aude : located to the west of the city, the Porte d’Aude faces the river of the same name and is near the Château Comtal. Equipped with a complex defensive system, the Porte d’Aude made it possible to deceive the enemy in the event of an invasion and also served as a setting for the films “the visitors”, “Robin Hood” or even “the corniaud”.
  • The gate of the town or of Rodez : located to the north, this gate, dug in the rampart, overlooked the old town of Saint-Vincent. Subsequently, the Porte du Bourg was replaced by the barbican, a military fortification.
The Porte d'Aude located west of the medieval city of Carcassonne
The Porte d’Aude located west of the medieval city of Carcassonne

The Comtal castle

The Château Comtal is located in the heart of the city of Carcassonne and was built in two stages. Its construction was launched by Bernard Aton IV Trencavel in 1130, during the Romanesque period. It consists of 2 L-shaped buildings dominated by a watchtower (the Pinte tower). Between 1228 and 1239, the Château Comtal was completely remodeled to become a fortress within the city. Surrounded by a moat, its entrance door is flanked by 2 towers and the castle is accessible via an entrance bridge consisting of a fixed bridge and a drawbridge. The castle has 9 towers, including the Pinte tower, the highest watchtower in the city. Inside the castle, a rectangular main courtyard with buildings to the south and east houses a mosaic of nearly 40 m² made by Pierre Embry, the city’s first curator.

The Basilica of Saint-Nazaire

Built in the 11th century in place of a cathedral, the Saint-Nazaire basilica in Carcassonne was built in sandstone, by order of Bernard Aton IV Trencavel, owner of the city at the time. Between 1269 and 1330, the Saint-Nazaire basilica was enlarged in the Gothic style and was embellished with the most beautiful stained glass windows in the south of France, as well as adorned with sculptures. Until the 13th century, the building was recognized as a cathedral and remained the main religious center of Carcassonne, before being downgraded to a basilica by Pope Leo XIII in 1898. Also at the time, a cloister stood to the south of the basilica and today it hosts an open-air theatre.

If you wish to visit Carcassonne, do not hesitate to consult the website www.remparts-carcassonne.fr and the website of the tourist office www.tourisme-carcassonne.fr in order to organize your stay in the medieval city.

The Narbonnaise gate located to the east owes its name to its orientation towards the city of Narbonne
The Narbonnaise gate located to the east owes its name to its orientation towards the city of Narbonne

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