Inadvertently, we saved one of the most picturesque cities with a fairy-tale like fortification as the final stop on our road trip around southern France. We visited Nîmes in the morning, drove a few hours to Carcassonne, and then drove a couple more to return our trusty rental car and fly from Toulouse back to Madrid as we ended what turned out to be a diverse, beautiful, long, and really special trip.
The full name for the old city in Carcassonne is La Cité de Carcassonne, and although I'd never heard of it before planning this trip, it receives the second-most tourists in France (do you remember what site gets the most? Hint: we visited it the day before, here)! There's been a settlement on the hill where the current one sits since before the Romans came to town and what we saw when we visited has been built and rebuilt by the various groups who have ruled over the area - the Romans, Visigoths, and Crusaders, to name a few. Large-scale restorations were undertaken in the 19th century, and in 1997 it was protected by UNESCO when it became a World Heritage Site.
Carcassonne is no doubt in great shape, and has been maintained really well. It's beautiful, and truly a site to behold, whether from the ground, the towers, or from the air (just based on photos I've seen, not personal experience, although I wish it were so!). The only bummer was that it almost felt, well, fake, in the sense that the interior was completely filled with shops and restaurants catering to tourists, as well as a few hotels. The 12th-century Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus is also located within the old city walls, but it seems to attract mainly tourists as well, like everything else we saw while in town.
It's a tricky situation that Carcassonne is in. The mighty ancient fortress is an amazing sight to behold, and so worth seeing, but the hordes of tourists pouring into the relatively small old city have understandably made it unattractive for residents to live in said part of town. Thus, as far as I can tell, they've fled to newer, more modern, less-frequented-by-tourists areas of town and enter the medieval walls only if they work in the tourism industry - and I can hardly blame them! Four million plus visitors from around the world coming into a town of less than 50,000 people can really change the feel...
D - Carcassonne really does feel kind of fake when you first arrive. I mean, it's ridiculously picturesque. Now, I know that I've used the phrase real-life Disneyland to describe towns before, even fairly recently, but the expression has never been more fitting than when applied to Carcassonne; which isn't necessarily a bad thing. I just wish it felt a bit more like an undiscovered French treasure, rather than a heavily exploited tourist trap. Oh well. It's definitely still worth a visit for sure. Even if it is pretty crowded.
See more from our road trip around southern France: our day in Toulouse here, and all of our stops on our first day: Cahors, Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, Bouzies, Rocamadour, Padirac Cave, Loubressac, and Figeac. We began our second day in Marcillac-Vallon and Belcastel, made a stop at the Viaduc de Millau before heading into the Gorges du Tarn, and finally checked out the lovely Sainte-Enimie. That night, we stayed in Le-Pont-de-Montvert.
We started our third day in Labeaume before driving through the Gorges de l'Ardeche and stopping afterwards in Aiguèze and then spending some time checking out Roman remains in Orange and staying the night in Vaison-la-Romaine. The next morning we explored Vaison-la-Romaine, drove on to Sisteron and Moustiers-Sainte-Marie and through the Gorges du Verdon and stayed the night in Castellane.
The morning of the fifth day of our road trip, we drove to Grasse, onto Saint-Paul-de-Vence, and then to Antibes and finally onto Nice for the night. On our first morning in Nice we took the train to Monaco and then started explored Nice in the afternoon.
We started our second day in Nice by taking the train along the coast and visiting different towns, the first being Villefrance-sur-Mer, traveling onto Menton, and then to Ventimiglia and finally Èze. After our third night in Nice we packed up and drove to Cannes and then to Aix-en-Provence where we stayed overnight and in the morning we drove onto the Arles, and then Avignon and finished up at the Pont du Gard.
On our final day in France we drove to Nîmes and then Carcassonne.