Of all of the surviving walled cities in Europe, Carcassonne in Southern France is the undisputed champion. Besting even Avila in Spain and Rothenberg in Germany, there is no other place in Europe, or arguably the world, where the true medieval character of a walled city has been as completely and perfectly preserved as Carcassonne. Standing on top of a hill, its double walls and scores of towers loom so high that the buildings of the city itself are almost entirely concealed from the outside. To add to the city’s impressive military dimensions is the Fortress of Carcassonne, one of the largest intact urban castles in France. City ordinances require that all buildings within the walls, including new ones, fully reflect the medieval character of this amazing site. The fact that the city is off limits to automobiles doesn’t hurt either. The Walled City of Carcassonne is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The site upon which Carcassonne now stands has been inhabited since ancient times. At first a center of trade during the age of the Celts, the Romans recognized the strategic location of the place when they arrived in the 1st century BC. The Romans built the first walls of the city, some of which survive and were incorporated into the later fortifications. The Romans turned control of the city to the Visigoths in the 5th century.
During the waning years of the Roman Empire in the west, and throughout the Middle Ages, Carcassonne regularly found itself caught up in many struggles that wracked Southern France. Being close to the Visigothic capital city at Toulouse, the Visigoths heavily fortified Carcassonne. For centuries Carcassonne was a bastion against the threat of rival German tribes. When the Franks arrived and absorbed all of the Visigothic territories in France, Carcassonne alone remained independent.
Carcassonne remained nominally independent until invading Saracen armies arrived from Spain in the 8th century. The city was captured, putting an end to the last vestige of the old Visigoth realm. However, it was held only briefly, until the Saracens were driven out by Charlemagne and Carcassone absorbed into his empire. After his death the empire was divided and the city passed to the realm that would go on to become modern France.
Carcassonne’s colorful history did not end there. By the 11th century, it was among the most heavily fortified cities in Western Europe. This made it useful to the Cathars, a heretical Christian sect who seized the city and briefly used it as a stronghold. In the early 13th century the Cathars were defeated in the Albigensian Crusade, and Carcassonne once again became a stronghold of France. At this time even greater fortifications were added, so strongly that it remained in the possession of the French throughout the Hundred Years War. Despite its military obsolescence, the walls and fortifications of Carcassone remained intact from 17th century on.
Carcassone blends the shear, awesome size of Avila with the medieval charm of Rothenburg into what may be the most perfectly preserved medieval city in Europe. While the outer walls are perhaps not quite so encompassing as those of Avila, the fact that there are two complete, surviving, concentric walls is unique and unparalled. The inner wall looms nearly twice as high as the outer wall, with a wide kill zone in between. 53 towers from many eras guard the walls. Portions of the walls, noticeably in red, date from Roman times. The Inquisition in the city was once headquartered in one of these towers, which now houses the torture museum.
The centerpiece of the city’s defenses is the Fortress of Carcassone. Dating to the 17th century, this is the largest surviving keep in an urban setting in France. Featuring nearly a dozen towers, the fortress shares the outer defenses. The fortress is now home to a Lapidary Museum, with exhibits on gemcutting, jewelry and similary artisanry.
The City of Carcassonne is located close to the Spanish border in south-central France, about fifty miles southeast of Toulouse and 450 miles south of Paris. The city and its walls are an open site with minimal restrictions. The fortress is open daily from 10:00am-5:00pm (longer hours in summer). There is no charge for admission to the city. However, the admission to the fortress is E8.50. Web: www.carcassonne-tourisme.com (official website).
France boasts a number of excellent surviving walled cities, most popularly the Walled City of Saint-Malo on the coast of Brittany. The Walled City of Avignon was constructed by the Papal Court during the Babylonian Captivity. The Walled City of Neuf-Brisach is actually a nearly perfect octagon of buildings enclosed within an immense gunpowder-age star fort that must be seen from above to be fully appreciated.