Over the past weekend, on our way back from Marseille, we had the opportunity to stop by the old medieval city of Carcassonne. Inhabited since before 300 BC, the city has some of the oldest architecture and history than any other city in France. Only an hour drive away from Toulouse, Carcassonne stands as a portal into the history of france. As we drove by the city you can see the medieval towers flare up from behind the trees. The city looks as though it has emerged from the old fairy tales we’ve heard as kids.
Carcassonne, at the height of it’s presence, housed over 4000 people. The city still holds about 40 residents today. It’s history was developed over 3 significant periods. The city first was established in 300 BC and fortified by the Romans in 100 BC, then fortified again in the 12th century by the Occitan Cathars, and further established as a military stronghold in the early 13th century. A major turning point in the history of Carcassonne was during the crusade against the heretics in the early 11th century. Before the crusades, the Trencavel family ruled Carcassonne and owed no allegiance to either Spain or France. It allied with the counts of Barcelona or Toulouse when necessary. Raymond Trencavel, the city’s ruler, accepted the followers of many religions. When the pope heard about this, he immediately sent the army to Carcassonne. The Albigensian Crusades took place in August of 1209 when the army of Papal Legate forced the city’s citizens to surrender. The city was besieged in 1209 by the Cathars after 15 days. Trencavel was imprisoned and died in mysterious circumstances. It later submitted to the rule of the Kingdom of France in 1247.
During our visit, we had the chance to observe the outer ramparts of the city. You can see the evolution of the city through its walls. The inner wall was built in the early 12 century with the outer wall following it in the early 13th century. The outer walls were built by the romans while the inner, medieval walls with the distinct red brick layers were built long before. On the sides you can see the original brick wall built upon large stones and different stones underneath. The Romans decided to raise the walls by digging at the dirt below the wall and reinforced it with more stones. The entire city is protected by 52 towers and 4 gates. The entrance at the eastern gate was offset from the main entrance. This allowed archers in the fort to attack soldiers at their weakest point, their sides, as they attempted to siege the city. The East Watch Tower was added on later in 1245 has housed over 30 soldiers. It was essentially a mini castle with the tallest tower, a kitchen, a well, and a restroom.
After observing the inner walls, we had the opportunity to tour the Basilica of Saint Nazarius and Celsus. The earliest church, within Carcassonne, was during the 6th century, during the kingdom of the Wisigoths. By 925, there was records that showed the church became a Cathedral under the office of Bishop Grimer. It remained a Cathedral until 1803, under the name St. Nazaire, under the first concordat Bishop Monsignor de la Porte. It was not known as a Basilica until 1898, when St. Nazaire was blessed by Pope Leo XIII and converted into a Lesser Basilica. The first part of the tour of the Basilica focused on the entrance. As you entered inside you noticed the Romanesque influence in the first half of the building. This section was the remains of the Romanesque edifice that replaced the early church, in the 12th century. The original building was built from material blessed by Pope Urban II, during his stay in Carcassonne after the crusade of Clermont. The plans of the original building only included a single nave, 2 aisles, an apse with 3 chapels, and a transept.
The fortified city also had it’s on castle. It’s walls were 2.5 meters thick and the walls covered an area of 90×40 meters. 11 towers protected the castle from siege and had a dry moat surrounding the castle. It wasn’t one of the most glamourous castles of the time period, but it was beautiful none the less. The castle could only be accessed by a drawbridge. Above the bridge, on top of the castle walls, wooden gallery’s, called hoardings, were placed during a time of seige. They were covered in wet grass and weeds to protect from fire and it allowed many archers to be protected at the top of the castle walls while they launched a rain of arrows at any invaders. The city and fort, even today, are thought to be impregnable. During the Hundred Years War in 1355, Edward the Black Prince of Wales failed to take the city, even when he’d won many victories over the French and has been regarded as one best military leaders of the time.
More recently, the city was held by the Nazis from March till August of 1944 during WWII and was used as a military fort. Before the germans could take the city, the inhabitants fled the inner city, taking with them the windows of the Basilica of Saint Nazarius and Celsus in fear that the germans would destroy generations of history and culture. The germans left once the war ended. The windows were later found a few miles outside of the city and were restored to their rightful place in the Basilica.
Overall the trip was a very eye-opening experience and allowed us to get a good glimpse into the history of France. Carcassonne is truly a story book city and a city I would highly recommend to anyone who plans on visiting southern France.