Before we went to Carcassone, France, the name was more reminiscent of a board game than a place. But when the grandparents (affectionately called NaNa and NoNo) came to visit and wanted a weekend trip across the border, this charming French town was an obvious destination.
Why? Imagine a Playmobil castle. You've just imagined Carcassone.
You just can't get more knights-and-drawbridges than this beautifully restored walled city. NoNo's father was very well-traveled, and NoNo remembered him saying that Carcassone was one of his favorite places. Marshall is also really into medieval history and life. And my brother had swung a trip to France on his visit to Barcelona, and he had beautiful pictures of my niece running like a princess along the battlements. Carcassone looked like a fantasy come to life. We were sure Emmett would love it.
Carcassone is only a three hour drive from Barcelona. We rented a car but got a late start and stopped in Figueres for a few hours, so we arrived at night. Night time is the best time to catch sight of the cité, as the castle is called, for the first time. It's lit up like a stadium, more landscape painting than reality. When we pointed it out to Emmett, he wanted to go right away.
But first, he had to sleep. The grandparents gave us the night off (hurray for grandparents!). We went to a restaurant across the street from where we were staying, shared a cassoulet and a half bottle of wine, and then went exploring. Walking up the street toward the city, we saw a dirt path curve off toward the castle. We followed it. To our surprise, it led right up to the outer walls. We imagined the storied siege of the city centuries ago, with invading armies waiting outside these very walls. And we were walking right up to the city on a dirt path.
This is one of the things that constantly surprises us about Europe. In the United States, there would be an imposing fence and signage everywhere, declaring trespassing dangerous and illegal. But in Carcassone, there was simply a sign saying that you could fall off the battlements and you shouldn't go on them. But there were no gates. We were free to roam, like the castle was ours.
During the day, we found the city full of narrow streets and tourist shops and restaurants. There are a few places to visit: The castle and the cathedral. We only made it to the castle. Marshall and NaNa got audio tours, but Marshall says it wasn't worth it. Maybe we have high standards for audio education, but we believe an audio tour should tell a story, rather than just explaining the objects in front of you.
When you visit Carcassone, you'll hear the false tale of its naming many times. It's said after a very long siege, the lady of the castle (Mme. Carcas) got the brilliant idea to fatten up the last remaining pig and throw it over the city walls. When the invaders saw such a blatant waste of food, they figured that the city was holding up much better than they'd thought. They packed up and headed out. The celebratory ringing of bells came along with the words, "Carcas sone!"
This is not a true story, but it's all the story you might get from the audio tour. The real history is that the city has been occupied for millenia. It was first built up by the Romans around 100 BC. During Medieval times, it was controlled by a powerful family called the Trencavels. They built the castle and the basilica. But in 1209, they lost control of the place during the Crusades. The Trencavels later tried to regain power but failed. It became part of France in the mid-1200s.
The other fascinating part of the cité's history is its restoration. A documentary in the castle provides some context. In the 1850s, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, who was famous for his work with the Notre Dame Cathedral, came in and gave it the Fixer Upper treatment. You can see photographs that show the cité previous to restoration. Shanties lined the rampart walls. Viollet-le-Duc cleared it all out (by what means, is not described) and rebuilt the front walls, roofs, and ramparts. His "creative interpretation" of what the cité looked like were criticized at the time. It's the reason why Carcassone looks so much like a fairy-tale - that's how Viollet-le-Duc wanted it to look.
Where We Stayed:
We had two requirements for an Airbnb: 1) A view of the castle 2) Two bathrooms. Based on this, we found the Secret Garden. We couldn't have been luckier.
Matthew, a Brit, and Denis, his French partner, recently renovated three "jettes" centered around the "Secret Garden." He showed us the "before" pictures, and seriously, they should have had their own HGTV show. The building was a neglected workshop/barn, and they completely transformed it into modern and comfortable apartments. We loved relaxing and sleeping in the gigantic beds. NaNa declared the sheets to be the best she's ever slept on, and she is a legit sheet connoisseur. At breakfast she plied Matthew for information, and set off on a quest to buy them. (She was ultimately successful and the sheets are her favorite souvenir ever.)
Speaking of breakfast, this was my favorite part. A continental breakfast was included for all guests of the three jettes. It meant fresh bread with the most delicious jam and cheese. It meant coffee and fruit and croissants. Also, because we were with grandparents, it meant we got to sleep in while Emmett showed his toy truck to Matthew.
Where We Ate:
Restaurant le 37: This was right across from the Secret Garden. Matthew helpfully informed us that the French are rigid about their meal times. They start lunch at 12pm, and dinner at 7 pm (late for Americans, early for Spaniards). We ate at Restaurant le 37 twice, it was so convenient and delicious. The service was friendly as well. This part of France is big on the cassoulet, a warm, filling casserole of beans, sausage, and lamb. Wherever you go, you should eat it! The charcuterie was also delicious. We discovered the beauty of the half bottle of wine, which is not a half-drunk bottle, but a small bottle! They are very cute and I don't know why all countries don't sell them.
The Cité: My brother specifically recommended NOT eating in the cité. Having eaten lunch there due to poor planning, I would agree with him. It's mediocre and/or expensive. Especially because you're traveling with kids, pack a picnic and a full bag of snacks. That said, I don't regret the croque monsieur I ate.
Pâtissier BIMAS: I was not going to let the opportunity to eat French chocolate pass me by. I asked Matthew for a recommendation, and he said BIMAS was famous in town. I went there with NaNa on our way out of town, and I can say it deserves its reputation. The selection of sweets was breathtaking.
We went to Carcassone in the off-season, which was perfect. The summer is much more crowded. Either way, you really only need one full day to explore the cité. There's also a canal, where you can hire a boat, and nearby vineyards. Those don't seem like must-dos with kids. Carcassone is a great stop on a journey through southern France, or as we did it, a weekend trip. Do read up on the history beforehand in order to get the most out of your trip, or hire a guide. If at all possible, explore the grounds at night! It's a truly enchanted way to interact with history.