Putting a Pin in the Map

An introduction to France and the Historic Walled City of Carcassonne

Before the last few months began, France was the home of Paris and a land where people happened to speak French. Why would you go to France? To go to Paris, to see the Eiffel tower and to eat baguettes, cheese and wine.

In some small way I was right, at least when it came to my assumptions about baguettes, cheese and wine – they are the three pillars of French cuisine. Followed very closely by breads of all variety, duck, rabbit, pates and cured meats.

That being said, a trip to Paris, perhaps Nice, and the consumption of copious amounts of french foods and wine, does not an exploration of France make. Three months in the country and I still feel as though I have barely even begun to scratch the surface.

Also goat cheese always seems to appear in salads. But don’t worry… it’s deliciiiious. (c) Beth Hobson 2016

There is the mystery of their consumption of wine, bread, more bread, bread and some cheese, and their ability to stay thin and petite their entire lives through. There is the minor fact that I never left the south of France in all that time. And there is the sad and unfortunate business of not being able to properly communicate with the locals.

I am a firm believer in the opinion that if one does not speak the native tongue, one cannot truly know a country. A country is its people as much as it is the food, the environment and the landscape. (At least, so I have said before.)

So while I don’t know France, hardly at all, there are many French things which I have experienced and thus feel sufficiently qualified to elaborate on. The problem is picking the one to start with. (This is why a clever girl would have been writing blog posts as events occurred and not once she has already travelled to the next country on her list.) 

View from the walls of Carcassonne (c) Beth Hobson 2016

Ah, I have it! We shall start with the reason we went to France in the first place. When one has the option of visiting the whole world (more or less), and one is interested in seeing said whole world (…more or less), it becomes a bit of a chore to narrow it down to one location. Travel to Europe was decided relatively early on, and I knew from the beginning that I wanted to go to Spain (so I could brush up on my Spanish). Yet we ended up in France first.

Why you ask? Gosh, you’re such a fantastically interested reader! What did I ever do to deserve you?! …. Well it comes down to a board game if you must know. If you do game a decent amount there is a good chance that you would be familiar with a game by the name of Carcassonne. It’s this entertaining tile placing game (which you can find at pretty much any games store), and it’s a ton of easy fun! There’s also a two player version, which is sadly out of print, that the Mister and I have come to love. And by love I mean play 17 times in a row until I successfully manage to beat him at midnight when the both of us have absolutely no desire to ever see a tile ever again. But then we do it again the next day anyway…

It’s a rough life.   

The river in Carcassonne – an important part to one of the many game expansions ;) (c) Beth Hobson 2016

All this time playing a game, and we were both completely oblivious to the fact that Carcassonne was a real, flesh and stone, place. Once we were enlightened, this became a destination that we could not pass up. The initial phase of our trip was planned entirely around it. We found Workaway options nearby and made it our first stop once we left England.

As you may have guessed by this point in time, Carcassonne is in France – and so our decision was made. In order to maximize the use of the various visas allowed to me, we decided that three months was the optimal amount of time to remain. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I did say that this post was going to focus on Carcassonne; and so it will. (From now on…)

Carcassonne City Walls (c) Beth Hobson 2016

What is Carcassonne?

Carcassonne is a walled city. A fortress. A place out of story books and fairy tales as much as it is out of the past. It is filled with quaint shops and restaurants, winding streets and boasts a gorgeous cathedral that doesn’t at all match the architecture of the rest of the city. 

It will make you feel like you’ve taken a step back in time, all you need to do is ignore all the other tourists around you.

On the ramparts – Carcassonne (c) Beth Hobson 2016

Thinking of visiting this historic place? (What you need to know.)

If the store owners want to ply you with nougat…. Let them! You’ll probably end up buying it, but don’t worry, it’s so worth it. They know that if you taste it you’re going to want more, but the only reason you’re going to want more is because it’s just that good. 

Carcassonne Train Station
Carcassonne Train Station

If you land in Carcassonne Airport there is a shuttle that will take you directly to the Gare (Train Station), which is more or less in the center of town. Chances are you can walk to your hotel from there and it is within easy walking distance of the old city. The map makes Carcassonne look huge, but if you enjoy walking at all, you’re probably going to be just fine on foot.

We stayed in Hotel Astoria, which turned about to be just across the river from the train station, has a delicious ‘sweet and savoury’ breakfast and clean, reasonably priced rooms!

Train-bus! A tourist attraction available in many different towns and cities. Ironically it will cost you more than the one euro line to nearby towns! (c) Beth Hobson 2016

The south of France has this lovely little government program that allows you to take certain bus/train routes for one teeny tiny insignificant little euro. I’ll go into more detail later, but for now, what you need to know is that Carcassonne is part of that extremely inexpensive network!

During high season, Carcassonne can become a mad house. People from all over flock to see it, and it’s no wonder… it’s that great. However if you can manage it, we arrived in the middle of June, mere weeks before it really gets into the swing of things, and it was perfect. Not too hot yet, not nearly so many people… and it was still green! This area gets very very hot and dry, and by the time we went back for Bastille Day (July 14th) it was dry as a bone and completely brown.

A beautiful field of wildflowers in Carcassonne (end of June). None of which were there when we returned in July. (c) Beth Hobson 2016

Should you be around for Bastille Day, go to Carcassonne for the fireworks, but only if you can handle large crowds. Explore the city on another day, there will be too many people to really enjoy the old city properly. Maybe even pack a picnic as the restaurants will be incredibly busy. You’ll want to stake out a spot that allows you to see the castle walls (see below), as that is where they fire off the brilliant pyrotechnics.

Carcassonne Walls during the fireworks on Bastille Day (c) Beth Hobson 2016

There is no entry fee into the old city. You can go wander around and enjoy yourself free of charge. That being said, if you want to climb the ramparts and take the audio tour, there is a fee…. but who doesn’t want to be able to brag that they’ve walked the ramparts?!? Keep in mind that there are often discounts in France for youth, and for the most part you are considered youth until you are 25. If you have identification on you, you will get a reduced rate!

Old school building in ‘new’ Carcassonne. (c) Beth Hobson 2016

The old walled city is amazing, and it’s probably going to be the thing that lures you there. Don’t let that stop you from visiting the rest of Carcassonne though, there is plenty of beautiful architecture and great walks throughout the rest of town!

As the very first thing we saw when we landed in France, Carcassonne was everything we hoped it would be. I think I speak for the Mister and I when I say that we highly recommend it!

Thanks for stopping by – More travel tips and stories… coming eventually! ;)

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