It is impossible not to be completely enchanted by France’s medieval fortress town of Carcassonne. It is the perfect storybook castle. Built upon a rocky hillock, it is encircled by nearly two miles of remarkably preserved walls and some 50 watchtowers. But it’s a wonder that it is standing today at all: In the mid-1800s, it was almost completely demolished by the French government, a loss that is impossible to imagine.
Celtic tribes were among the early inhabitants of this region of Gaul, as it was known during the Iron Age. It was the Romans who erected the first walls here in the fourth century, recognizing this location on the River Aude as an ideal crossroads for trade routes between the Mediterranean and Atlantic and between the Pyrenees and France’s Massif Central mountains. Visigoths rebuilt the fortifications in the fifth and sixth centuries and more walls were added in the 13th and, under King Philip IV, in the 14th.
This is all to say that a walk through Carcassonne is a journey through France’s rich past. If these walls could talk, they would tell of the rise and fall of empires and, eventually, of the fall of Carcassonne itself when the Sun King Louis XIV signed the Treaty of the Pyrenees with Spain in 1659. The treaty gave France the province of Roussillon, thus moving the French border farther south and stripping away Carcassonne’s importance as a military defense.
Those who remained in Carcassonne reinvented their city as a center for woolen textiles. But by 1849, the French government saw no reason to let the now-dilapidated walls continue standing. The medieval city was marked for demolition.
But the 1848 Revolution (which predated the French Revolution by 40 years or so) had emboldened the citizenry of France—and the people of Carcassonne. Led by the mayor Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille and by archaeologist/historian Prosper Mérimée, they campaigned to preserve their beloved city and its history for future generations. The government relented and thus began an epic effort to restore Carcassonne to its original glory, a decades-long endeavor overseen by architect Eugene Viollèt-le-Duc. In 1997, this incredible treasure was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Witness the magnificently preserved walled city of Carcassonne for yourself during our France & Spain: History, Culture & Wine trip!