When you think of France, the first places that spring to mind may be its great cities – like Paris – its wine-producing regions, such as Bordeaux, and its classy Riviera, but where should you go if you want to get a taste of rustic French culture? The answer is Carcassonne.
This charming city in Languedoc is one that has a rich heritage yet, despite its size, has retained its authentic and friendly atmosphere that endears it to all who visit. What’s more, its medieval centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and, in fact, the second most-visited landmark in the country after the Eiffel Tower – so there is more than one reason to travel here.
You need to set aside at least half a day to discover what Carcassonne has to offer and to truly appreciate its stunning architecture and setting. Make a beeline for the citadel, which sits atop a hill looking over the rest of the city.
This walled town-within-a-town looks like something out of a fairytale, with its towering defences, pointed turrets and crenellated ramparts. Step within the thick stone walls and you’ll feel as though you’ve been transported back centuries, with its cobbled streets, narrow alleys and medieval homes and shops.
Take some time to just wander around and soak up the atmosphere before you head out of its gates, over the drawbridge and back to reality. While the citadel is Carcassonne’s main attraction, it is still a good idea to leave a few hours to explore the rest of the city, which is home to a wonderful collection of authentic French restaurants, bars and cafes. The citadel can seem somewhat touristy at times, whereas the rest of Carcassonne has stayed much truer to its rustic routes.
The countryside surrounding Carcassonne is the perfect place for a hiking break, with companies like Explore Worldwide offering tours that take in the natural beauty as well as the city itself. One of the highlights is strolling through vineyards and visiting the local wineries for tastings – you’ll sample some fantastic tipples if you do this.
As well as the vineyards, you’ll also find picture-perfect chateaux and villages nestled among the hills and forests that Languedoc is famous for. For instance, you can spend a few hours exploring Rennes-le-Chateau. Don’t let its sleepy village exterior fool you, this was once a Visigoth fortress and there are many secrets and stories to uncover while you’re here.
Rennes les Baines is another must-visit, as it’s home to natural springs that are said to have healing properties. Its heritage dates back as far as the 1st century, when it was initially developed as a spa town. If your legs are weary after a few days of walking, spend a bit of time here unwinding and relaxing in the therapeutic waters.
Head into the Aude region, meanwhile, and you can explore another example of striking medieval architecture in the form of Chateau de Peyrepertuse, an imposing castle situated on top of a high ridge. Although it’s now in ruins, it’s still a beautiful place to visit and you can only imagine how impressive it must have been when it was in full working order.
These are just a few of the places you can discover on a walking tour of Carcassonne and the surrounding area – there are many more just waiting to be explored.