I was flying back to the UK on Sunday around lunch time, which gave me all of Saturday to do some exploring. About an hour southeast of Toulouse by train is the historic medieval city of Carcassonne. I had seen pictures of it, and was reminded of it during this year’s Tour de France, when one of the stages ended in the walled city. It seemed like the perfect day trip.
Carcassonne is everything you would imagine in an old, medieval walled city. It sits up on the top of a hill, and its 53 turrets and curtain wall make it look like something out of a fairy tale. There has been a settlement on the spot since about 1000 BC. In 1 BC the Romans built something more substantial, and the site evolved through the 1100s, when the first fortifications and building that are still there were constructed.
As with most fortifications, it was sieged, conquered, abandoned and rebuilt a number of times, until it was restored in the 1800s. It is a spectacular site, and I was very happy to spend the day exploring.
I decide to make an early start of it, and the first train from Toulouse left at 6:55 a.m. I managed to get up to make the train, and enjoyed a mostly empty train for the trip across the French countryside. As it was still dark, I didn’t get to see much. Eventually the sun came up, and we crossed fields of sunflowers that had turned to seed, vineyards, and collections of small towns.
I had picked the early start for two reasons – I hoped to catch the early morning light, and I was hoping to avoid the hordes of tourists that would inevitably descend on the old walled city. As it turned out, I was only successful with the second of my two objectives. The train got me into Carcassonne around 8:00, at which point it was about a 20 minute walk from the train station to the old city. I probably need the train to have left about an hour earlier, as the sun was a little higher than I would have liked, and I had missed much of the really nice light.
I was successful in avoiding the tourist hordes, at least for the first couple of hours. While the old walled city is “open” at all times (there are hotels and restaurants inside the walls that you can stay at), the main attractions don’t open until 10:00. So I ended up with a good 1 ½ hours before people started arriving. I pretty much had the place to myself, and was able to walk around the whole outer walls, almost without seeing anyone. It was amazing.
Over the course of the first couple of hours, I think I managed to walk the whole old city, except for the main inner fortifications (The Comtal Chateau), which required a ticket to enter, and didn’t open until 10:00.
Still, I was able to see a lot – the main Narbonnaise Gate, all of the small squares throughout the old city, the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire with its amazing stained glass windows and gothic architecture. There was so much to see, that it was 10:00 in no time.
And the hordes did indeed descend. At that point, I decided it was time to do something else, so I headed back into the main city, to explore further.
On my walk to the old city, I had gone through one of the main squares, and they were setting up the weekend market. It looked nice, so I headed back that way to explore. It was a pretty typical European weekend market – lots of fresh fruits and veggies, as well as bread, meats, fish and cheeses. It was all very tempting, and I bought a few things to have as lunch a little later on. There was a woman who had a huge paella pan going, so I also got a serving of that before wandering on.
I spent a bit of time exploring the modern city, checking out a couple of churches and local markets, before deciding I needed to stop and have some lunch. I went back to this really nice park close to the entrance of the old city, and sat there and ate. It was quite relaxing, and enjoyable. After lunch, I had to decide what to do with myself. I had wanted to stay until evening, so I could get some pictures of the city at night, but that meant I had quite a lot of time to kill. The old city still looked overrun, so I decided to take an afternoon river boat cruise.
Right outside the train station, the Midi Canal (the same one that is in Toulouse) cuts through the city. They were offering short cruises (about 1 ½ hours), and that seem like a decent way to spend some time in the afternoon. I purchased my ticket and had about an hour to kill before departure. So I wandered a bit along the canal, then headed back and had a beer at one of the local cafes.
The boat trip ended up being a bit of a bust. It seems you can’t go very far in an hour and a half, and so you do this short out and back, where you get a long view of the old city and go through a couple of locks. I guess that part might be interesting, but I’ve been through locks before – both much older and much bigger – so that wasn’t much of a thrill. Still, it was nice to float along the canal.
After the boat trip was done, I headed back into the old city and explored some more. I had wanted to go in and check out the main keep – the one you had to buy a ticket to get into – and so I went back and did that.
It started with a pretty interesting 11 minute video about the old city, and the efforts they were making to restore and explore the history. It was well done. After that, you basically could explore at your own pace.
This part gave you access to the inner ramparts, and allowed you to walk along the highest walls of the castle. It made for some great views, and I really enjoyed that part of the visit. And it wasn’t too busy at this point, getting later in the day.
Once I made my way through the whole site, I headed back outside the old city, and wandered into the countryside a bit. I wanted to try and find a location where I could get a bit of a longer view back at the whole city. I had seen some pictures, although I imagined I would have needed a car to figure out the best locations. I did find an interesting spot in a nearby vineyard. In addition to some decent views back to the old city, it gave me a chance to take some pics of grapes ripening on the vines. It looks like the harvest would be happening shortly.
From there I wandered for a long way, but never did find a better spot. Eventually I made my way back to the old city, and exhausted, found a seat on the patio at one of the touristy restaurants (no choice in any case), and had some dinner. That took me through until after the sun had set. I bid farewell to the old city, and headed out to try and get some pics of it all lit up at night.
Eventually I made my way back to the train station to head back to Toulouse. My flight was around 11:00 a.m., but I didn’t want to push it. When I had originally researched doing this little trip, I had checked the train schedule, and it looked like there were roughly hourly trains, up until about midnight. However, when I arrived at a little after 9:00, I discovered that the 9:30 train had a 3 hour delay and the 10:30 train had a 1 ½ hour delay (you figure that one out…). I was a bit panicky, and decided to get on the Paris train at 11:00, that also stopped in Toulouse. The only problem was that my ticket wasn’t valid for that trip.
After waiting around for almost 2 hours, I got on the Paris train and got back to Toulouse. No one asked about my ticket, so that worked out OK. A little later than planned, but all in all, it was an excellent day!