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Visiting Carcassonne, France, with its hilltop fortifications: be impressed with the imagination of Viollet-le-Duc!

Updated on July 11, 2013
Flag of France
Flag of France | Source
Carcassonne, France
Carcassonne, France | Source
1910 view of the 'Cité de Carcassonne'; interior of the ramparts
1910 view of the 'Cité de Carcassonne'; interior of the ramparts | Source
Map location of Aude department, France
Map location of Aude department, France | Source

Absorbing historical vibrations

One of the most impressive sights in the South of France is the fortified City of Carcasonne (French: Cité de Carcasonne), in the Aude department; I shall hereafter refer to the French term. Set on a hilltop in this city in Aude department, much of what may be seen today is the work of architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879).

Here we must pause. Because we need to be clear that this architect's concept of 'restoring' structures was not necessarily that they should revert to a former state in an historically accurate way.

In the mid 19th century some politicians wanted to demolish what was left of Carcasonne's Medieval fortifications. Oh, no you won't, said a lot of people. In due course the imaginative Viollet-le-Duc received the task of euphemistically 'restoring' these fortifications. When some people realized that Viollet-le-Duc was actually following his own inner, imaginative lights rather than necessarily trying to make them reflect accurately how the Cité de Carcasonne had looked in the Middle Ages, they questioned whether he should pursue this path. Oh, yes I will, was the response of the redoubtable Viollet-le-Duc; the task took years to accomplish, and consumed a large budget in doing so.

Anyway, the end result is very impressive: 52 towers — many of them with conical roofs — and two rings of fortifying walls. So admire the sight, as I did; but just remember, though, that it's the architect's imagination that you might be admiring, and not necessarily exactly what the Cité de Carcasonne looked like in the Middle Ages.

In cultivating Medieval architectural form, I suppose the mindset of Viollet-le-Duc represented the 19th century architectural equivalent to the popular 'Renaissance Fayre' movement, especially widespread in North America. In this sense: it is all very attractive and impressive to dress up in elaborately tailored Gothic apparel, but what you see is not necessarily representative of historical accuracy. (How far this analogy can be applied, I am not sure.)

Interestingly, Carcassonne did not become part of France until 1659, although there had been an intermittent presence of the French kingdom prior to that date. A Roman settlement existed on the site. Prior to 1209, the noble Trancavel family acted as vassals of the counts of Toulouse or Barcelona, until the vigorous — notorious? — Simon de Montfort (1160-1218) captured the city.

In the past century and a half, the main conflicts have seemed to revolve around ideas about architectural conservation. Or re-creation. Or historical fabrication. Or whatever you want to call it.

January 8, 2013

Also worth seeing

In Carcasonne itself, there are Carcassonne Cathedral (French: Cathédrale de Carcassonne ) and the Basilica of St. Nazaire and St. Celse (French: Basilique Saint-Nazaire-et-Saint-Celse ), both Medieval structures.

Toulouse (distance: 94 kilometres) ; among the many attractions for visitors include the Saint-Sernin Basilica and the Capitole, housing the City Hall.


How to get there: United Airlines flies from New York Newark to Paris (Aéroport Paris-Charles de Gaulle ), where car rental is available; there are also domestic air services between Paris and Carcasonne airport (Aéroport de Carcassonne Salvaza ), where car rental is also available. The French railroad company SNCF maintains services from Paris to Carcassonne (Paris-Carcassonne: distance: 768 kilometres). Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. For up to date information, please check with the airline or your travel agent.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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      5 years ago

      Hi,I've just moved into a Gite just outside Issel from the UK I asolluteby love the region, the area is so beautiful, life is tranquail and the people are friendly your site captures all of those positives, a lovely site I will keep reading your posts for sure ..Brian


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